Marguerite Yourcenar, “The Abyss” (1968) (translated from the French by Grace Frick) – I’m not sure what to say about this book. I liked it. It’s about a doctor, alchemist, and philosopher named Zeno, living in 16th century Europe, his travels and his stayings-put. It’s not quite a picaresque. Yourcenar, notable among other things for being the first woman appointed to the Academie Francaise, tells us more of Zeno’s travels — plying his trades among soldiers, Swedes, and the Grand Turk — than shows us.
What do we get instead? First, we get some of the circumstances around Zeno’s (illegitimate) birth and family background. This includes his mother being killed during the suppression of the Anabaptist takeover of Munster, an event we see in some detail as an example of ideological madness. There’s philosophical conversation, like those between Zeno and his mercenary cousin Henry Justus. Zeno loves men and sometimes has sex with women, and faces the horrors of plague. He invents machines when younger and writes philosophical treatises when older, both of which gets him in trouble from which he barely escapes.
In the last part of the book, Zeno returns home to Bruges and a monastery hospital, only to be caught up in the many roiling conflicts in the region, about which he cares nothing. He just wants to focus on medicine. But the rebellion against Spanish authority in the Low Countries comes to affect his life and put him in danger, as does the lingering threat of heresy. Partly influenced by Protestantism, partly from an implied underground peasant catharism, and mostly impelled by youthful horniness and boredom, some of the younger monks had been doing some light heresy-horseplay and meeting women on the sly. Zeno finds out and doesn’t immediately tell on them, which of course seals his own fate once it’s found out. The Inquisition doesn’t have a sense of humor about these things.
I probably haven’t made the novel sound that compelling. But it was a great read in a hard-to-describe way. “Immersive” is one word for it. I felt like I was looking at an old painting of some complex subject, a landscape or city scene, rich with detail that revealed itself more the more you looked at it. For all the war, persecution, and death, it’s ultimately a quiet book, an examination of a life lived for knowledge in turbulent times. I don’t know. It’s good! ****’