Oriental Tales by Marguerite Yourcenar

YourcenarAt the beginning of this year, I read Oriental Tales by Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) who is recognized as the first female member of the French Academy in 1980 and thus a member of ‘les immortels‘. Considering, the Academy was established in 1635 by Richelieu (yes, the evil cardinal from The Three Musketeers), it was about time to recognize the female artists and thinkers of the French language, no? Yourcenar is mainly known for Hadrian’s Memoirsabout the Roman emperor, which was published in 1951.

Oriental Tales (pub. 1938) is an anthology of ten stories set – not so much in what we would call the Orient – but in exotic places like the Balkans, China, India, and even the Netherlands. Very exotic from a Eurocentric point of view! They are very classical in form and style, and throughout my reading, I was reminded of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, especially Winter’s Tales and not just because of the titles. Both collections share stories of larger-than-life people but who are still suffering from the very human condition of life itself. Yourcenar has rewritten some traditional myths and legends from the mentioned areas, according to the afterword. I cannot help but find that evident in the style. There is a certain universality to the stories, which, from my reading experience, usually comes with legends and myths being reworked and polished over centuries or millennia.

The stories are about love. Love in all its forms and ways; how it can destroy, confuse, but also give hope when it all seemed lost. Love between man and woman, between student and sage, between artist and craft, mother and child. Do not think though that these are fairytales in the sense of ‘Once upon a time’ and especially not ‘happily ever after’. Not all – if any actually – of the stories in Oriental Tales end on a happy note – but some do end on a tranquil and resolved note. Like a condemned man making peace with his end and executioner. The distinct tales’ titles envoke that feeling. Take as examples, Aphrodissia – the Widow, Kali Beheadedand The Sadness of Cornelius BergThese expecially reminded me of Karen Blixen’s tales.

Another of the stories, showing the strength of a mother’s love is The Milk of DeathAt first, a story about three brothers ruling a small country on the verge of being overrun by enemies and therefore must erect a fortress. However, it must have its sacred offering, a skeleton, a body, in order not to crumble. The three brothers start to be afraid of each other, of how the other two might put the third into the pillar. One day, they meet up and the oldest decide to make it a selection based on chance: the wife who brings them their daily food must be sacrificed. The two eldest readily agree since they despise their wives, but the third loves his and has a small child. The brothers are not allowed to tell their wives, but fate and chance work mysteriously together, and the wife of the youngest brother, who is also the youngest of the wives, is forced by circumstances to bring the daily basket of food the next day.

All three brothers are solemn at seeing her, the youngest brother being devastated and the two eldest annoyed that they did not escape their own wives. The youngest wife, thinking of her infant child, makes them promise to build a hole at her breasts in the pillar where she is placed. She makes them promise to bring her child everyday so he can suckle at her breast and survive. This story is framed by the story of an archaeologist who has searched for the pillar with the milky white stains but all that remains is the tale of the young mother and her mother’s milk continuing to nourish and sustain the baby after she died.

A very sad story where you cannot help but being angry at the abused sense of honour and hypocrisy, set into contrast by the willingness and yet heartbreak of the young wife and mother. What is power, what is bravery, and what is the most important thing to you in this world and the next? are questions I hear asked through this story. How would you have chosen? The one, the many; the closest, the masses? And I actually cannot help but thinking of Hans Christian Andersen’s Story of a Mother.

There is a distinct melancholia to all the stories, but the most positive ending of them all belonged to How Wang-Fô was Savedabout an old Chinese master painter who could paint beyond what the natural world could produce. Making other people envious of his ability to see such visions as he then translated into paintings, and no one else having the power to experience it. Other people becoming furious and demanding his death for invoking such a yearning for the perfect scenery and aesthetic, which could never be fulfilled. Having lost his assistant who was once a rich man but realised his poverty compared to Wang-Fô and giving up all his wealth to wander along and mix Wang-Fô’s paints, who was indeed protecting Wang-Fô against enemies when he was killed, Wang-Fô is ordered to paint one last painting before his own death. He paints a landscape, a scene by a lake with a boat with a man, sailing away into the painting. When morning comes and he is to be executed, Wang-Fô is nowhere, but the boat still sails on the painting, and he has saved himself.

Even though this is not a happy ending, it is a beautiful story about the power of art and creation. As a fellow artist in various arts myself, I resonate deeply with this story and the promise it brings. That the natural world will one day turn you to dust, by either age or force, but through your art and creative work you out a small essence of yourself in them and they get to touch other people and so by that your spirit lives on.

It reminded me of the quote, ‘The goal isn’t to live forever but to create something that will’. Yourcenar has definitely mastered that and I highly recommend this collection of stories.


Ved årsskiftet læste jeg Orientalske noveller af Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987), som blev det første kvindelige medlem af det franske akademi i 1980 og altså én af ”de udødelige”. Hun er mest kendt for sin bog om den romerske kejser Hadrians erindringer fra 1951.

Orientalske noveller fra 1938 foregår ikke i det, som man nok ville kalde “Orienten”, men i mere eksotiske steder end Europa, bortset fra den, som foregår i Holland! Stilen er meget klassisk og mindede mig ofte om Karen Blixens Vintereventyr. Begge beskriver det universelle i mennesket samtidigt med smerten ved eksistensen. Yourcenars noveller er genfortællinger af myter og legender og det synes, jeg at man som læser kan mærke.Historierne er om kærlighed i alle dens former hvor den kan ødelægge, forvirre, men også give håb i den mørkeste stund. Det er ikke moderne eventyr med ”Der var engang” og slet ikke ”og de levede lykkeligt til deres dages ende”. Langt de fleste ender ikke godt, hvis nogen overhovedet gør det i en vis forstand, men nogle ender på en afklaret måde. Som når en dødsdømt finder trøst ved enden og tilgivelse til sin bøddel.

To af novellerne, som jeg husker bedst omhandler netop det tvetydige i om det er lykkelige eller forfærdelige slutninger. Der er den tragiske historie om den unge hustru, som må ofres for at beskytte byen, men som stadigt har et lille spædbarn. Hun tvinger derfor sin mand og hans to brødre, der har ofret hende, til at lade et hul være i den mur hvor hun skal mures inde, så de kan bringe hendes barn op til hendes bryst. De gør det og miraklet sker, at hun kan made barnet længe efter sin indespærring.

En anden novelle handler om den mestermaler Wang-Fô, som kunne overgå naturen i sin kunst. Dette gav ham mange fjender da de misundte Wang-Fôs evne til at opleve verdenen endnu smukkere og mere perfekt end de selv. De dømmer ham til at male et sidste maleri inden sin dødsdom, og Wang-Fô maler et landskab med en sø hvorpå, der sejler en båd. Om morgenen da fjenderne kommer for at se maleriet er Wang-Fô væk, men på maleriet sejler den lille båd med passager stadig.

Det er en meget smuk historie og klinger rent hos mig, da jeg selv udtrykker mig i diverse kunstarter. Historien minder mig også om ordsproget, ”Det handler ikke om at leve for evigt men om at fremstille noget, som kan”, og det har Yourcenar.

About Ann-Cathrine 39 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.