Two Lives and a Dream by Marguerite Yourcenar: translated by Walter Kaiser with the author (Farrar Straus Giroux: $16.95; 243 pages)
Almost every author has an idea that insists upon a second chance--a character left unrealized, a favorite plot scanted when the story was originally told, an intellectual concept changed and revised by the passage of time. In Marguerite Yourcenar's case, the initial story in the book, published here as "An Ordinary Man," first appeared in 1935 as "After Rembrandt."
Then as now it was the story of one Nathanael; a young man who runs away to sea to escape being charged with killing a man who has attacked him. Relatively well educated for a poor Dutch carpenter's son, he hides aboard a slave ship bound for the West Indies. Later, he becomes a seaman on a frigate sailing north to battle the French, then threatening English settlements in Canada. After a skirmish with Jesuit missionaries, the ship is wrecked; the young hero washes ashore on a small island where he is rescued by an elderly couple who adopt him in the hope he will marry their daughter. Grateful for their kindness, he makes himself generally useful and eventually weds the daughter, Foy. After a brief idyll, Foy dies of consumption, and when another English ship appears in the harbor, Nathanael signs on and returns to England where his family had been living. There he discovers that his father is dead and that his mother has returned to Amsterdam.
Common Man Epitomized
These opening segments are full of hints that the story of Nathanael is a parable with implications far beyond mere picaresque adventure; that the obscure young hero is meant to epitomize the destiny of the common man in the 17th Century. Though Yourcenar has radically revised her original manuscript, she has kept the vibrant colors and scenes of Rembrandt's Amsterdam that provided her with the title of the first version.
His seagoing days over, Nathanael finds employment with a printer, later as valet to a wealthy widower. When he also falls victim to consumption, his kindly protector sends him to a remote island in the North Sea, hoping he'll regain his strength. That is not to be, and Nathanael dies as obscurely as he has lived, a thoughtful, sensitive, utterly decent human being whose short life encompassed a sizable share of 17th-Century social history. Neither saint nor savior, Nathanael is nevertheless a paragon of unrewarded virtues.
Son Becomes Actor
Although the second story is shorter and the tone lighter, the symbolism is even more portentous. Nathanael has fathered a son, who by merest happenstance becomes an actor with a touring theatrical troupe, playing various Shakespearean roles. Like "An Ordinary Man," the sequel is also a philosophical fantasy--the youthful Lazarus projecting himself into a brilliant future, exulting in his gifts, acting the entire gamut of possible parts in life, his innocent optimism overcoming the disconcerting fact that the roving players are driven from one engagement to another by a coachman invariably cast as Death.
In its first appearance, this story was called "Death Drives the Cart," though in her postscript to this edition Yourcenar now says "so too, does life." Despite that grim omen, "A Lovely Morning" is a witty diversion, ultimately affirmative.
The last of the three tales is set in 16th-Century Italy, the atmosphere again dark with foreboding. "Anna, Soror" tells of the passionate attachment between a brother and sister, children of the governor of the Spanish garrison in Naples. Tormented by hopeless desire, the brother attempts to escape his anguish in dissipation and danger; the sister withdraws into religious fervor and a loveless marriage. Begun when Yourcenar was only 18, this story has been altered slightly but crucially, to show "a modification in the author's conception of life." Instead of the cruel finality of the first ending, the ill-fated lovers are given a reprieve. "Since their first, solemn farewell was only a delusion, it is possible that their second will be too." This change represents a contrast between the unyielding attitudes of Yourcenar's youth and the tolerance and understanding of the now venerable writer's mature work.
From the vantage point of her 80 years, Yourcenar writes "How strange each existence is, where everything floats past like an ever-flowing stream and only those things which matter, instead of sinking to the depths, rise to the surface" . . . a distinction she accords these three rediscovered works.