ALEXIS by Marguerite Yourcenar

ALEXIS

Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Originally written in 1928, never before translated into English, this slim first novel by French woman-of-letters Yourcenar (A Coin in Nine Hands, Fires, Memoirs of Hadrian) is a long letter of farewell/confession from a young homosexual husband to his pious, sweet young wife of three years. The letter-writer, Alexis, recalls his whole life here as he addresses wife Monique but never uses the word ""homosexual"" or provides any specifics. (""How can a scientific term explain a life? It does not even explain a deed; it simply designates it."") He recalls his upbringing, among un-wealthy well-bred folk, in a household of women, preoccupied by his sisters: ""When the men they were in love with would arrive unexpectedly, my heart raced, possibly more than theirs. It is dangerous, I am sure, for a sensitive adolescent to learn to view love through the dreams of young girls. . ."" Then, after brushing off his sensual yearnings, ""content to live according to the ideal of the passive, rather dreary morality that I heard preached around me,"" he has an offstage encounter with ""beauty""--the first of innumerable surrenders to temptation. So, up through age 22, Alexis struggles back and forth, while studying music in Vienna, between guilty pleasure and moralistic repression. (""I condemned myself, at the age of twenty, to an absolute isolation of the senses and the heart."") He even marries Monique, genuinely attracted to her pure, maternal kindness. ""The desire to behave properly carried me into lower depths than the worst motives: I stole your future."" And, finally, despite the birth of a son and ""two years of virtue,"" he re-embraces pleasure--both artistic and sensual--as he bids Monique goodbye: ""I neither knew nor dared to tell you what ardent adoration made it possible for me to experience the beauty and the mystery of bodies. . ."" Oddly, the verbal reticence and lack of physical detail here--meant to lift Alexis' memoir above the mundane--actually give it an intensely clinical feeling. Notwithstanding repeated emphasis on such large themes as pleasure-vs.-morality and spirit-vs.-flesh, the piece works only sporadically as a psychological anecdote, not at all as a philosophical parable. And, though there are thought-provoking or evocative passages now and again, this first translation--like some other recent arrivals-in-English of Yourcenar work--does little to enhance her reputation, which remains iffier here than in Europe.

Pub Date: July 2nd, 1984
ISBN: 0374519064
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux