Marguerite Yourcenar, from Japan to the Motherland: The Oceanic Lack and the Wave of Time


Author: Alessandro Giardino
Email: [email protected]
Published: December 1, 2018

Citation: Giardino, A. (2018). Marguerite Yourcenar, from Japan to the Motherland: The Oceanic Lack and the Wave of Time. IAFOR Journal of Literature & Librarianship, 7(1).


Marguerite Yourcenar’s reputation was built on philologically inspired novels featuring heroes of the Western tradition, such as the emperor Hadrian in Mémoires d’Hadrien and the partly invented figure of Zénon Ligre in L’Oeuvre au noir. Less known is Yourcenar’s interest in Japanese culture, which, far from being limited to her late travels, she cultivated from an early age by reading all genres of Japanese literature. Not only are Yourcenar’s Japonist writings undervalued, but they are normally treated by scholars as just another example of her universalism. In the existing scholarship on Yourcenar, short stories such as “Le dernier amour du prince Genghi,” in Nouvelles Orientales, as well as “Basho sur la route,” in Le tour de la prison, are often read as affirmation of her literary inclination to the philosophical aloofness of old age. Contrary to this interpretation, I will argue that Yourcenar’s passion for Japanese culture was propelled by her desire to expand her epistemological schemes, while finding coping strategies for the unaddressed lack of her mother. In other words, Yourcenar was not only describing cultural differences but internalizing Eastern ideas on memory, loss, and the decaying body that would allow her to reclaim her past. These ideas, as well as Yourcenar’s Japanese-inspired understanding of temporality and the afterlife, manifest themselves in her literary work in frequent images of rivers, sea waves, and tides with symbolic connotations.


Yourcenar, Japan, waves, time, the afterlife, memory, the body, loss, motherhood