Published with Une belle matinée
Edition: Folio Gallimard
First Published: 1982
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published in the US in the short story collection Two Lives and A Dream (University of Chicago Press), translated by Walter Kaiser
In the Netherlands of Rembrandt, of the discovery of the New World and of the printing press, the life of Nathanaël, which could be a life as ordinary as any, acquires tinges and depths that touch the essence of existence. In the clear and introspective style of Yourcenar, we are carried from one segment of the life of this character to another: his birth within the Dutch community of Greenwich, his entreprises on a transoceanic ship, his life in a remote colony of North America after a shipwreck, his return back to Europe working as an editor and a servant to a nobleman and, finally, his death, announced from the very beginning of the novel. Relentlessly, the thoughts of our obscure narrator form into a canvas of subdued colours that reflects on the meaning of existence, on love and on our place alongside the other creatures of the world. It is a real journey for the reader, in the most encompassing sense of the term.
‘La nouvelle du décès de Nathanaël dans une petite île frisonne fit peu de bruit quand on la reçut à Amsterdam.’ (‘The news of Nathanaël’s death on a small Frisian island produced very little scandal when were received in Amsterdam’ – excuse my poor translation)
Marguerite Yourcenar has always been an author whose works I wanted to read, sooner or later. Of course, I immediately associated her with her most known and prised novel, Memoirs of Hadrien. And that was indeed the book that I had picked up initially. But, just before leaving Paris to go and visit my friend Els in the Netherlands, another friend suggested that I should take An Obscure Man along, to fully experience both the novel and my time in the Netherlands. And he was right!
What immediately captivated me in this novel is in fact the setting. The novel is mainly set in 17th century Amsterdam, with its narrow streets, its oblong houses, its dark canals and its cold grey sky. Marguerite Yourcenar has an extraordinary capacity to evoke colours, smells and atmospheres with the use of a few words. Her style in this novel – because, even if it’s classified as a short story, I think its length and narrative development justify calling it a novel – is that of a painter who allows landscapes, portraits and emotions emerge from the darkness of the background with perfectly placed strokes. It is a novel that can be read both quickly or slowly, that has the power to enchant the reader under a spell of what my friend who suggested this read to me called a ‘douce tristesse‘, a sweet sadness. This sweet sadness is a thoughtful introspection and inspection of the world, which permeates every sigle page of the novel. It is a thoughtfulness which seems detached from the worldly life, but that ultimately allows a greater engagement and understanding of the mouvements behind the surface of things and events and, therefore, a greater connection.
Nathanaël meets many different characters throughout his journey. These are maternal or paternal figures, or even friends, but the ones that really mark his life are the women, the innocent Janet, the unpretentious and hard-working Foy, the passionate and luring Saraï and the noble and pure Mme D’Ailly.
‘Il avait aimé autrefois murmurer ce nom, mais aucun nom n’était plus nécessaire, depuis qu’elle représentait pour lui toutes les femmes’ (‘He had once loved to whisper this name, but no name was necessary now, since she represented for him all women’)
These women, like all the people that Nathanaël has met throughout his life, blurry into universal experiences. He is a character who apprehends knowledge deeply and intensely, through life and nature more than books. His very acute sense of observation produce some passages of pure poetry. The description of sounds is masterful in this sense. Like when Nathanaël is serving Mme D’Ailly’s music concerts and he expresses what it feels like to hear these pure sounds which seem to stop time and external noises. They lead to a higher level of existence, even if only for a short time, before disappearing and leaving the listener back on Earth, to the coughing of people and the ringing of cutlery.
The end of the novel, to the surprise of very few inattentive readers, corresponds to the
death of the narrator and main character. It is a climatic ending that evolves slowly and quietly. It is a silent concerto played by nature altogether. On a remote island surrounded by the constantly present, yet constantly changing waves of the ocean and of the dunes, every element of nature, Nathanaël included, seems to be aware while at the same time completely oblivious of the significance of the moment. And then the silent concerto fades into silence, as if it never were. And the cycle of life continues.
I cannot recommend this book enough to someone who is in interested in a this kind of philosophical or existential readings. It really woke something inside me, an awareness which I already knew was there.