Like Yourcenar’s previous works, The Abyss re-creates an era, with its particular modes of thinking and being. The action occurs between 1510 and 1569 in Europe, mainly in the Belgian city of Bruges, and is divided into three parts, the first two echoing each other (“Wandering Life” and “Immobile Life”) and the third (“The Prison”) describing the site of the hero’s last months and serving as a metaphor for his body and the world.
Zeno, whose name is the same as the Greek philosopher’s and whose name is associated with “zero” and “no,” learned ancient languages, natural sciences, and alchemy at a young age. He quickly realizes, however, that men and books lie. A universal man of the Renaissance, he invents a weaving machine, discusses the atoms of Epicurus and the proofs demonstrating God’s existence, and refuses a priori the authority of scholars. He is interested in geology and botany, medicine and surgery, and astronomy and metallurgy.
After some thirty years of wandering under assumed names, one step ahead of the Inquisition, he returns to Bruges, where he becomes a physician at a hospital run by Franciscans. The good and learned prior of the Franciscans and Zeno have daily conversations about religion and questions of faith as well as about the deteriorating situation in Flanders, repression of the patriots, and the torture and killing of Protestants and Catholics alike. Thus, the prior’s Christian...
(The entire section is 500 words.)