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HOW MANY YEARS by Marguerite Yourcenar


by Marguerite Yourcenar

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-374-17319-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This fascinating family chronicle brings Yourcenar's multifarious abilities as an imaginative and erudite historian, vivid memoirist, and observant novelist to bear on her father's family, the Flemish Cleenewercks, or ``Do-littles.'' In the second of three volumes of her family chronicles (the first, Dear Departed, 1991, portrayed her mother's family), Yourcenar's (190387) narrative begins in prehistory with a mixture of high lyricism and subjective anthropology and progressively molds itself around the Roman and Christian invasions of Celtic Gaul. Out of this rich but anonymous background, her first identifiable paternal relatives emerge in the Middle Agesthe Cleenewercks and the Bieswals, minor Flemish nobility, with a recessive trait for soldiery and religion, and a strong legal gene. The law provides Yourcenar with a partial storybook—two 17th-century ancestors who judged a witch, for example, give her an excellent social and psychological opportunity—but her sharpest characterizations, of not only forebears but their times too, come from surviving portraits, including two ancestresses married to and painted by Rubens. By the 19th century, this historical memoir takes on Balzacian dimensions and Proustian overtones with the lives of Yourcenar's grandfather, Michel-Charles Cleenewerck de Crayencour, a civil servant perpetually on the wrong side of contemporary French politics and his philistine wife; and her father, Michel, a rebellious young man destined for exile. Yourcenar intimately reconstructs and retells their lives with both sympathy and irony. She revivifies her grandfather's wooden memoir, which includes an account of a notorious railway disaster outside Versailles, infusing it with her own sly observations, and rejoins her father's fragmentary anecdotes and casual disclosures about his wayward life. Sensitive to both the psychological and the historical, with an eye to fate and character, How Many Years is Yourcenar's family album for the ages. (photos, not seen)