Friday, January 11, 2013

Marilyn Yalom

Marilyn Yalom was educated at Wellesley College, the Sorbonne, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has been a professor of French and comparative literature, director of an institute for research on women, a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, and the author of numerous books and articles on literature and women's history. In 1991 she was decorated as an Officier des Palmes Académiques by the French Government.

Yalom's books include Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness, Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory, A History of the Breast, A History of the Wife, Birth of the Chess Queen, The American Resting Place, and How the French Invented Love: 900 Years of Passion and Romance (2012).

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Yalom's reply:
Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great lives up to its best-selling hype. It really is meticulously researched, artfully crafted, and immediately compelling. Surprisingly, this massive biography reads like a novel seen from the point of view of its heroine, the very great Catherine, who comes across as exceedingly human, even approachable, as she ascends to power and learns to command a vast empire. Massie seems to have entered into her skin and given her voice.

Unlike many other rulers, male and female, Catherine left behind a treasure trove of personal as well as state documents. Written in French, Russian, and her native German, these documents give us rare access into Catherine’s mind as she corresponded with French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, as she beckoned her lovers in intimate missives, and as she took it upon herself to write a new set of laws for her empire. How this offspring of minor German nobility made her way to Russia as a teenager, was married off to the hapless heir to the Russian crown, learned Russian, changed her religion from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, got rid of her husband and replaced him, and then ruled successfully for almost four decades makes for a gripping, sprawling, exciting epic.

As a female monarch, Catherine ranks right up there with Elizabeth I of England, and was arguably even more influential than Cleopatra, Maria-Theresa of Austria, and Queen Victoria—all legendary rulers. Several years ago, when I was writing Birth of the Chess Queen, I discovered that Catherine, like Elizabeth I, was a fine chess player, and it was because of her renown that the chess queen ultimately made its way onto the Russian chess board. Whereas other European nations had been using the chess queen as a replacement for the Arabic vizier since the year 1000, it took the Russians 800 years longer to allow a female figure onto the board. Had it not been for Catherine, the Russians might still be playing chess with all masculine or animal figures. It’s high time for another major female figure to make her way into the Russian political scene!
Visit Marilyn Yalom's website.

Yalom's How the French Invented Love is one of Publishers Weekly's top nonfiction books of 2012.

--Marshal Zeringue