I am firstly stuck looking at both the English and French titles of this book. In English, The Abyss, and in French L’Oeuvre au Noir, which translates more directly as the “Black Work,” which is a cool title. So maybe it’s the more contemporary use of the concept of the abyss ala Nietzsche that throws me. When you look up the phrase “the black work” in French, you come across articles discussing the steps of alchemy (the steps the soul takes when taking on alchemy) as the fake science is also tied to heresy and other uncanny and otherworldly pursuits. Alchemists of course don’t maintain a high reputation in most of literature being either heretics in their contemporary (akin to wizards — and this book does mention Simon Magus) or in the contemporary, as frauds (or coots).
So this book follows Zeno of Bruges, a 20 year old interested in science and alchemy as he makes his way to his life’s work. We begin at this young age as he finds himself in a diverging path from his cousin, Henry Maximillian, who at 16 is going off to his own life’s work, soldiering. This diverging path stands as a kind of metaphor of two distinct paths the two youths are taking in life. We then follow Zeno in his career, in his rise, and in his fall.
The book takes on the question of the pursuit of a life’s work in some interesting ways. Maybe all scientists feel this way, but a life spent in alchemy, to me, feels wasted. I mean this from the very vaunted position and being an idiot about science, but also knowing a lot more about what is and isn’t possible because I stand on the shoulder of people like Zeno who did those lifetimes of work. But this reads like the opposite then of something like The Double Helix. This isn’t a book of triumph, and maybe like Henry Maximillian’s life soldiering, it’s a book of wasted effort.
The book though reads straight up like the story parts of an Assassin’s Creed game, which means that it highlights a time and place lost to me (16th century Flanders) and maybe gets it right, or maybe is full of anachronism, and I am up here not knowing the difference.