Historical novels that can be recommended without reservation to students of history, literature, and philosophy alike, as well as to the general reader, are rare. Marguerite Yourcenar’s excellence in this genre was announced by Hadrian’s Memoirs; The Abyss confirms her reputation. None of the usual weaknesses of the form appear here: the historical research, covering most of Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century, could be used as a historical text of persons, events, ideas, and attitudes; the characters are fully rounded; the subplots are neatly interwoven, and the thematic concerns are universal humanistic questions about the nature of man, of man’s relationship to other men, and his ultimate relationship to higher powers (State, Church, his Creator) which control his free will. Using the traditional formula of the education of a young man and of life as a pilgrimage, Yourcenar makes the reader aware of the co-existence of past and present in the modern world; of shifting power bases, customs, values, and beliefs; and of the unchanging nature of basic human concerns.
In the richly panoramic tapestry of this novel, two groups of men stand out, the businessmen and the Churchmen; and the unfeeling businessmen come out worse for the comparison. Henry Justus Ligre’s self-satisfaction is primarily in the luxuries he can buy and the power he holds over the princes of this world because of his money. He admires only other men who wield similar power, such as Martin Fuggers of Germany, to whom he sends his son, Philibert, to learn the “finer points” of banking. Philibert, in turn, schemes to replace both men, using the money to achieve even greater power and prestige. Humane concerns matter little to any of these men: when the Black Plague comes, Fuggers locks himself in his office to avoid contamination, even though his wife and daughter are infected. The deaths of both interfere only briefly with plans to merge the Ligre and the Fuggers households. Later in life, Philibert is depicted as acting coolly to his older brother, and refusing to help Zeno, Martha’s half-brother, because helping might be awkward for his financial and social status. The only one of these prosperous banker-businessmen to show any concern for the human heart and spirit is Simon Andriansen, whose understanding words help Henry Justus’ sister, Hilzonda, recover from the repulsion she feels for herself and her body for having an affair with an Italian prelate which resulted in an illegitimate son. Later, their marriage is happy and serene, completed by the birth of a daughter, and their riches, even their home, shared with the poor. Unfortunately, Simon errs in becoming too concerned with the spiritual; he and his family sell all and set out for Münster to establish the City of God on this earth with the Anabaptists. Hilzonde, spiritually crazed and physically degraded, is executed at the end of the siege; Simon, arriving three days later, dies of heartbreak. Only their daughter is left.
Of all the characters in the novel, none is as totally without feeling as Philibert Ligre; none shares the fanaticism of the Anabaptist Andriansen, either. The first churchman encountered, Alberico de’ Numi, impetuous, handsome, and lusty, first finds advancement at the court of the Borgias. When he suddenly decides upon a life of a scholarly ascetic, he seems to disavow ambition. But later, he decides to become a “prince” of the Church. To collect money for his advancement, he goes to Bruges, where, instead of money, he finds love. He seduces Hilzonda, and leaves her at an hour’s notice from a de Medici cousin that advancement is possible in Italy. In contrast, the Prior of the Cordeliers of Bruges, Jean Louis de Berlaimont, is presented as an ideal churchman, intelligent, righteous, wise, and compassionate in his talks with Zeno, who is running the Hospice under an assumed identity. It is Zeno’s devotion to the Prior that keeps him in Bruges when he recognizes that he should flee; it is the Prior’s dying words that reveal the depth of his danger to Zeno and reveal to him that the Prior has known who he really is, and has protected him from Church warrants for his arrest as a heretic. Within the Prior’s monastery, however, there are men hungry for power and young lusty fools, such as Cyprian—many men not the spiritual equal of their leader. The depiction of the Bishop of Bruges is ambivalent: he seems open-minded and generous in his conversations with Zeno and his offer of clemency, but he is actually using the trial for furthering his own interests. Canon Campanus, having been Zeno’s first instructor in theology, letters, and alchemy, as well as his uncle, proves to be the only one who truly cares about Zeno’s body or soul. The poignancy of their final parting, their inability to communicate their real feelings to each other, is memorable. The churchmen, then, fare better than the bankers.
Next to this view of the Catholic churchmen, the almost complete depravity and insanity of the Anabaptist reformers in Münster seems worse. The depiction of Hans Bockhold’s egotism, seen in his lust and in the rotting food left in his cellar while he throws handfuls of grain to his starving followers, stumbling over frozen corpses, is powerfully and economically written. Yourcenar’s psychological analysis of these people also makes the reader understand and sympathize with what they did. The Catholic Bishop’s siege on the town and the executions and torture that follow his victory, are no less dismaying than the actions of the Anabaptists. Nor are the cruelties of the Inquisition in the torturing of witnesses or the executions by burning at the stake—two examples from the book that summarize all the other horrors described and mentioned. Other scenes memorable for their grisly horror include the burning of the young Adamite cultists and the execution of Idelette, who, because of her high social...
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