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the Complete Review
the complete review - interview

With Open Eyes

Marguerite Yourcenar
with Matthieu Galey

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the authors

To purchase With Open Eyes

Title: With Open Eyes
Author: Marguerite Yourcenar
Genre: Interview
Written: 1980 (Eng. 1984)
Length: 314 pages
Original in: French
Availability: With Open Eyes - US
With Open Eyes - UK
With Open Eyes - Canada
Les yeux ouverts - Canada
Les yeux ouverts - France
Ad occhi aperti - Italia
Con los ojos abiertos - España
  • Conversations with Matthieu Galey
  • French title: Les yeux ouverts
  • Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a very good introduction to the author and her work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 18/7/1985 D.A.N.Jones
Modern Fiction Studies A+ (31:2) Summer/1985 Alfred Cismaru
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/12/1985 Mavis Gallant
The NY Times . 27/12/1984 John Gross
World Lit. Today A Spring/1982 Bettina L. Knapp

  From the Reviews:
  • "With Open Eyes is an engaging introduction to her work, imbued with an unexpected spirit of comedy, rather like Boswell’s life of Johnson -- for Mme Yourcenar, like Johnson, is a weighty and judicial writer, contemplating many eras and continents, while Matthieu Galey is a journalist determined to ask ‘Just exactly how do you feel ?’ about the issues of the day. (...) She is not uncivil but I lost count of the number of times she said no to his suggestions." - D.A.N.Jones, London Review of Books

  • "Yourcenar is allowed the time and the space to explain, to elaborate, to give examples, and to cover each subject at hand without restrictions or constrictions imposed upon her from outside. interruptions are kept at a minimum, and the deepest fibers of the writer emerge naturally and effortlessly, as if a monologue were taking place, almost as if no one else were present. (...) A superb book." - Alfred Cismaru, Modern Fiction Studies

  • "Sometimes you feel that the gloom is overdone, or too facile, but no doubt she would retort that such a reaction is complacent. At any rate, her views are all of a piece -- those of a liberal and a humanitarian who believes that "the social problem is more important than the political problem," and whose deepest public concerns tend to be cultural and ecological. It is not for such matters that most readers are likely to turn to these interviews, however, but for the light they throw on the author's personality and on her writing. And here they will not be disappointed. (...) (T)he gossipy detail is less important than the feeling of being brought into contact with a quite exceptional woman -- someone who can be flinty and intimidating when serious issues are at stake, but who also goes a long way toward embodying her own ideal of "intelligent sympathy."" - John Gross, The New York Times

  • "Les yeux ouverts, more like an inner monologue or a conversation than a dialogue, allows the reader to experience the fascinating world of Yourcenar's intellect and psyche. Matthieu Galey's questions are willfully succinct, each a catalyst encouraging Yourcenar to reveal her private thoughts (.....) Les yeux ouverts, like an exquisitely woven tapestry, allows us to follow its pattern, coloration, linear arrangement, each aspect of a rich and fulfilled existence spent in the timeless and dimensionless realm of the mind and the senses." - Bettina L. Knapp, World Literature Today

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:

       Though billed as: 'Conversations with Matthieu Galey', With Open Eyes is a book-length collection of interviews with author Marguerite Yourcenar, Galey posing short questions or making short observations and Yourcenar then addressing them, generally at some length. (The French original has the clearer 'entretiens' for 'conversations'.)
       The book is divided into some thirty chapters, each dedicated to a different subject, proceeding first mostly chronologically -- from 'Childhood' and 'Education' through an 'Interlude' (1939-1948, the period when she: "renounced all literary ambition") and her work on various major works --, to also then chapters on more general subjects, including racism, feminism, and politics more generally. The chapter-divisions give a basic shape to the interview, but even as the focus shifts from one chapter to the next connections are drawn throughout and especially her work (Memoirs of Hadrian, above all) is referred to in many of the different contexts. (So also the title is taken from Memoirs of Hadrian, the full quote being: "Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes".)
       With Open Eyes offers a good introduction to Yourcenar's life, from her rather solitary childhood -- her mother died shortly after she was born, and she says of her father that he was: "very good but hardly a father. Just a gentleman somewhat older than I was" -- to life on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where she spent the last four decades or so of her life. (The conversations with Galey also took place here.)
       Yourcenar was a reader from early on -- reading Aristophanes' The Birds and Phèdre at age eight (admitting she didn't understand: "the plot, the moral" of The Birds). She did not attend school but was taught at home -- starting on Latin at age ten and Greek at twelve. She was not particularly close to her family, except her father, whom, however, she seemed to largely treat as an older equal, rather than a parent-figure. Among the amusing titbits from her youth: she wrote and published some poetry, and sent her early poems to Rabindranath Tagore, who responded: "inviting me to come to his university, Santiniketan, in India. But in those days a seventeen-year-old girl did not leave her family and run off to India" -- something she expresses some regret about ("My life would have been different. I would have lived among different people. Would I have reached the place where I am now, or not ? Who knows ?").
       It's always interesting to see what authors influenced a writer. Yourcenar notes that she read very little French fiction in her earlier adolescence: "It was not until later, when I was almost fifteen, that I began to read everything". As her predecessors, she names: "perhaps Yeats, Swinburne, and D'Annunzio" -- but: "My enthusiasm was reserved mainly for the seventeenth-century and Renaissance poets". Among the works she particularly singles out is The Tale of Genji, going so far as to say: "Nothing better has ever been written in any language"
       Yourcenar moved to the United States and for a decade: "gave no thought to writing". She was a teacher some of this time, at Sarah Lawrence -- and was not impressed, observing that:

Very little knowledge was conveyed to the students. I found that they came to so-called higher education so ill informed that everything they were taught remained vague, without moorings. I found myself discussing the Chinese theater when many of the students had not read Shakespeare or Shaw. [...] Many were so exclusively interested in the latest fashions that they were actually illiterate. The students, adolescents, lacked the firm basis of knowledge on which they might have built later on.
       Yourcenar did go live on an island, and admits to the remove it made for; amusingly, she acknowledges:
As for the United States itself, I still don't know the country well enough, even after forty years, to hazard a judgment.
       (She also condemns television, admitting -- and this is around 1980 -- that she doesn't own a TV.)
       There is some talk of dreams, the supernatural, and drug use, with Yourcenar open to some ideas but on the whole very well grounded. Among her nicest observations comes when considering the question of spiritualism:
Let me hasten to add that however far experimentation of this sort may take us (and the real question is where such experiments can take us), it seems to me rather futile to attempt to communicate with the dead when, as things now stand, we communicate so poorly with the living.
       As to drugs, she puts it nicely:
G What do you think of people who "trip" on drugs ?

Y I am against anything that is artificial. In my opinion the mind must act on its own, in accordance with its own laws, without crutches, and most definitely without stilts.
       Yourcenar also translated a number of works -- not least, Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Yourcenar reached out to Woolf -- "As a conscientious translator, I said to myself, Go and ask her what she wants me to do, ask how she would like me to translate her book" -- but Woolf merely told her: "Do whatever you like". (Yourcenar notes: "That didn't get me very far, but at least I had seen her".)
       Of course, With Open Eyes is of greatest interest for the insight it offers into Yourcenar's own work -- and there is a lot of that here, from discussion of the creative process to the choice of later revisiting and revising works, to the reception of the works.
       The more general questions, especially the more political ones, are, to some extent, also very much of the period when Yourcenar and Galey were speaking and so dated in some respects, but especially with her more general observations, Yourcenar still offers some insightful and often well-expressed remarks -- even at their most general, such as in noting that: "On moral questions we can expect unreason to rear its head again and again".
       Galey is a good interviewer, deeply knowledgeable about his subject and using that familiarity with biography and work to comfortably lead Yourcenar across a wide terrain. Often, his questions are not much more than prompts, allowing Yourcenar to build easily off of them; even what back and forth of dialogue occasionally comes up -- Galey reacting to Yourcenar's responses and looking for more elaboration -- is driven largely by Yourcenar. Admirably, Galey does not impose himself greatly, instead just trying to lead Yourcenar down into and through the different areas of interest, loosely shaping the conversation but not forcing himself into it beyond what is necessary.
       Certainly, familiarity with Yourcenar's work is helpful, but With Open Eyes is more than just supplement and crib to these, and Yourcenar herself a fascinating enough figure that it can be enjoyed even by those who have not read her work. As for anyone who has already taken greater interest in Yourcenar and her writing, this is an excellent background-volume, certainly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2022

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With Open Eyes: Reviews: Marguerite Yourcenar: Other books by Marguerite Yourcenar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       French author Marguerite Yourcenar lived 1903 to 1987.

       French writer and literary critic Matthieu Galey lived 1934 to 1986.

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© 2022 the complete review

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