THE BLACK BRAIN OF PIRANESI and Other Essays by Marguerite Yourcenar


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Seven causeries, mostly on literature and all rich (with knowledge and emotion), fluent, enthusiastic, but not quite satisfying. This collection first appeared in 1962 as Sous BÉnÉfice d'Inventaire (a phrase meaning ""with reservations""), and belongs to a series (see, most recently Alexis, p. 414) of new translations of old Yourcenar material. Like the others, this one has its moments; but it would never have been reprinted if its author hadn't been elected to the French Academy in 1980. Yourcenar's subjects here are the Historia Augusta (a controversial chronicle of 2nd and 3rd century Roman emperors), the Calvinist epic poet Agrippa d'AubignÉ (1552-1630), the chateau of Chenonceaux and some famous people associated with it (Diane de Poitiers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc.), the great engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), Selma LagerlÖf, Cavafy, and Thomas Mann. The LagerlÖf piece is easily the worst, a rambling collection of plot summaries-cum-biography exalting (and overrating) the Swedish novelist; and the Mann piece, while quite competent, simply reviews the author, book-by-book. The remaining essays, on territory where Yourcenar is more at home, have much to recommend them: her vivid evocation of the Historia Augusta soars above the usual pedantic discussions on the authenticity and precise dating of that work; her hommages to d'AubignÉ, Piranesi, and Cavafy are warm and colorful; and she makes a charming, prodigiously informed guide to Chenonceaux. On the other hand, her lyrical style drifts instead of directing (the Piranesi essay is positively aimless), and the book as a whole has no order except chronological. Masterfully translated, occasionally arresting, but not really necessary.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux