August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!
This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.
Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”
Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:
“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”
His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:
“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”
But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.
“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”
Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.
“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”
“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”
Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.
If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀
I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.
Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:
“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”
It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.
“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”
Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.
“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”
By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.
El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.
She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.
To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain: