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The Abyss  
Author Marguerite Yourcenar
Original title L'Œuvre au noir
Translator Grace Frick
Country France
Language French
Publication date 1968

The Abyss (French: L'Œuvre au noir) is a novel by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar centered around the life and death of the fictional character Zeno, a physician, philosopher, man of science and alchemist born in Bruges during the Renaissance era. The book was published in France in 1968 and was met with immediate popular interest as well as critical acclaim, obtaining the Prix Femina with unanimous votes the year of its publication. The English translation by Grace Frick has been published under the title The Abyss or alternatively Zeno of Bruges. Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux adapted it into a movie in 1988.



The French title L'Oeuvre au noir refers to the first step (nigredo) of the three steps the completion of which is required to achieve the Magnum opus in the discipline of alchemy which ultimate goal is to transmute lesser metals into gold or to create the Philosopher's stone.

In Yourcenar's own words, "In alchemical treatises, the formula L'Oeuvre au Noir, designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist's process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice. Doubtless it signified one or the other meaning alternately, or perhaps both at the same time."[1]

The English title The Abyss gives a slightly different lead by the evocation of fathomless depths, a likely image of the alchemist's inner journey, which are at the same time a Christian vision of hell, to which his contemporaries may wish to condemn him.


The novel is set principally in Flanders of the 16th century, in the period opening the Early modern era of booming capitalistic economy, of renewed approaches to sciences, of religious upheavals (notably the Münster Rebellion) and bloody counter-Reformation, to the background of incessant wars between countries and the creeping chaos of the Black Death. In this setting, Zeno, the main character, is portrayed as a Renaissance Man of great intelligence and talent whose freedom of thoughts will come to be tested by the confines of his time.

Book Summary

Unlike Memoirs of Hadrian, the author's prior acclaimed historical novel, The Abyss is written in the third-person narrative. Instead of focusing on the thoughts of a single character, it recounts by slices the lives of many characters, presenting different facets of life in the book's era.

The novel's central figure, around whom the other characters' lives are limned, is Zeno, an illegitimate son born in the Ligre household, a rich banking family of Bruges. Zeno renounces a comfortable career in the priesthood and leaves home to find truth at the age of twenty. In his youth, after leaving Bruges, he greedily seeks knowledge by roaming the roads of Europe and beyond, leaving in his wake a nearly legendary — but also dangerous — reputation of genius due to the works he accomplishes.

Main Characters

  • Zeno Ligre, the main character. Born in 1510 in Bruges from the illegitimate union of Hilzonde Ligre and Alberico de' Numi. He dies at the age of fifty-nine minus six days.
  • Henri-Maximilien Ligre, Zeno's light-spirited cousin and childhood companion. Firstborn of Henri-Juste Ligre, he renounces the tended future his family can buy for him at the age of sixteen, to go in search of a life of intrepidity and panache on the battlefields. He eventually dies a penniless captain, without much glory but surely also without regrets. Despite being the polar opposite of Zeno on many levels - he does in fact serve as a counterpoint character to the later in the novel- Henri-Maximilien's good natured disposition and insouciant stance on the matters of moral concur to make of him a person Zeno can speak artlessly of his peregrinations to when they meet again; a genuine, if not deep, affection seems to pass between them. If it is the truth that Zeno seeks, Henri-Maximilien is after beauty. While the former prefers sciences and the discipline of the mind, the later favors poesy and the contemplation of love. Zeno's inclination runs toward men, Henri-Maximilien is the lover of many ladies.
  • Henri-Juste Ligre, rich and influential banker in Bruges. A somewhat jovial man without much passion other than making money fructify, he dies leaving a prosper business to his second-son, Philibert.
  • Hilzonde Ligre, sister of Henri-Juste and mother to Zeno. Her life seems defined by the activity of her flesh. Her first fleeting passions led to the disaster of an illegitimate child, her later marriage with Simon Adriansen is consummated in the dim melancholy and quiet peace of the just union, and her death by hanging will be precipitated by the lethargic decadence of her final days as one of the mistresses of the new king in Anabaptist Münster.
  • Alberico de' Numi, an ambitious Italian prelate and Zeno's father. During a sojourn in Bruges in the Ligre household he is charmed by the innocent Hilzonde and seduce her during Henri-Juste absence, but he soon hears new from home of an opportunity to further his career and promptly abandon the girl to return to Italy. He never acknowledges her letter informing him that a son had been born from their brief affair.


"The world is big. May it please the One who perchance Is to expand the human heart to life’s full measure" This sentence, pronounced by Zeno early in the novel, is engraved on Yourcenar's tombstone.

See also


  1. ^ Note of the author accompanying the novel.


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