The Abyss

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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...

(The entire section is 2426 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In The Abyss, Marguerite Yourcenar combines chronological order and flashbacks, both short and long, to juxtapose a single character against a complicated historical background. She introduces the reader to her protagonist, Zeno, in his twentieth year, when he has already embarked on his quest for knowledge of self and the world. In “The Wanderings,” the first of three parts, Yourcenar’s narrative crisscrosses time and space just as Zeno crisscrosses Europe. The novel opens as he meets his younger cousin Henry Maximilian on the roads of France. On his way to join the forces of Emperor Charles V in Italy, Henry Maximilian calculates that the shaky provisional peace now reigning will soon break down and that he, as a mercenary, will soon gain his share of glory and riches. Zeno the scholar scoffs at his plans and at the very notion of love and fame; when Henry says that leaving the Woolmarket is a question of being a man, Zeno replies that “it’s a matter of being more than a man.” As they go their separate ways—Zeno to study alchemy in Spain, Henry Maximilian to join the wars—the narrative turns back to Zeno’s boyhood and fills in the blank spaces of their conversation.

As a bastard, Zeno has no hopes of inheritance, and his mania for learning makes him a convenient candidate for the Church. Yet, even as a boy he is fascinated by mechanics and medicine, by astronomy, botany, and geology, and he is soon bored and annoyed by the scholasticism of his tutors. Zeno, like many Renaissance philosophers, will be drawn to the grand synthesis and unifying metaphor of the suspect art of alchemy.

Later rumor will claim that Zeno invented Greek fire for the Turkish sultan, spied for the king of Sweden, practiced both medicine and sorcery from Hungary to Catalonia, and performed miracles of healing in plague-stricken Basel. Yourcenar leaves...

(The entire section is 768 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marguerite Yourcenar was a writer of tremendous range and diversity, but it is difficult to say just what part—if any—her dense and cerebral fiction has played in the history of women’s literature. Public recognition did come late, but in ample measure, and in 1980, after much stormy debate, she became the first woman ever to be admitted to the Académie Française, that exclusive society dedicated to the preservation and purity of French language and culture. Yet she consistently refused to use her celebrity to further any causes except perhaps ecology, and she argued against “particularism,” be it sexual, racial, or national. She dismissed the notion that she avoided the female voice, citing her prose-poem collection...

(The entire section is 435 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Farrell, C. Frederick, Jr., and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. A short collection of essays devoted mostly to Yourcenar’s lesser-known early fiction. It attempts to counter some commonly held critical assumptions about Yourcenar’s work, such as her avoidance of woman protagonists and women’s issues. It assumes prior acquaintance with Yourcenar.

Horn, Pierre. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A short chronological overview of all Yourcenar’s work, with a brief biographical introduction. Focuses on her major fiction, but also discusses her autobiographical writings and her forays into theater and translation.

Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Howard looks for coherence amid Yourcenar’s wide-ranging intellectual and thematic interests, and she finds it in the writer’s use of classical myth in various contexts and of the theme of sacrifice within the mythic framework.

Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Yourcenar was a private, even reclusive person who remained determinedly aloof from literary circles. She even had her private papers sealed until 2037. Nevertheless, Savigneau’s biography is thoroughly researched, and it won critical praise for its combination of accuracy, verve, and tact.

Shurr, Georgia Hooks. Marguerite Yourcenar: A Reader’s Guide. Landham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. A guide to Yourcenar’s fiction, with emphasis on the evolution of her creative imagination and her temperament as sources of her style.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. A series of interviews spanning a number of years. The talks range from Yourcenar’s childhood to her late interest in ecology, her works, and her opinions on social issues such as racism and feminism.