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Customer Review

VINE VOICEon 5 October 2004
Leigh Fermor's narrative style can at times seem too introspective, or perhaps a little scholarly, for modern sensibilities: he describes as if through a magnifying lens, and with great erudition, making no compromises to the reader. Yet indulging him this means of expression - which if published today might seem pretentious - makes us privilege to some extremely expert writing. Leigh Fermor's prose is the sort that cannot be broken down: it is concise and evocative, free-flowing, a rare blend of terseness and poetry. He is a writer adept at creating textures of light and shade, seasonality, sounds and odours; there are times when his imagery is almost cinematic, but never obviously so.
In A Time to Keep Silence, one of his lesser-known works, he takes leave of Paris in the mid-1950s to stay in two monasteries, the Benedictine Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, near Rouen, and Le Grande Trappe, a Trappist abbey close to Alençon. Ostensibly he visits them in order to utilise their tranquility to further his writing projects, but inevitably his sojourn in the close presence of the monks makes detachedness near impossible, and he becomes increasingly fascinated by the personalities of those who have taken the 'Triple Unction of the Soul'. Despite an initial period of difficulty in adjusting to the isolation and rigour of monastic life, he begins to appreciate that a monk's existence is often far more joyful than people assume, and that rather than being exiles from the world because of past scandals, Benedictines are genuinely vocational and stem from all walks of life. In the final section he traces the history of European monasticism back to its roots with a visit to the rock monasteries at Cappadocia in Turkey, for me the best section of the book. Here Leigh Fermor's historical imagination, and great skill for describing the strange and unworldly, take force. We share his wonder at the unknown monks who left their dazzling legacy in such an arid and forbidding place. I would not be surprised if Dalrymple had been inspired by these pages.
This book is perhaps an acquired taste, and some interest in the origins and purpose of liturgy and the monastic life will add to the reader's enjoyment. At times it is slow, and at other times a touch list-like in its descriptions; yet there are certain passages that are exceptional in their imaginative quality. Overall, an elegant exploration of the progression of monasticism into the modern age.
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