Two Lives and a Dream, which includes three of Yourcenar’s novellas, was originally published in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart). The English version I read was translated by Walter Kaiser and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The first two stories in the collection An Obscure Man and A Lovely Morning take place in mid 17th century Amsterdam and England and describe the rough and turbulent lives of a man named Nathanaël and his illegitimate son named Lazarus. My first impression of Yourcenar’s writing is that she was a master storyteller, especially in the genre of historical fiction.
We are introcuded to the character of Nathanaël in An Obscure Man with a description of his childhood in Greenwich, England to which place his Dutch parents have emigrated and live in a small community of expats. Nathanaël was “weak chested and afflicted with a slight lameness” so he was not sent to work on the docks with his father and his brothers. Instead he becomes an assistant to the town’s schoolmaster who educates him and teaches him Latin, which skill will come in very handy later in his life. As a teenager, Nathanaël falls in love with Janet, an apprentice to a tapestry maker, whom he defends against the violent advances of a local drunk. When Nathanaël fears that he has killed the intoxicated man he stows away on a ship bound for the Caribbean and later the primitive wilderness of Maine and Canada. When the rest of his crew perishes in a shipwreck off the coast of Canada, Nathanaël is saved by an older couple and their daughter, Foy, with whom he falls in love. Their life in the wilds of the New World is harsh as it is difficult to live such a primitive existence. But his time in this wilderness, with its simplicity and his uncomplicated love for Foy, comprise some of the happiest moments in his life.
After spending two years in the New World, Nathanaël loses Foy to consumption so he decides to make his way back to England and then to Amsterdam where he works for his uncle as a proofreader in his printing business. One night he meets a prostitute named Sarai in a local tavern and their sexual connection leads him to believe that he loves her. But he learns that Sarai is a liar and a thief and when she becomes pregnant he wonders if the child, a boy named Lazarus, is really his. Nathanaël eventually loses contact with Sarai and his son and he becomes a valet in the home of a wealthy politician. Throughout the story, Nathanaël’s health worsens as he is prone to fits of coughing and fever. His master sends him to the Frisian islands in the hopes that Nathanaël will regain his strength, but instead he dies alone on this island among the waves of the sea and the nesting, peaceful birds.
Nathanaël’s life is always in flux as the story moves from one interesting episode in this obsure man’s life to the next in rapid succession. One of the few constants in his life is death and loss. Death Drives the Cart would certainly be a fitting title for this collection had Yourcenar chosen to keep it. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a short book with so many death scenes. But Yourcenar uses this theme to reflect on the value of life, which actually serves to make the book uplifting and even thought provoking. Even though Nathanaël has endured the brutal hardships of an average, obscure man in the 17th century, every where he turns he encounters the kindness of others. A dying Jesuit priest, Foy’s parents, a coworker, an employer all demonstrate to him that kindness is not hard to come by in this world. And Nathanaël himself develops into a kind and compassionate man—he once saves a puppy from being fed to a lion which is a unique example of his good character. A Lovely Morning, the very short sequel to Nathanaël’s story shows that this kindness is extended to his son who escapes the streets of Amsterdam by being invited by generous strangers to act in a traveling theater group.
As Nathanaël is dying on the Frisian island, he takes stock of his life and decides that overall he has been a good and decent man. His tolerance for all people, regardless of race or religion, is a perfect example of how we all ought to live and is a timely message of tolerance that counters the violence and disgusting display of bigotry demonstrated by hate groups in my country this weekend. I will end with an apt quote from Yourcenar that includes some of Nathanaël’s thoughts during the last few hours of his life:
People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth the wind has sown in it. Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God. Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer to one another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks and works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.