The Abyss
Marguerite Yourcenar
Translated from the French by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author
Farrar 374 pp. $10.00

I don’t think that many readers in Great Britain or in America have any idea of the implications or the resonance of Marguerite Yourcenar’s work. In part due to publishers’ reluctance to take on what might be considered “minor” works, and in part due to the fanatic desire for perfection in translation on the part of Mme. Yourcenar and her collaborator, Grace Frick, only a part of her oeuvre is available in English. Possibly you might have read her short novel Coup de Grâce, but surely her major critical and popular success, Memoirs of Hadria, should by now have found a way onto all minimally literate shelves. Ad now we have The Abyss, a work originally published by Gallimard in 1968. It is an imaginary biography of a sixteenth-century alchemist/philosopher, exemplar of the kind of hidden and subterranean intelligence that is the key to the work of Mme. Yourcenar. As I say, such is the meticulousness of the author and her collaborator that some nine years have passed in translating this latest text into English. Missing, and still awaiting Englishing, (though some of the following works are now at least scheduled for future publication) are such works as her stunning first novel, Alexis (1929). Nouvelles Orientales (1938), and Denier du Rêve (1959). Also waiting in line patiently are her poetry and drama. Her essays, many of which are collected in the volume Sous Beiefice d’Inventaire (1962), are essential to an understanding of the nature of her imagination. I refer above all to the essays entitled “Humanism and Hermeticism in Thomas Mann,” “Critical Presentation of Constantin Cavafy,” and, most important of all, “The Black Mind of Piranesi.” Mme. Yourcenar, who has lived in the United States since 1939 (for many years now on the. Maine coast), has also translated into French What Maisie Knew by Henry James, The Waves of Virginia Woolf, and also a selection of Negro spirituals, with introduction and commentary, entitled Fleuve Profond, Sombre Riviere. Most recently, she published a harrowing biography of her parents: Souvenirs Pieux (1974). She is now seventy-three years old.

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