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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Coup de Grâce

Marguerite Yourcenar

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To purchase Coup de Grâce

Title: Coup de Grâce
Author: Marguerite Yourcenar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1939 (Eng. 1957)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Coup de Grâce - US
Coup de Grâce - UK
Coup de Grâce - Canada
Le Coup de Grâce - Canada
Coup de Grâce - India
Le Coup de Grâce - France
Der Fangschuß - Deutschland
Il colpo di grazia - Italia
El tiro de gracia - España
DVD Coup de Grâce - US
  • French title: Le Coup de Grâce
  • With a Preface by the author
  • Translated by Grace Frick, in collaboration with the author
  • Coup de Grâce was made into a film in 1976, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, and starring Margarethe von Trotta and Matthias Habich

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Our Assessment:

A- : strong story of passions in extremis

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 18/7/1985 D.A.N. Jones
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/12/1985 Mavis Gallant
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/7/1957 Carlos Baker
Sunday Times . 24/1/1993 .
TLS . 22/11/1957 Julian Symons

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) brief masterwork, to be classed among European short fiction with Joseph Roth's Hotel Savoy" - Mavis Gallant, The New York Review of Books

  • "Elegant and emotionally intense, this novella has the anecdotal perfection of a good short story." - Sunday Times

  • "The attitude of mind implied in Coup de Grâce has come as a disconcerting surprise to many who admired Mme.Yourcenar's remarkable feat of imaginative reconstruction, Memoirs of Hadrian; yet this short novel is again, in its altogether different way, conceived and executed with extraordinary skill. (...) Mme.Yourcenar's particular achievement here is to make us most powerfully conscious of Kratovitsy in its grandeur and decay" - Julian Symons, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Coup de Grâce begins with a short chapter introducing Erick von Lhomond, a German soldier who had fought in the Russian Civil War -- in Kurland, in the Baltics -- as well as in Manchuria and most recently under Franco in Spain. Now injured -- presumably in the Saragossa Offensive of 1937 --, waiting for his train taking him back to (now Hitler's) Germany, he offers an: "interminable confession which he was making, in reality, to no one but himself"; the rest of the novel is then that first-person account of events from some fifteen years earlier.
       Erick was too young to fight in the First World War, but the Russian Civil War came just right for the youngster dreaming of becoming a "young Bonaparte"; his: "hostility to the Bolsheviks was a matter of caste" and circumstances made it easy for him to take up the White Russian cause, in the Baltic backwoods of Kratovitsky, in Kurland. He has a buddy there, Conrad --- "a fixed point, a center, a heart" in his otherwise unsettled life. As childhood friends they had frolicked about, and while Erick beats around the bush a bit, he makes it clear enough that much of Conrad's appeal to him was sexual. So, for example:

     There was no lack of girls, either, in that northern Eden isolated in the midst of war: Conrad would gladly have attached himself to their colorful skirts had I not treated all such fancies with scorn.
       Conrad has a sister, too -- dismissively referred to only as "the young girl" in his first mentions; indeed, Erick explicitly states: "she did not count". Still, it's impossible to entirely ignore her, and a more mature Erick mentions feeling paternal to her; then, when he returns from military training and his first forays into battle, having convinced his superiors to let him set up a small command back at Kratovitsky, he embraces her as the sister he never had. Sophie has other ideas, falling madly in love with him.
       Erick is not thrilled by this sort of attention -- especially in these close quarters
Between Sophie and me an intimacy swiftly sprang up like between victim and executioner.
       Their contrast in experience is striking: Sophie's peck when Erick returned to set up base in Kratovitsky was his: "first kiss from a young girl" (though they're the same age); she, meanwhile, had already been raped by a drunk officer. She also seems blind to the exact nature of his attachment to her brother (though he does remain very coy about this). They're all still terribly young -- barely out of their teens, if that -- but they're trying to play adult roles which they've been thrust into by the circumstances and aren't entirely ready for. Sophie is, by default, the mistress of the house and Erick plays at his military nonsense.
       It's not quite so simple that Sophie merely becomes wise to what's up with Erick; the dynamics between them are and remain much more complicated. So also when Sophie turns her attentions to other men: Erick can't help but feel jealous -- and, for example:
     Occasionally I still knocked at her door at night, merely to humiliate myself with the assurance that she was not alone.
       Erick does feel some attraction to Sophie -- admiring how, as she dances: "she could glide like a swan, sway like a flower, and twirl like a flame" -- but falters horribly in the moments when he could change the course they're on. He even mulls over marrying her -- even finding a part of him that: "warmed to the thought of a snowy white bosom, as most men do" (though he realizes that part of him is buried pretty deep behind his true nature).
       Erick easily manages to make every bad situation with Sophie worse -- acknowledging that the: "insolent, dull-witted cad" lurking within reared his ugly head at exactly the wrong moments --, and finally she abandons him and Kratovitsky. Erick, whose nature precludes him from involvement with a woman, suddenly faces a similar situation with Sophie, as she embraces the enemy's cause (with Erick failing to stop her, as he has several opportunities to do). Ideologically completely at odds, the two can now doubly never be together.
       Their fates nevertheless remain hopelessly entwined, and Yourcenar mercilessly leads Erick to the story's inevitable, horrible conclusion. Each has, in a sense, the upper hand; each does what is necessary -- but the result is, of course, the complete destruction of both these human beings. There's little grace to the final, shattering coup de grâce.
       With its unpleasant protagonist -- not that he paints himself attractively -- and horrible turns, Coup de Grâce is an almost absurdly anti-romantic tale. With Conrad barely registering -- Erick's weakness, but a weak and hardly inspiring figure -- and Sophie's other flings anything but heartfelt, love is barely in the air. Only Sophie's wild passion impresses -- but that too only proves self- and otherwise destructive. Add in the depressing depiction of war (if one can even call it that) as it is fought on this front, and the result is a stirring and chillingly atmospheric but dark, dark tale.
       It's very nicely done -- even as there's little nice about almost any part of this story. Recommended -- as long as readers know what they'll be facing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 January 2014

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Coup de Grâce: Reviews: Coup de Grâce - the film: Marguerite Yourcenar: Other books by Marguerite Yourcenar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Marguerite Yourcenar lived 1903 to 1987.

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