Thursday, January 30, 2014
Coup de Grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957; 151 pages
First published 1939
From the publisher:
Set in the Baltic provinces in the aftermath of World War I, Coup de Grâce tells the story of an intimacy that grows between three young people hemmed in by civil war: Erick, a Prussian fighting with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks; Conrad, his best friend from childhood; and Sophie, whose unrequited love for Erick becomes an unbearable burden.
This was my introduction to Marguerite Yourcenar's writing: Coup de Grâce is a book I've had in my "must read" stack for several decades now, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it even though I can't say it's destined to go on my list of favorites. The writing is beautiful and the story, though a bit chaotic, is one that sticks with you after you've closed the book.
The short novel is narrated in first person by the book's main character, Erick von Lhomond, an aristocratic young officer fighting against the Bolsheviks in the 1917-1922 civil war. Erick, his childhood friend Conrad and some of their fellow officers and soldiers are sheltering in a house on Conrad's family estate, waiting to advance in the fighting. Conrad's aunt and his sister Sophie are also in residence -- along with a female servant, they are the only women in the group of men. Early on, we learn that Sophie had been assaulted by one of the soldiers, although she tries to keep the fact a secret for as long as possible.
We get only the story that Erick sees fit to tell, and it's hard to know exactly how dependable a narrator Erick is. He certainly doesn't come across as admirable or likable, so I suppose we have to believe he's honest. Of the other characters in the book, I think only Sophie was distinct and memorable. Some of her actions are a little hard to understand -- but she loves Erick apparently to distraction, and Erick does not love her. (Erick is actually more interested in Conrad, and memories of their youth together.) So I guess we're to assume that unrequited love can drive a person to sad and dangerous lengths. Well, it makes a good story anyway.
It's a short, quick read, and the writing is brilliant. I don't want to give away much more of the plot, but I'll just say that the ending is very sad. Well, it's a war story, after all. Sad, but satisfying.