This book is the fruit of one of the most ambitious literary projects I have ever seen. At the age of twenty, Marguerite Yourcenar conceived the idea of writing the life of the Emperor Hadrian. She spent five years on the task, then destroyed the manuscript and all her notes. Over the next decade and a half, she returned to the idea several times, and each time admitted defeat. Finally, in her early 40s, she arrived at a method she could believe in, which she describes as "half history, half magic": she spent several years systematically transforming herself into a vessel for the long-dead Emperor's spirit. She read every book still in existence that mentioned him or that he might have read. She visited the places he had visited, and touched the statues he had touched. Every night, she tried to imagine that she was Hadrian, and spent hours writing minutely detailed accounts of what he might have seen and felt. She was acutely aware of all the pitfalls involved, and used her considerable skills to efface herself from the process; "she did not want to breathe on the mirror". She compiled tens of thousands of pages of notes and rough drafts, nearly all of which she burned.
The final result, the memoirs Hadrian might have composed on his deathbed but never did, represents the distilled essence of this process, and it is unique in my experience. The language is a beautiful and highly stylised French that feels very much like Latin; the cadences are those of Latin, and every word she uses is originally derived from Latin or Greek. (This effect must be hard to imitate in translation to a non-Romance language). The world-view is, throughout, that of the second century A.D. The illusion that Hadrian is speaking to you directly is extraordinarily compelling.
Hadrian emerges as a great man. With Trajan's conquest of Mesopotamia just before his accession to the throne, the Empire had reached its peak; indeed, it was now clearly over-extended and threatened with collapse. Hadrian's difficult task was to stabilise it to the extent possible and maintain the increasingly uneasy peace, and he succeeded well enough that it survived for several hundred more years after his death. He describes his work with measured passion, neither boasting of his successes nor despairing of his occasional dreadful failures; the Second Jewish War occurred near the end of his reign, resulting in the obliteration of Judea and the dispersal of the entire Jewish race.
He is candid about his private life, and Yourcenar's description of his tragic liaison with Antinoüs is probably the most impressive achievement of the book. Hadrian, who like most of his class was promiscuously bisexual, takes as his lover a fourteen year old boy. The relationship, like everything else in the book, is presented entirely within the context of Hadrian's own culture, and I was able to accept it as such. It's extremely moving; even if you are the absolute ruler of the known world, you are as defenceless against love as everyone else. When Antinoüs kills himself shortly before his twentieth birthday, Hadrian realises too late that he is the love of his life. His Stoic philosophy and his strong sense of duty keep him functioning, but from then on he only longs to be released.
It is fortunate that, every now and then, the world acquires for a brief moment a man like Hadrian or a woman like Yourcenar. Read this book and you will feel inspired to be a better person.