Friday, 22 August 2014

Book Review: The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar

The Middle Ages are often referred to as dark and cruel, while the Renaissance is said to be progressive and light like its pictures. With this week’s review I want to take you to sixteenth-century Europe, when the Middle Ages weren’t yet entirely over and the Era of Enlightenment hadn’t yet begun. I must admit that in general I’m no big fan of historical novels, but a few years ago a dear friend from Belgium gave me a copy of The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar and I read it with greatest delight. The story of two cousins who (separately) leave their homes in Flanders as young men to explore the world and who become – each in his way – mixed up in the vicissitudes of European history is also another contribution to the Books on France 2014 reading challenge. 

Marguerite Yourcenar, real name Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour, was born in Brussels, Belgium, in June 1903 and grew up with her paternal grandmother in France. She made her literary debut with the poem Le jardin des chimères (The Garden of the chimeras) published at her own expense in 1921. Her first novel, Alexis (Alexis ou le Traité du vain combat), appeared in 1929 and was the beginning of a prolific decade during which she produced among others A Coin in Nine Hands (Denier du rêve: 1934), Oriental Tales (Nouvelles orientales: 1938), Dreams and Destinies (Les songes et les sorts: 1938), and Coup de Grace (Le coup de grâce: 1939). At the dawn of World War II, in 1939, the author left France and joined her lover (and translator) Grace Frick in the USA where she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian (Mémoires d'Hadrien), the novel which made her international fame in 1951 and which was followed by The Abyss (L’Œuvre au noir; also translated as Zeno of Bruges) in 1968. The author was the first woman elected to the Académie française in 1980. Marguerite Yourcenar died in Northeast Harbor, Maine, USA, in December 1987. 

The plot of The Abyss is set in sixteenth-century Flanders. The region, which is today part of Belgium, was then under the reign of Hapsburg emperor Charles V. and belonged to a “empire on which the sun never set” because her territory stretched over great parts of Europe and the New World. Both protagonists of the novel were born into the family of Henri-Juste Ligre, a rich banker in Bruges. The older one is Zeno who is the illegitimate son of Henri-Juste’s younger sister Hilzonde and an ambitious Florentine priest called Alberico de’ Numi who seduced the young girl during a stay in the banker’s house to recover money from his debtors in the region. The boy is raised to become a priest since his disgraceful origins prevent virtually all other promising careers, but he soon decides to follow his own vocation for natural sciences and philosophy instead of continuing the prestigious studies of theology at the University of Leuven. The other is Henri-Juste’s oldest son Henri-Maximilien who is Zeno’s junior by only four years and quite wild. He, too, leaves home to make his own dreams come true which don’t include bookkeeping and lending money to the rich and powerful like his father. Much rather he wants a life of adventure and romance which he hopes to find as a mercenary and a poet. In the opening scene of the novel the two young men, twenty and sixteen years old respectively, meet on a French country road by accident. Zeno is heading for Santiago de Compostela and Henri-Maximlien is on his way to join the troops of the King of France. They set out in anticipation of a great future, but they live in times of fundamental change which have in store unprecedented prosperity as well as trouble and danger. The conservative mindset of the Middle Ages clashes with revolutionary ideas of the beginning Renaissance. Banking, industry and natural sciences advance at quick pace, while wars rage between countries as well as between religions. The until then constant advance of the Turks, thus Islam, is stopped and Protestantism is fought in a bloody counter-Reformation led by Charles V. And on top of it all the Black Death spreads over Europe fuelling superstition and raising public support for the merciless witch-hunting of the Holy Inquisition. Committing himself to medicine and alchemy Zeno with his curious mind and scientific zeal soon oversteps the line of what the Church allows. With the Holy Inquisition always at his heels he roams the entire European continent for decades, while his cousin Henri-Maximilien wanders from one battlefield to the next in search of glory and wealth. 

In The Abyss an omniscient third-person narrator not just tells the fates of two very different cousins from Flanders, but meticulously depicts the very diverse world of the sixteenth century with all its challenges and inconsistencies. The original title of the novel is L’Œuvre au noir (Work in Black in English) which refers to the alchemistic opera negra, ie the first of three steps required to transform lesser metals into gold or the Philosopher’s stone. In fact, Zeno pursues a lifelong quest for wisdom which at one point plunges him into the abyss of his inner self. Hence, The Abyss is much more than just a very skilfully crafted historical novel with detailed references to important events, social life and scientific achievements of the time. Marguerite Yourcenar gives her readers also deep insight into the psyche of her protagonist and into philosophy at the dawn of Renaissance. Everything in this novel is told with utmost precision without making it ever feel lengthy. The author’s language is particularly rich and powerful, but also poetic – at least in the original French version. I can’t say anything about the quality of the English translation although I know that the author collaborated on it with her lifetime companion Grace Frick. 

As I already mentioned in my introduction, I enjoyed reading The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar immensely – both times. Unfortunately, it seems that with the exception of her chief novel Memoirs of Hadrian her work has fallen into oblivion in the Anglophone world and may be difficult to find. What a pity and what a loss. However, I warmly recommend The Abyss for reading and hope that you get a chance to devour with as much as pleasure as I had.


  1. I'm very much interested in reading this after having read Memoirs of Hadrian and especially after having re-read Manuel Mujica-Lainez's Bomarzo, another historical novel of the 16th century.

    FYI, Amazon shows most of Yourcenar's work still in print in English, and I frequently see The Abyss on the shelves of my better local bookstores. But I think you're right that aside from Memoirs of Hadrian she doesn't receive a lot of attention these days.

    1. The Abyss is certainly worth reading, especially if you enjoy historical novels and are interested in the 16th century.

      Thanks for the information! Without thorough research it's often difficult to find out if a book is in print or out of print. On I could find only few of Yourcenar's books in English... but maybe I had too quick a look.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.