A Time to Keep Silence
by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1957)
NYRB Classics (2007)
96 pp

Continuing my quest to read more of NYRB Classics’ not-fiction titles that I began with J.A. Baker’s nature writing in The Peregrine (my review here), I opted to go to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel writing in A Time to Keep Silence. NYRB Classics publishes a few other Leigh Fermor titles, including the newly republished The Traveller’s Tree (Leigh Fermor’s first book) and A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the two books wherein Leigh Fermor relates his famous travels through Europe in the 1930s.

A Time of Silence takes place later, in the 1950s. Wanting some peace and distance, Leigh Fermor decided, “[w]ith curiosity and misgivings,” to visit an abbey and request temporary lodging. He loved all that cities have to offer, and he was not seeking religion (nor did this trip cause him to become religious), but something about the isolation and retreat from the world appealed to his curiosity and offered him the isolation and retreat he himself was searching for. In this book he recounts his travels to a few of the most famous monasteries in Europe in three sections: The Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, From Solesmes to La Grande Trappe, and The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia.

For me, the most fascinating section was the first. It isn’t that I prefer St. Wandrille, that I shun the incredibly strict lifestyle of La Grande Trappe, or that I don’t appreciate the impressive and mysterious monasteries hollowed out of the coned rocks of Cappadocia. Indeed, each section provided fascinating descriptions of the places and related (albeit briefly) the histories and lifestyles of each. The reason I preferred the first section is because that was where Leigh Fermor first suffered from the isolation and then found in it unexpected beauty. It is there we sense that his world is opened up, and the later trips to monasteries served to offer him what he’d already learned as he forced himself to leave the world behind — or, rather, what he’d already felt as he cannot quite put his finger on the cause of his attraction.

But, in spite of these private limitations I was profoundly affected by the places I have described. I am not sure what these feelings amount to, but they are deeper than mere interest and curiosity, and more important than the pleasure an historian or an aesthete finds in ancient buildings and liturgy; for I could have seen the former in many places and the latter — though seldom, perhaps, as well performed as at St. Wandrille or Solesmes — I had always known.

As in The Peregrine, one of the strength to this volume is the writing. It is clear and direct and yet rich. When he is spending his first tortured nights in St. Wandrilled he says, “The place assumed the character of an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only inhabitant.” Though he appreciates the solitude he is afforded and is not really offended at the austere boarding offered, he suffers withdrawals from human society. He is surprised, however, to find a shift in his mood:

I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb. I think the alteration must have taken about four days. The mood of dereliction persisted some time, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude.

We see it coming, but Leigh Fermor describes it beautifully: he finds something at St. Wandrille that he does not find in the outside world, something, even, of value. When he leaves the monastery, the transition out is almost as painful as the transition in:

The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks. This state of mind, I saw, was, perhaps, as false as my first reactions to monastic life; but the admission did nothing to decrease its unpleasantness.

Entering this other world with Leigh Fermor is an excellent reading experience. It was possible, in fact, to feel the peace he was describing even while I was on a commuter train. It is also fascinating to read about the monks’ routines and the various disciplinary standards he encountered, including the historical reasons the standards differed. I do think he undercuts his points once when he says that without belief, that faith in religion, “the life of a monk would be farcical and intolerable.” After all, Leigh Fermor did not possess belief, yet he found and convincingly writes about the value of discipline and solitude. It seems, then, that there is some link missing in the book.

And, as I alluded to above, I felt some disappointment despite the great writing (which is particularly nice when he takes us to the rugged rocks in Cappadochia: “a dead, ashen world, lit with the blinding pallor of a waste of asbestos, filled, not with craters and shell-holes, but with cones and pyramids and monoliths from fifty to a couple of hundred feet high, each one a rigid isosceles of white volcanic rock like the headgear of a procession of Spanish penitents during Passion Week.”). Because of my interest in Leigh Fermor’s inner feelings as he visited the monasteries, I felt a bit unsatisfied when the later sections focused primarily on descriptions of the monasteries, their unique rules, and their history. I still wanted to feel the effects these places had on his inner life.

That said, uncoupled from my expectations (silly silly to expect a book to be about what I want it to be about), these descriptions do not disappoint. What we have here is a remarkable look from a keen observer at a world few of us can comprehend. The book mimics the world it describes: it appears to be slight (it’s only 96 pages long) but it is rich and provides a nice balance to the often raucous world of fiction.

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