The Petite Plaisance house, which the author also nicknamed “the cell of self-knowledge.”

Marguerite Yourcenar
ISLAND REFUGE

The Petite Plaisance house, which the author also nicknamed “the cell of self-knowledge.”

Jordan Pond.

Jordan Pond.

Some of the shelves of Yourcenar’s library, which contains 7,000 books.
Scandal, eau de parfum poudrée, nichée dans un écrin de velours Jean Paul Gaultier
Trail in Acadia National Park, a refuge on Mount Desert Island.

Trail in Acadia National Park, a refuge on Mount Desert Island.

Path leading to Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse on the southern tip of the island.

Y comme y compris Tout laisser derrière soi, y compris sa bibliothèque. Et faire feu de tout bois, y compris les anecdotes, les légendes. Collecter les histoires de la route, y compris des gestes, y compris des instants1.

1. Locus Solus passe pour un «livre amorphe et déconcertant décri(vant) minutieusement les curiosités abracadabrantes de la villa du savant Canterel», cf. François Caradec, Raymond Roussel, Fayard, 1997.

Y is for yes Leave everything behind. Including your library? Yes. Try anything and everything. Anecdotes, legends? Yes. Collect stories along the way. Gestures too? Yes. Moments? Yes.1

1. Locus Solus has been described as an “amorphous, somewhat bewildering book describing in detail the outlandish curiosities of the scientist Canterel’s villa.” Quoted by François Caradec in Raymond Roussel (Fayard, 1997).

The writer’s Olympia typewriter, in its travel case.

The writer’s Olympia typewriter, in its travel case.

Joan E. Howard, who welcomes visitors to Petite Plaisance every summer.

Joan E. Howard, who welcomes visitors to Petite Plaisance every summer.

From the top of South Bubble Mountain, view over Jordan Pond and Cranberry Isles.

From the top of South Bubble Mountain, view over Jordan Pond and Cranberry Isles.

The famous Maine lobster, at Beal’s, in Southwest Harbor.

The famous Maine lobster, at Beal’s, in Southwest Harbor.

On the road between Boston and Mount Desert Island.

Y comme y compris Tout laisser derrière soi, y compris sa bibliothèque. Et faire feu de tout bois, y compris les anecdotes, les légendes. Collecter les histoires de la route, y compris des gestes, y compris des instants1.

1. Locus Solus passe pour un «livre amorphe et déconcertant décri(vant) minutieusement les curiosités abracadabrantes de la villa du savant Canterel», cf. François Caradec, Raymond Roussel, Fayard, 1997.

Y is for yes Leave everything behind. Including your library? Yes. Try anything and everything. Anecdotes, legends? Yes. Collect stories along the way. Gestures too? Yes. Moments? Yes.1

1. Locus Solus has been described as an “amorphous, somewhat bewildering book describing in detail the outlandish curiosities of the scientist Canterel’s villa.” Quoted by François Caradec in Raymond Roussel (Fayard, 1997).

Frenchman Bay, near Bar Harbor, the main port on Mount Desert Island.

Frenchman Bay, near Bar Harbor, the main port on Mount Desert Island.

Dee Dee Wilson, Marguerite Yourcenar’s neighbor, who was also her nurse.

Dee Dee Wilson, Marguerite Yourcenar’s neighbor, who was also her nurse.

One of the bedrooms at Petite Plaisance, just as it used to be.

One of the bedrooms at Petite Plaisance, just as it used to be.

In the garden, which the writer sometimes called “Grande Plaisance.”

A comme Afrique. Impressions d’Afrique Avec un peu d’imagination, avec quelques accessoires aussi, avec une allée et des palmes, la Sicile, c’est aussi l’Afrique. Il ne s’agit pas d’arpenter la ville. Ailleurs est ce qui arrive.

A as in Africa: Impressions of Africa With a bit of imagination and a few accessories, such as a path and some palms, Sicily can also be Africa. You don’t have to amble all over the city. Afar is what appears.

The author’s notebook, where she made an inventory of objects as they arrived in the house.

The author’s notebook, where she made an inventory of objects as they arrived in the house.

1

Y comme y compris Tout laisser derrière soi, y compris sa bibliothèque. Et faire feu de tout bois, y compris les anecdotes, les légendes. Collecter les histoires de la route, y compris des gestes, y compris des instants1.

1. Locus Solus passe pour un «livre amorphe et déconcertant décri(vant) minutieusement les curiosités abracadabrantes de la villa du savant Canterel», cf. François Caradec, Raymond Roussel, Fayard, 1997.

Y is for yes Leave everything behind. Including your library? Yes. Try anything and everything. Anecdotes, legends? Yes. Collect stories along the way. Gestures too? Yes. Moments? Yes.1

1. Locus Solus has been described as an “amorphous, somewhat bewildering book describing in detail the outlandish curiosities of the scientist Canterel’s villa.” Quoted by François Caradec in Raymond Roussel (Fayard, 1997).

Born in Belgium, raised in Europe and naturalized American, Marguerite Yourcenar loved pushing boundaries. But this globetrotter turned her home on Mount Desert Island, in Maine, into a literary haven where she penned Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss.

The urban sprawl of Boston gradually peters out. Interstate 95 cuts north, heading straight through the forest, which is so dense at times that the branches skim the roadside. Heading toward Canada for what seems like hours, then branching off toward the seashores of Maine. The green grows more invigorating, tinged with salt, narrow waterways jutting inland. A low bridge extending out of the pine forest points toward the island. At the end of this road, at the very roots of the United States, Belgian-born French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar dreamed and wrote her major works steeped in old Europe, fashioned by classic beauty and a whiff of the Orient. Should we see in this an inspiration, a contradiction, a literary device? Or rather one of those “extraordinary collisions of chance,”1 as the first woman elected to the Académie Française, naturalized American in 1947, liked to describe it. And if you’re relishing this brush with history, there’s also Mount Desert Island, which owes its name to French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who gazed at the island’s treeless mountaintops and named it “Île des Monts-Déserts,” or “island of the bare mountains,” three centuries earlier before Yourcenar set eyes on them.

North Atlantic anchorage

There was only a simple breeze that day, sheltered by large yews and oaks. Everything was gleaming: the bark that was still wet, the leafy branches of the trees, the granite boulders along the ponds. The village of Northeast Harbor, located on a tip of the island, is a settlement of cozy cottages with off-white or corn yellow siding. The buildings seem to have sprouted up amidst the impeccable lawns just like the purple blooms of the lilacs. Along the main street, two art galleries and a few lobster restaurants lie dormant. The traps are drying in the baking sun of the small port, two lawns below.

Anyone who comes to this tip of the peninsula has to know what they’re looking for: one block away from the coast, Yourcenar’s home is open to the public, but doesn’t declaim its existence. The light wood house, lower than the surrounding ones, bears a plaque that serves as an invitation. The words Petite Plaisance, wrought in iron, are planted in the ground. Like the owners of villas in Flanders, Yourcenar gave her dwelling a name. Repeated several times, it evokes the various aspects of the place: the modesty of a home base between travels, a place to moor when writing, the timeless loyalty of a country home.

It was the tumultuous events of the century that prompted Yourcenar to abandon a trip to Greece, in 1939, and brought her to New York and this corner of the world. It “looks vaguely like the Ardennes, I think, if only the Ardennes forests were by the seaside!”2 wrote the Brussels native. She spent a few summers vacationing here with her partner, her American translator Grace Frick, then finally purchased the white house in 1950, the year in which she completed Memoirs of Hadrian. “The landscape of my days,” she has the erudite emperor say, “appears to be composed, as in mountainous regions, of various materials heaped up pell-mell. There I see my nature, already composite, made up of equal parts of instinct and training.”3

The whisper of objects

Three bells are shaken over the door when you pull on a thick Indian bell rope. “Vous voici chez Madame.” There is only a hint of an American accent. Every summer, Joan E. Howard welcomes around 500 visitorsFrench, Belgians and Americans as well as Italians, Lebanese and Brazilianswho rarely arrive by accident. They enter the small hall as the nymph Pomona looks on, run their toes over the Oriental carpets, observe Hadrian’s profile engraved on a bronze coin, move aside a net curtain and let some light spill onto the engravings by Piranesi, check out the jars in the kitchen still marked with Yourcenar’s broad handwriting (flour, cocoa, melba toasts, raisins, brown sugar), peruse some of the 7,000 volumes in the library. It stretches from one period to another, beginning with antiquity in the office and ending with a flourish in the 20th century in the master bedroom, where Marcel Proust is lined up alongside Thomas Mann.

In one corner, some visual sources from The Abyss are pressed beneath a plastic cover: fragments of paintings, a detail from an altarpiece, alchemist tablesnovelistic secrets. Joan came to Petite Plaisance as a young PhD student, and has lots of stories to tell: the “parlor” that was open every Sunday for chitchat and tea, the staircase to the four bedrooms so steep that Yourcenar called it “Puritan,” the blueberry pies and Niçoise salads, birds fed crumbs in the morning... The thousands of images bring to life the intimate decor of paintings, books and statuettes, maintained for the past 30 years by a wide circle of friends, scholars and readers. This is how Yourcenar, who liked to plan out her posterity, wanted it to be.

Time and nature

Time may have stopped in 1987, but the only thing museum-like about the house is its calm. It lives and breathes, filled with new people every season, creaking beneath the feet of strangers. A washing machine hums somewhere behind a wall, the breeze still wafts through the screens on the windows, and books are opened up again. Yet Dee Dee Wilson, a neighbor, will never sit in “Marguerite’s chair” with its plaid blanket. The 87-year-old former nurse, who took care of Frick to begin with, draws herself up, straightens her shoulders and deepens her voice to imitate her somewhat daunting protegé. Yourcenar, a Latin scholar, spoke to her in flawless English, but “what an accent!”

A cloud passes by, and the half-lit living room fills with cool air from the woods. The wood-chip paths winding among the ferns, the Japanese lantern on the moss and the hollowed-out stones that serve as birdbaths give it a exotic air. “It is a sign of good will (even faith) vis à vis the future to plant trees,”4 Yourcenar believed, incorporating a meditative love of nature into her brand of humanism and actively protecting the wide expanses of her new continent. Was she thinking of the traveler, sitting near the hawthorn tree with its tiny blossoms, lulled by the same evening light, experiencing the same fleeting eternity carried in its boughs? The author believed that the American land was reluctant to preserve any trace of human memory. So perhaps, after she’s gone, “these great landscapes will close back up again, unperturbed, with just another secret stashed in the depths of their indifference.”5 As you close the trembling wooden gate, best not to look back.

The visitors observe the engravings by Piranesi, check out the jars in the kitchen still marked with Yourcenar’s broad handwriting.

1. How Many Years, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

2. 4. 5. Lettres à ses amis et quelques autres, Gallimard, coll. Folio.

3. Memoirs of Hadrian, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A place to write

The room wivth its polished floorboards was never really called an office. Marguerite Yourcenar preferred to call it “the studio.” The word conjures up a peaceful space for study, an artist’s workshop. A small bathroom was installed next door, which visitors were allowed to use. The doorway between the settee with its comfortable cushions and the bookcase reveals a glimpse of the foot of a white bathtub. The gentle light did not dazzle when it fell on the page. In the afternoon, lamps had to be lit. Under the beautiful face of Antinous from Delphi, Yourcenar shared the single table with Grace Frick: two green seats, two blotters facing each other. You can just imagine the clicking of the two typewriters, which were almost touching. That of the novelist, an Olympia, slumbers in its case still covered with luggage labels. She wrote wherever she was, without any ritual. “At any moment, she could go back to a notebook left open,” recalls the French-Argentine writer Silvia Baron Supervielle, who visited in 1984. “Her work always seemed to be in progress.”

Lindenwood Inn

Hospitality here is not so much the result of the (exemplary) comfort, the charm of the 15 rooms (all different) or the heated pool (a few meters from the ocean). Rather it’s to do with a discreet combination of details that create a feeling of being at home. Details like the long veranda where you can listen to the oaks rustling, the wooden stairs lined with watercolors and the smell of coffee rising up through the floors in the morning. Every day, Esther invents a new breakfast (French toast with blueberries, apple raisin bread pudding...). The timbers of this house full of guestrooms seem imbued with the peacefulness of its port location in the southwest of the island, appropriately dubbed “the quiet side” by its inhabitants.

LINDENWOOD INN

118 Clark Point Road, Southwest Harbor.
Tél. +1 207 244 5335.

www.lindenwoodinn.com
The group Aline on stage at the Ubu.

Next

Rennes:
front and center

Going There

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FLIGHT FREQUENCY

AIR FRANCE has three daily fights to Boston from Paris-CDG, including one fight operated on a code-share basis with Delta.

KLM has two daily fights to Boston from Amsterdam operated on a code-share basis with Delta.

ARRIVAL AIRPORT

Aéroport international
de Boston-Logan.

À 4 km de Boston.
À 386 km du Maine.
Tél. +1 800 235 6426.

AIR FRANCE KLM OFFICES

À l’aéroport.

BOOKINGS

— Depuis la France :
Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

CAR RENTAL

Hertz, à l'aéroport.
Tél. +1 617 568 5200.
www.aifrance.fr/cars

À PLACE TO VISIT

— Petite Plaisance.
La maison est ouverte de juin à septembre sur rendez-vous.
June to Sept., by appointment.

Northeast Harbor.
Tél. +1 207 276 3940.
www.petiteplaisanceconservationfund.org

— Cimetière de Brookside.
A few kilometers away, just after Somesville Stream.

FURTHER READING

L’oeuvre complète de Marguerite Yourcenar est publiée aux éditions Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque de La Pléiade (2 tomes) et Folio.

Marguerite Yourcenar, l’invention d’une vie Josyane Savigneau, Gallimard, coll. Folio.

Une reconstitution passionnelle, correspondance 1980-1987 Silvia Baron Supervielle, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gallimard.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Joan E. Howard, Jayne Persson, Shirley McGarr, Dee Dee Wilson, Silvia Baron Supervielle et Josyane Savigneau.

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Carte illustrative, non contractuelle Map for illustration purposes only