Marguerite Yourcenar, author of these "Oriental Tales," is the first woman member of the French Academy, that society of 40 "Immortals" that has been perpetuating itself and French culture for 300 years. But Yourcenar is an American citizen.
"I am rootless," she confided to Nan Robertson several years ago, in a New York Times interview. Yet for more than 30 years, she has lived on Mount Desert Island, Me., where she is called simply "Madame."
Yourcenar has been a pilgrim to many cultures and other centuries, but above all she is a classicist. Robertson listed the books behind her typewriter: Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripedes, Herodotus.
These "Oriental Tales" were first gathered for publication in book form in France in 1938. Now, revised and augmented, they appear for the first time in English.
The book is a curiosity, a melange. Four of its stories are based on actual legend but are "more or less freely developed. . . ." Two have Greek "events or superstitions" of the 1930s as "starting points." Another borrows the characters of the 11th-Century Japanese novel "The Tale of Genji." A "fragment of a Serbian ballad" inspired one story, and the last of all is the end of an unfinished novel.
What do these stories have in common? They are exotic, they are self-conscious, they strain for the mythic, and they are, save one, dead serious. They are meant to demonstrate virtuosity. Instead they demonstrate the dangers of imitation.
"How Wang-Fo Was Saved" is the story of a painter condemned by his emperor for "lying"--for creating a world whose beauty is contradicted by reality. Wang-Fo is to be put to death. Instead, he paints a boat and sails away in it.
That is a charming way to express an idea that is really a question: What is the nature of art, and what is its relation to life? But the story of Wang-Fo, though rich in content, is faux-chinois, pretend-fantastic, coy. It is plainly a clumsy Western exercise in Chinese story telling.
'The Man Who Loved the Nereids" is, in contrast, as radiant as Madame Yourcenar's mind. Clever, stylish, funny and original, an homage to Greek myth, it links the ancient and the modern worlds.
Young Panegyotis was struck dumb: the penalty, they say in his village, of seeing the Nereids naked. In the Greece of dark-haired women, Panegyotis was found wandering, murmuring of sea-nymphs: "Nereids . . . Beautiful. . . Naked . . . Astounding . . . Blond. . . ."
What we know of the affair we learn at a cafe from Jean Demetriadis, owner of a soap factory. When he calls the nymphs "divine young women," the word divine takes on a new significance.
"But look here, Jean," his wife said irritably. "You don't really believe that Panegyotis actually saw the Nereids?"
Demetriadis does not answer, distracted by three American girls who pass the cafe, holding hands. "One of them walked bareheaded, myrtle sprigs stuck in her red hair, but the second one wore an immense Mexican straw hat, and the third a peasant woman's cotton scarf; dark sunglasses protected her eyes like a mask. The three girls had settled on the island and had bought a house far from the main roads: At night they fished with a trident in their very own boat, and in autumn they hunted for quail. . . ."
Yes, of course. But there are still two ways to read the story.