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Marguerite Yourcenar’s Sappho (Feux, La Couronne et la Lyre) and Lesbian Paris in the early twentieth century

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris

University of Lille

Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the French Academy in 1980, was not officially chosen as a representative of her sex. Consider Jean d’Ormesson’s reply to her Reception speech: “I will not hide from you, Madam, that it is not because you are a woman that you are here today: it is because you are a great writer”. Classical antiquity nourishes the work of Yourcenar, who learned Greek and Latin from private tutors as a child. Critical assessments of ‘Yourcenar and antiquity’ generally echo the view that she herself defended: namely that she should be judged as a human being, and not as a woman. However, by focusing on what Yourcenar wrote about Sappho in Feux (1936) and in La Couronne et la Lyre (1979), I have reached a different conclusion.  As Dejean (1999) has pointed out, any reading of Sappho challenges the gender identity of the reader, translator or commentator and her or his beliefs on what a woman should be socially and sexually. I seek to show that this is also the case for Yourcenar, who like Sappho was a woman, an author, and shared Sappho’s apparent sexual preferences.

In Feux’ last text, Sappho or the suicide, Yourcenar transferred the story of the ancient poetess to a contemporary setting: her Sappho is a trapeze artist, represented as bisexual. After becoming ‘disgusted by the external attributes of virility’, she loves beauty in feminine bodies. Once abandoned by her most passionately loved female friend, Attis, Sappho falls in love with a man, Phaon, because she finds in him certain characteristics formerly found desirable in Attis. One day he is dressed up in disguise, wearing a ‘peignoir’ that had belonged to Attis. Having put an end to the vertigo of gender ambiguity, he suddenly appears to be ‘no more than a substitute for the beautiful missing nymph’. Sappho flees in horror at the ‘ridicule of having been able to believe that a young man existed’ and tries to commit suicide in vain. Sappho or the suicide is the text in which Yourcenar most directly alludes to the actual erotic scenario from which her book originates: Feux was born from her passion for her editor, André Fraigneau, a homosexual who had rejected her. In her preface to Sappho’s translations, in the Couronne et la Lyre, Yourcenar points out that ‘Sappho’s professional situation’ is similar to ‘that of male poets surrounding themselves with disciples to whom they taught their art’, and clearly mentions her own sexual choices when talking about ‘love between women’.

I would like to situate Yourcenar’s fiction on Sappho, and her presentation of Sappho’s life and poetry, in their historical contexts, on the one hand, the debates in German and French academic circles, and, on the other hand, the ‘revolution’ brought about by Renée Vivien’s translation of Sappho’s poems (1903). She was a friend of Pierre Louÿs, who was violently attacked by the German classicist Wilamowitz for his Chansons de Bilitis (1895). Vivien’s edition was widely exploited by Mario Meunier in his first edition of Sappho (1911) before he took the side of Theodore Reinach, who promoted the German ‘chaste Sappho’ theory, in his second edition (1932). I would especially like to place Yourcenar’s texts in the context of the Sapphic literary community that was formed in Paris from 1900, examining several female authors whom Yourcenar apparently ‘ignored’, not only Vivien, but her friend, the American Nathalie Barney (Cinq petits dialogues grecs, 1902, Equivoque, 1910, Pensées d’une amazone, 1920) and the ‘other great French female author, Colette (Le pur et l’impur, 1932). Bibliographical details sometimes reveal carefully hidden relationships. Vivien, admired by Salomon Reinach, was probably well known by his brother, Theodore. According to Faderman (370), Yourcenar frequented Barney’s salon. Unexpected proximities emerge, revealing how Yourcenar’s work is typical of the emancipation of social, intellectual and sexual codes experienced in the ‘belle époque’ and the post-war period in Paris.

Session/Panel Title

Feminist Re-Visionings: Twentieth-Century Women Writers and Classics

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