Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Earlier this year I read Susan Hill's "Howards End is on the Landing," and wrote about it here. In this collection of pieces on her favourite books and authors she wrote about her forty books - the forty books that mean most to her, which she could subsist on if she were allowed no other books for the rest of her life - and I made this choice of forty books myself on this blog. Of her choices, the one that intrigued me most was Patrick Leigh Fermor's "A Time to Keep Silence," a short book comprised of three pieces of writing about the author's experience of travelling and being a guest at a selection of monasteries. I borrowed this from the library - by coincidence on the day Fermor's death was announced - and I am just now finding the time to read it.
Patrick Leigh Fermor says in his introduction that these recollections have been assembled, in some cases verbatim, from accounts he wrote to a correspondent at the time (who later became his wife). The first piece deals with a stay at a Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, the second with a brief sojourn at Solesmes and a longer stay at Cistercian abbey La Grande Trappe and the final, shorter, piece recalls a visit to the uninhabited rock monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey. His introduction to these recollections indicates his unease with whether the publication of these articles is an invasion of the monks' privacy and solitude (he has received both monastic censure and recognition). A revised introduction in 1982 (the original publication was 1957) acknowledges that he feels he should maybe have written differently, or not written at all.
Now, I know my reviewing style is more personal than analytical, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I believe that all reviewers, for all that they try to be impartial, will come to a book with their own preconceptions and predilections. And, again, I wouldn't have it any other way - it is what makes us all unique. I have the luxury of being more partisan and emotional in my responses because I am not affiliated to any particular publication, and because I am not edited by anyone else (though some of you may wish I was). My reviews are undisciplined and personal and, because I feel that my state of mind is pertinent to an emotional response, I'm going to write a little bit about why I was drawn to this book.
I wouldn't say that I have any strong religious belief, so it might seem strange that I felt drawn to a travel book about life as a guest in a monastery. Instead, I came to this book as someone who, for reasons neither interesting nor appropriate enough for this blog, currently feels that she is losing the war of attrition with modern life. I am on holiday from work, and I feel tired and lower in confidence than I have done for a long time. I'm finding it hard to relax into being on holiday - so I thought that this might be the right time to read this book. The religious aspect of monastic life is outside my experience and understanding; instead I was drawn to the idea of solitude, escape and silence. I hoped that reading this book now as an oasis of calm in a hectic world might, to use a hackneyed simile, be like plunging into cold, refreshing water on a hot day.
As an outsider to the way of life he describes, I found his book fascinating and in no way disrespectful. It is an interesting account both of the monastic way of life, and his own personal reaction to being immersed in their lifestyle: at first exposure to their regimented way of life was oppressive to him - a state which lasted for days - until he relaxed into the solitude and the freedom from the demands of everyday life. The reverse process - leaving the peace of the abbey to return to modern life - was an even harder, more traumatic experience (although he writes that subsequent retreats to monasteries have been easier than the first time). He finds differences between the lives of the Benedictine monks - whose work and prayer is accompanied by a devotion to scholarship - and the harsher lives of the Cistercian, Trappist, monks who undergo even more extreme deprivation and live sparsely, atoning for the sins of the world.
I was interested both in the monastic way of life, and in the psychology of the acclimatisation process that he undergoes. However, I was also struck by how beautifully written this is. He writes evocatively both of the architecture and atmosphere of the monasteries that he visited, as well as of the natural wonders of the surrounding countryside. I haven't done this in many reviews, but I am going to quote a bit from one passage to illustrate what I mean. I was struck by the beauty and calm of this passage in particular:
"It was a wonderful room to wake up in. Dreamless nights came to an end with no harsher shock than that of a boat's keel grounding on a lake shore. Sunlight streamed in through the three tall windows and, as I lay in bed, all I could see was layer on ascending layer of chestnut leaves, like millions of spatulate superimposed green hands, and the crystalline sky of October framed by the thin reflected blue-white, or thick milk-white, or, where the sun struck, white gold surfaces of the walls and window-arches and embrasures." (This is on page 46 of the 2004 paperback edition, published by John Murray, which I have borrowed from my local library).I read this book indoors, but I felt that, to truly appreciate its beauty, it should be read outside, sitting on the grass, maybe by a river, on a clear spring day. Few books for me - the only other that readily comes to mind is Elizabeth Von Arnim's "Enchanted April" - so clearly suggest that they should best be read in a particular location and atmosphere.
So did this book succeed in helping me relax? In all honesty, I'm not sure that it did - maybe I need to get me to a nunnery. But it did have a curious effect on my reading style. I'm usually a quick reader, with a nasty habit of sometimes skimming hugely descriptive passages to get to the action and the plot. I'm not proud of it when an author has put so much time and craftsmanship into their work, but I'm aware that I still do it. This book might not have calmed me and lowered my heart-rate - I'm too expert a worrier for that - but it did have the effect of consciously making me slow my reading and take in the beauty of his descriptive writing. I wonder if that lesson might help me to find more solitude, peace and reflection in my future reading (which is likely to include more of Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel writing).