It is a heart-wrenching love story. That alone would put it in the category of “good summer read.” It is a short book, clocking in at one hundred and fifty-one pages in my edition. It’s thus an easy book to stick into a beach bag or to carry on the train.
It is also highly appropriate to read in the dying days of this summer, the summer of 2014. That’s because this summer is the hundred-year anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The guns started firing on June 28, 1914. By mid-August, young European men were dying by the tens of thousands, victims of a war that redefined organized, industrial killing for the modern age.
The book I am speaking of, Coup de Grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar, does not actually take place during WWI. It takes place during the Baltic wars (1918-20) that emerged directly out of WWI. The Soviets attacked Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, taking advantage of the chaos left by the Great War. The Germans got involved – defending their own damaged imperial interests – as did the Brits. The Baltic wars quickly turned into a nice, vicious, and now largely forgotten little series of wars.
Still, Coup de Grâce is, at its heart, a WWI book. It explores what happens to individual lives as those lives came up against historical forces of massive destruction. It shows us the remnants of an older, pre-war European sensibility in its dying gasps. WWI killed off what was left of the 19th century and ushered in the modern world to come. That’s been repeated so often it has become a truism, a cliché. So how do you tell a real story of the traumas of the WWI era without being trite and abstract?
Yourcenar found a way. She was, like all great writers, extremely lucky. Someone told her an incredible story. A true story. That is what she claimed, anyway. In her preface to the book (first published in 1939), Yourcenar wrote, “The story itself is authentic, and the three characters who are called Erick, Sophie, and Conrad, respectively, remain much as they were described to me by one of the best friends of the principal person concerned.”
The story is about the tragedy of love, as are all great and true stories. A young German man named Erick von Lhomond (the narrator of the book) goes to fight in the Baltic wars. He travels to his friend Conrad’s old house, which is now in a full combat zone and is serving as a troop headquarters. Conrad’s sister Sophie is also at the house. She falls in love with Erick. He cannot reciprocate. Perhaps Erick is simply frightened by the intensity of Sophie’s love. He is drawn to Sophie, but also repelled by her. They spend weeks together in the great old house where life “resumed its course in the intervals between the fighting.”
The hours would wear on and conversation would languish, or turn to mild abuse; Sophie would invent pretexts to linger in my room; alone with me she unconsciously sought such occasions as amount to rape on the part of women. Exasperated as I was with it all, still I liked that kind of endless fencing, where my face kept its mask but hers was bare. The cold, airless room, fouled by the odor of a scantly fed stove, seemed transformed into a gymnasium where two young people, perpetually on their guard, were egging each other on in a match that would last until dawn.
Sophie is by turns delicate and wild, overwhelmed by her feelings for Erick. Rejected, she becomes more and more desperate. Finally, she flees the house in order to cross enemy lines and, in revenge or disgust or both, joins the Soviets. This sets up the final, heartbreaking tragedy of the novel, the details of which I will leave for your own reading.
The story of Coup de Grâce is unforgettable. But the true greatness of the novel lies in the nuances. Yourcenar had an eye and an ear for the old world. She herself was last of a kind, born in 1903 to a well-to-do bourgeois father and a mother who was a member of the Belgian nobility. Marguerite Yourcenar was actually born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour. She was raised with a long view of European history and its cultural memory. It’s a view she put to use in her most famous work of literature, Memoirs of Hadrian. She wrote that book from the perspective of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD). Yourcenar had the classical learning, the cultural background, and the literary chops to pull it off.
She brings that same skill to Coup de Grâce. You’ll find the remnants of the European sensibility that was killed off in the era of WWI throughout the book. At one point, Erick describes the state of Conrad and Sophie’s old house. “Our portion of good times and bad at Kratovitsy was set in scenes of corridors with boarded windows, where one was forever stumbling, and in the drawingroom, still unchanged, except for the loss of a panoply of Chinese arms to the Bolsheviks and a bayonet gash through a woman’s portrait looking down on us from a panel above the door, as though the sitter were amused by the whole adventure.”
The amusement comes from the absurdity of contrasts: a mostly unchanged drawingroom that is at the center of a combat zone. But the situation for Erick, Conrad, and Sophie moves from absurdity to horror. The three characters find themselves behaving according to old rules that world history was, just then, in the process of obliterating. Acting according to one set of rules in a circumstance that demands another is a formula for tragedy. People who otherwise love one another are forced to do terrible harm.
Yourcenar was well aware of this rule of tragedy. In her preface, she wrote, “The place which I call Kratovitsy had to be more than the stylized setting for classical tragedy, and the gory episodes of civil war have to be shown as more than a vague red backdrop for a love tale; for what had happened in that place had reduced these characters to a state of permanent despair which alone explains their actions.”
In her reflections on writing Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar noted that she was inspired by a quote she once found in a volume of Flaubert’s correspondences. Flaubert wrote, “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” In working on the Hadrian book, Yourcenar came to the realization that much of her life would be taken up trying to explain how it feels to exist “alone and yet closely bound with all being.” She was talking about the experience of Emperor Hadrian. But she was also talking about herself. History had done to Hadrian in the 2nd century AD the same thing it was doing to people like Marguerite Yourcenar in the aftermath of WWI. That’s what Coup de Grâce is really about: Feeling suddenly and profoundly and completely alone in the world, even as you are still “closely bound with all being.” It is something, at least, to think about on a fine summer’s day in 2014. How much do we still struggle with the problems of a lonely civilization that was brought into being by the destruction, one hundred years ago, of a terrible world war? • 10 September 2014