Suffering turns us into egotists, for it absorbs us completely: it is later, in the form of memory, that it teaches us compassion.
Alexis, or the Treatise of Vain Struggle, published in 1929, was Marguerite Yourcenar’s first novel. The book was not published in English translation until 1984, well after the success of Memoirs of Hadrian. It seems safe to assume this work is now largely forgotten, with copies being produced by FSG on demand (the last page indicates that my copy was printed on 29 November 2016—the date I ordered it).
In more accurate terms, the book is an epistolary novella, taking the form of an extended letter written by the title character to his estranged wife, Monique. The letter is a confession in which Alexis recounts his lifelong struggle to accept his homosexuality. The internal world that Alexis describes is one of fundamental binary oppositions (instinct vs intellect, pleasure vs. suffering, body vs. soul), making the novel an optimal text for structuralist analysis.
One fundamental question that preoccupies Alexis continues to fuel most modern debates on homosexuality: are his urges the result of nature or “external influences”? In support of the latter, he notes an unhealthy attachment to his mother and sisters in adolescence, which led to a “veneration” of women that made it impossible to love them. These conditions, he writes, certainly influenced his temptations, “yet I see clearly that one should always go back to much more intimate explanations, much more obscure ones, which we understand imperfectly because they are hidden within us.” Thus Alexis interprets his instincts as conditioned behavior, compounded by subconscious forces. In her 1963 preface, Yourcenar writes that she no longer remembers whether or not she subscribed to Alexis’s environmental view of homosexuality at the time of writing, but that she has since rejected any interpretation that situates sexual orientation within the “psychological methodology of our age.”
Any reader shocked that a book of such forthright (albeit abstract) inquiry into the nature of same-sex attraction could be published in 1929 should recall that André Gide published the last of his Corydon dialogues in 1920 (the subtitle of Alexis alludes to an earlier lyrical work of Gide, La tentative amoureuse, ou le traité du vain désir—The Attempt at Love, or the Treatise of Vain Desire). By the interwar period, homosexuality was a topic of open conversation and debate, and Yourcenar was writing in the freest atmosphere for exploring such questions since the capitulation of the Greco-Roman world to monotheism. Yourcenar writes that not only was the subject “in the air at the moment,” but that it was also in the “fabric of a life”—that is, her own life. Here one draws a comparison with the British historical novelist Mary Renault. Not only did both women feel the allure of antiquity, but each shared her life with a female partner, and each wrote a modernist novel (in Renault’s case, The Charioteer) exploring homosexuality through the eyes of a male subject.
Yourcenar herself described the prose of Alexis as “decanted language.” This austere delivery, which so perfectly channeled the voice of a fading Emperor Hadrian, feels slightly overdone in the case of Alexis. That said, the asceticism of the novel is in keeping with the essence of Yourcenar’s oeuvre: a world of melancholy stoicism in which characters express themselves not through dialog, but intense introspection. With subsequent readings, this characteristic formality does not impede emotional response, but rather enhances it. We find in Yourcenar’s philosophic prose reverence for the durability of corporeal man in the face of spiritual despair. Alexis, for his part, embraces the lessons of suffering, and praises his body, “which cured me from having a soul.”