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A Few Words on The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar

February 19, 2011
Cover of "The Abyss: A Novel"

Cover of The Abyss: A Novel

Marguerite Yourcenar wove a story like few I have read in her novel The Abyss.  The novel follows the journey through life of the fictional philosopher and physician Zeno in 16th century Europe.  The novel was originally written in french and was translated into english by Grace Frick in collaboration with Yourcenar.  Marguerite Yourcenar was a brilliant writer and the first woman to be elected to the Academie Francaise.  Her wealth of knowledge is shown well by the book The Abyss.  She uses vast amounts of detail to weave a remarkable story.  The tale at first seems to be one that would be read slowly, but instead I found myself hungrily devouring this book and all of the stories within.

The scenes within describe in detail a quest for knowledge and the general adventures that a scholar/philosopher/alchemist/physician comes across throughout his lifetime.  Yourcenar was adept at providing highly descriptive scenes with vivid imagery.  Every aspect of the book brings you into the world of the 1500’s Europe.  Each character that Zeno comes across is described with great care, making all the parts of the book come to life that much more.

The historical nature of the book is fascinating as Yourcenar takes you in a journey across many parts of Europe, but she keeps primarily to Belgium.  Much of the history revolves around the church.  There are many descriptions within of aspects of the Inquisition.  Much of the time the characters are surrounded by the burnings of heretics by the church and wars among the nations which add a somber backdrop to the story.

A great part of the book is spent in discussions of a philosophic nature.  Some of my favorite scenes were ones where there was no action, but intense debate on the matters of religion and God.  Two of my favorite quotes in this book come from these sorts of discussions.

“The more I think of it, the more our ideas, our idols and our so-called holy practices, and those of our visions which supposedly are ineffable, all seem to me to be engendered merely by the stirrings of the human machine, exactly as is the wind from our nostrils or from our netherparts, and as is our sweat and salty water from tears, or the white blood passed in love, or the muddy excrement of the body.  It enraged me to think that man should so waste his own substance in construction of theories that were almost always pernicious, and should speak of chastity before having examined the whole machinery of sex; that he should debate the question of free will instead of pondering the thousand obscure reasons which, for example, cause you to blink if I suddenly point a stick at your eyses; or that he should talk of Hell before having looked more closely into the question of death.”

“Feelings cross through our flesh along nets of nerves, like a pattern of lightning flashes; the stem grows toward the light, its Sovereign Good, but suffers when it lacks water and when it retracts in the cold, or has to resist as best it can in the encroachments of other plants.  All the rest, I mean the mineral kingdom and the world of spirits, if such a world exists, is perhaps insentient and calm, well beyond our joys and our pain, or as yet incapable of them.  Our tribulations, my lord Prior, are possibly only an infinitesimal exception in the fabric of the universe, and thus we could explain the indifference of that immutable substance which we devoutly call God”

Overall Marguerite Yourcenar’s The Abyss is a book worthy of being considered a 20th century classic.  It is a beautifully written detailed account of the life of one man in 16th century Europe.  If you are interested in history, the Inquisition, and philosophy this is a book well worth reading.

“Man is as yet an enterprise, beset by time and necessity, by chance, and by the stupid and ever increasing primacy of sheer numbers.[…] It is men who will kill off man.”

I read this book as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2011 as my 20th century classic.

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