(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Abyss is the story of one man’s devotion to truth. As Zeno relentlessly searches for knowledge, vast historical forces—Catholicism and Protestantism, France and the Holy Roman Empire, agrarianism and commercialism—turn Reformation Europe into a bloodbath. Marguerite Yourcenar’s careful documentation adds to this continent-sized clash between dissidence and dogma a great sense of period realism.

The story opens in 1530. Henry Maximilian Ligre runs into Zeno outside Dranoutre, Henry Justus Ligre’s Belgian country estate, and the two discuss plans. At sixteen, Henry Maximilian is planning to serve with King Francis I. At twenty, Zeno is leaving to study alchemy in Spain. Both have abandoned the merchant House of Ligre. Henry Maximilian has chosen war, poetry, and women. Zeno has chosen a rendezvous with himself.

A flashback recalls Zeno’s youth. His father, Alberico, was a friend of Michelangelo and prelate to Cesare Borgia. While staying with Henry Justus,his business agent in Bruges, he is smitten with Hilzonda. He later abandons her when she becomes pregnant with Zeno.

Alberico, a Roman cardinal by age thirty, is killed in an orgy. Simon Adriansen then courts Hilzonda. Zeno learns the classics from Canon Campanus and medicine from Jan Myers, and designs the mechanical looms used in the Ligre workshops. At the School of Theology in Louvain, Zeno comes to disdain dogma. His summer vacations are spent at Dranoutre, where his best moments are passed in alchemical speculations on the changing color of the leaves and the combustion of charcoal. He pities the numerous religious sects he sees forming and wishes to renounce his clerical vows.

One evening at Dranoutre, Henry Justus mounts a royal reception for Marguerite of Austria, who is there to ask for a loan. Henry Justus’ weavers interrupt the festivities to request a raise and a pardon for their foreman, who has destroyed the looms. Henry Justus grants the loan, but no raise or pardon. Zeno, equally disgusted by the cynicism of the high life and the technophobia of the low life, departs in search of another critical mind. He will remain underground for the next twenty years.

Simon and Hilzonda are married and move to Munster, where they help found an Anabaptist City of God. A joint Catholic and Protestant army lays the city to siege. Inside, a mountebank proclaims himself God, executes the underzealous, and takes seventeen wives. The troops overrun the city and resume executions. Simon returns from a fund-raising expedition to find his wife beheaded. On his...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)