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Book Information: Abyss, the

Abyss, the (1968) [Novel]
by Marguerite Yourcenar Rating: Weighted - 5.2 / Average - 4.0 of 10 (2 votes) (Rate!)
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Summary (From the publisher):

Marguerite Yourcenar's novel of sixteenth-century Europe is essentially a meditation on the nature and condition of man. It is somber, even bitter, in tone, portraying the struggle of a free mind in highly troubled times. The principal character, Zeno, typical of the leading intellectuals of his day in the wide range of his studies and activities, is botanist and physician, alchemist, engineer, metallurgist, and philosopher. In advance of the recognized science of his era, forced perpetually to thread his way between compromise and revolt, he is akin to his great historical contemporaries and near-contemporaries, the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, the Spaniard Sercetus, preoccupied Leonardo of the Notebooks, with their experiments and secret meditations, and that audacious but unlucky philosopher, Tommaso Campanella.

Born in Flanders, the illegitimate son of an Italian prelate, and reared in the household of his wealthy merchant uncle, Henry Justus Ligre of Bruges, Zeno is destined for the Church but he early abandons his theological studies in Louvain to seek for knowledge untrammeled by doctrine. Drawn to the subversive dynamism of medieval alchemy, he pursues that science first under the auspices of a high churchman in Ghent, and next with a learned Jew of Leon, in Spain. He then goes to France to study medicine and anatomy at the ancient college of Montpellier. The practice of his various arts taked him across Europe and the Levant, attending sometimes upon sultans and kings, and sometimes upon the poor and the plague-ridden, everywhere in danger in a world torn by war, and by religious and social upheaval. Often a target for jealous colleagues, he is suspect for the daring of his experiments, for his writings, and for his barely avowed atheism.

After burning one of his books in Paris, following censorship in Basel, that is to say, attacked by Catholics and Protestants alike, Zeno risks a return to Bruges for the first time in more than thirty years. Under an assumed name, Sebastian Theus, he carries on a charitable practice in the dispensary of a Franciscan monastery, the prior of which becomes a friend and, unknown to Zeno, a protector.

Certain secondary themes provide a muted counterpoint to the main theme of philosophic and alchemical quest: the power of gold or other wealth in the hands of merchants and financiers in the German States and in Flanders; religious rebolt that sweeps Zeno's mother and his stepfather, Simon Adriansen, into the whirlpool of Anabaptism; the more secret revolt against restrictions imposed upon the senses, bringing a small group of monks and novices in Bruges to destruction; and political revolt in Spanish Flanders under Philip II, filling the roads with Patriots in flight toward England and the Netherlands. The same dilemmas and the same moral anguish which beset us still today are presented here for the years 1510-1569 as seen realistically from the prespective of the highway, the laboratory, the cloister, shop, or tavern, and finally as seen from prison.

Both as physician and as philosoper Zeno seeks to comprehend the very components of body and soul, tracing substance itself to its particles moving in time and in space. The mental experiment is dangerous, as the ancient alchemists knew; it involves destruction of all preconceived ideas and prejudices, even the notion of the self, and constitutes the first and most difficult phase of the Great Transmutation, the Black Phase of the Process (from which the French text takes its title, L'Oeuvre au Noir). By the intensity of his experience, both physical and spiritual, Zeno achieves his goal, even though his unquenchable desire "to explore the confines of this our prison: brings the inevitable confrontation that leads to his death.

Original title: L'Oeuvre au Noir
Alternative titles: Zeno of Bruges


Genre: FictionHistoricalEuropeanRenaissance

Edition #1: The Abyss

The Abyss (1976)
Edition Details:

Language: English

Translated by: Grace Frick
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Manifested in:

Zeno of Bruges (1994)

Format: Paperback
Place of publication: London
Publisher: Harvill
ISBN: 0002712199
Pages: 333

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The Abyss (1981)

Format: Paperback
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374516669
Dimensions: x x
Pages: 600

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