Eric's Reviews > That Mighty Sculptor, Time

That Mighty Sculptor, Time by Marguerite Yourcenar
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's review
Aug 03, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: art, essays, history, men-of-letters, travels
Read in August, 2011

“The marble fly,” the nickname Khlebnikov gave Mandelstam for his compound of vulnerability and righteousness (though sick, homeless and hounded, that prophet of Logos was unafraid to physically slap the plump well-fed cheeks of the sham Soviet intelligentsia, or to metaphorically tug at Stalin’s “cockroach whiskers”), I will borrow and apply to Yourcenar, who is exquisite and marmoreal even in a posthumous miscellany of reviews, tributes, editorials and responses to questionnaires. Every page—no, sentence—of That Mighty Sculptor, Time shows a graven dignity, and a poetic density of suggestion rare in works of much greater ambition and unity. Other than Borges I can think of no other modern writer whose slightest composition evokes as many landscapes and libraries, or poses so elegantly, and so eerily, the essential mysteries of our planet’s manifold vitality. Her abiding attention to humanity—its ties to other animals and to the earth, its various understandings and enactments of the sacred, the voices of its dead—unify these diverse journeys through time and space: to feudal Japan, for the suicide haiku of vanquished samurai; to India, for the ripeness of Hindu reliefs (“It seems as though, if sliced, these torsos would present a homogenous, fleshy inside to the eye, like the pulp of some fruit. If cut off, these arms and legs would grow again like stalks or roots”); Islamic Andalusia, Tantric Tibet, New England towns on Halloween night; and, in the titular essay, the debris-strewn Mediterranean:


Some of these alterations are sublime. To that beauty imposed by the human brain, by an epoch, or by a particular society, they add an involuntary beauty, associated with the hazards of history, which is the result of natural causes and of time. Statues so thoroughly shattered that out of the debris a new work of art is born: a naked foot unforgettably resting on a stone; a candid hand; a bent knee which contains all the speed of the footrace; a torso which has no face to prevent us from loving it; a breast or genitals in which we recognize more fully than ever the form of a fruit or flower; a profile in which beauty survives with a complete absence of human or divine anecdote; a bust with eroded features, halfway between a portrait and a death’s-head.



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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Anna I'd highly recommend The Dark Brain of Piranesi. Essays, amazing.


Eric Piranesi looks SO good, but at the library today this won out because I couldn't stop reading her essay on samurai suicides!


Anna The copy of the piranesi I borrowed from the university library (nowhere else had one) has not been borrowed for 15 years. Which makes it a candidate for deletion as our collections are squeezed by rising costs and hard times. This makes me indescribably sad and means I buy anything unusual I can find.


Kelly Ooh, more Yourcenar! I'm excited for your review!


message 5: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Ah, so nice to read the Piranesi encomiums, as well (quite a two-fer to cheer this muggy, drizzly morning), as I've been meaning to look it up. Yourcenar is one of those writers I've been intending to read for years, but can't decide where to start: Memoirs of Hadrian or Piranesi, or, now, after E's spirited, enticing review, That Mighty Sculptor, which sounds like it would fit perfectly on my "Time" shelf, next to McPhee's Basin and Range, Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, and Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return.


Kelly Oh oh oh! I am so delighted by this review. As if it couldn't get better, the subject matter sounds perfect, as well as Yourcenar's prose.

Other than Borges I can think of no other modern writer whose slightest composition evokes as many landscapes and libraries, or poses so elegantly, and so eerily, the essential mysteries of our planet’s manifold vitality. Her abiding attention to humanity—its ties to other animals and to the earth, its various understandings and enactments of the sacred, the voices of its dead

This couldn't sound more perfect.


message 7: by Eric (last edited Aug 05, 2011 09:11AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Thanks guys!

Kelly wrote: This couldn't sound more perfect.

It seems she's never less than astonishing. Tom, I think you can start anywhere and be amazed. I started Piranesi last night...and...wow...the poetry and high drama of historiography.


Kelly Mwahahaha. Yourcenar is worth adding to your pile of goodness, though, I promise. I can't WAIT to see what you think of Memoirs when you get to it.


message 9: by Eric (last edited Aug 05, 2011 09:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric I've got too many good books going already!

I hear ya. I made myself leave Piranesi at home today, because Balcony of Europe has to go back to the library in 4 days, and I need to organize my responses to To the Lighthouse, and my lunch break, even on a sunny slackass Friday, is only so long.


message 10: by Miriam (new)

Miriam has not been borrowed for 15 years. Which makes it a candidate for deletion

I sometimes check out obscure books that I don't intend to read just to give them some play.


message 11: by Anna (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anna Good on you Miriam! (A little voice, not unlike Mary Queen of Scots, squeaks from a cloth-bound tome "I'm not dead yet!")


message 12: by Tom (last edited Aug 06, 2011 07:05AM) (new) - added it

Tom I thought I was only weirdo who felt sorry for Miss Lonelyhearts library books with eternal but ignored shelf lives. I just rescued F.L. Lucas's "Style," which, according to fading green ciruclation sticker, last breathed fresh air and sunlight in 1971 (which would explain its musty, yellowing pages). So old I can't even find a used copy online. Joseph Epstein praised it in his review of Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. (I include Epstein's witty, caustic and insightful review below. Excuse me for crashing the Yourcenar party with a tangential review, but I feel fairly confident that as JE has much interesting to say about larger of topic of "good writing" that MY and the rest of you wouldn't mind the intrusion.)

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles....


message 13: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Any of you know which Shakespeare work MY if referencing in title essay with line, "Like that corpse in the most beautiful and haunting of Shakespeare's songs ... " (pg 61)? Any help, even just educated guesses appreciated.


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