Office—Le Monde, 21 A, rue Claude-Bernard, 75242 Paris, Cedex 05, France.
Le Monde, Paris, France, editor-in-chief of cultural pages.
(Editor) Marguerite Yourcenar, A Blue Tale and Other Stories, translated by Alberto Manguel, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1995.
Histoire d'une évasion, B. Grasset (Paris, France), 1997.
A journalist and longtime cultural editor at the prestigious French daily Le Monde, Josyane Savigneau has published biographies of two literary icons, Marguerite Yourcenar and Carson McCullers. In Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life Savigneau draws on her investigative reporting background to untangle the elusive author who purposely destroyed many personal documents and planted false stories to throw future biographers off her trail. "Part investigative journalism, part storytelling, part 'outing,' Savigneau's work details the intricate web of nuance, deceit, intellectual superiority, avid sensuality and outright egotism that wove the character Yourcenar was," as Lambda Book Report contributor Victoria Brownworth wrote.
Born Marguerite de Crayencour to a mother who died soon after childbirth, Yourcenar later rearranged her last name to make it more exotic. She grew up with her father, an aging playboy, and a series of relatives, for the most part without the benefit of formal schooling or traditional family life. "Here we have a sympathetic portrait of a motherless little girl at liberty in Europe with a gambler daddy richer in savoir faire than ready cash," observed L. Peat O'Neill in Belles Lettres. While some children might have reacted to this by seeking out order and conformity, Yourcenar embraced the unconventionality of it, cultivating eccentricity in her dress and intellectual interests, with her father's encouragement. Herself bisexual, Yourcenar suffered a couple of unrequited attachments to gay men, but as Savigneau reveals, she also enjoyed a number of affairs with both men and women before settling down with Grace Frick, who would be with her for forty years. While pouring her ideas and feelings into novels and poems that would one day make her the first woman admitted to the Académie Française, Yourcenar showed equal imagination in reinventing herself and her life, detesting the public's tendency to seek gossip about writers and the biographer's tendency to provide it. While acknowledging this desire, and despite her own friendship with Yourcenar, Savigneau perseveres in telling the true story to the best of her ability. Savigneau "does a superb job of sorting out fact from fiction, resolving inconsistencies in the record, presenting the contrasts and contradictions in Yourcenar's character, and describing the texture of her daily life, especially in her later years. This is a finely shaded portrait of a singular and complex woman," said New Criterion reviewer Maria Louise Ascher.
Savigneau followed her first book with a second biography of a complicated female author, this time an American. Carson McCullers: A Life tells the story of the tormented author who burst onto the literary scene at the age of twenty-three with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Noting the book's subtitle, M2 Best Books reviewer Kevin Turner wrote that the author "has indeed captured the life of novelist, poet and playwright Carson McCullers. As much of the book is haunted by the spectre of tragic illness which besieged McCullers for all of her adult life, the title is as much an affirmation as it is merely a label, for McCullers had to constantly fight for life rather than merely live." McCullers' perseverance in the face of crippling strokes, chronic alcoholism, and a stormy marriage are a big part of her story, and Savigneau emphasizes these heroic aspects, while downplaying or denying stories of self-centeredness and self-destructiveness from McCullers' detractors. According to Atlantic Monthly reviewer Frances Kiernan, Savigneau "sets out to rescue the reputation of both the woman and the writer. In the process she does her best to undercut what she regards as a 'banal' view of McCullers—one that is incapable of appreciating what it means to live the life of an artist—and to dispel the notion that her subject's later years were marked primarily by physical infirmity and unfulfilled promise. Consequently, she never portrays McCullers as selfish or demanding but, instead, celebrates her as a 'strange woman-child' who, for all her brilliance, 'never grew up.'"
Some reviewers faulted Savigneau for her one-sided portrat of her subject. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Evelyn Toynton, for example, felt that the biographer "adores and admires her subject to a degree that is by turns touching and maddening." New York Times Book Review contributor Michiko Kakutani found Carson McCullers a "petulant defensive book that tries to inflate her subject's reputation and parry negative comments." Others were more impressed, however. Library Journal reviewer Jeris Cassel wrote that "Savigneau's heartfelt, honest portrait of one of the great novelists of the American South attests to McCullers continuing international popularity." World Literature Today contributor John Brown commended a "touching epilogue in Savigneau's volume" that "bids Carson a moving farewell, praising her 'mad desire to stay alive, to live, and to write'—fitting final words for this admirable and eminently readable celebration of Carson McCullers as an artist and as a person."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, April 9, 2001, Gerald T. Cobb, "Lonely Lula," p. 40.
American Scholar, autumn, 1994, Ann M. Begley, "Grande Dame."
Atlantic Monthly, April, 2001, Frances Kiernan, review of Carson McCullers: A Life, pp. 100-102.
Belles Lettres, spring, 1994, L. Peat O'Neil, review of Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life, p. 21.
Book, March, 2001, Penelope Mesic, review of Carson McCullers, p. 75.
Booklist, February 1, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of Carson McCullers, p. 1035.
Lambda Book Report, March-April, 1994, Victoria Brownworth, review of Marguerite Yourcenar, p. 34.
Lesbian News, June, 2001.
Library Journal, August 1, 1993, p. 104; March 1, 2001, Jeris Cassel, review of Carson McCullers, p. 88.
M2 Best Books, January 15, 2002, Kevin Turner, review of Carson McCullers.
New Criterion, October, 1993, Maria Louise Ascher, review of Marguerite Yourcenar, p. 160.
New York Times Book Review, March 2, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "Portrait of a Troubled Writer as an Eternal Adolescent"; March 11, 2001.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1993, review of Maguerite Yourcenar, p. 73; January 1, 2001, review of Carson McCullers, p. 74.
Times Literary Supplement, January 19, 1996; April 26, 2002, Evelyn Toynton, "A Female Capote?"
Washington Post Book World, February 25, 2001, Jonathan Yardley, review of Carson McCullers, p. 2.
Wilson Quarterly, spring, 2001, Michael Malone, review of Carson McCullers, p. 117.
World Literature Today, summer, 1991; winter, 2002, John L. Brown, review of Carson McCullers, p. 160.*