Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Patrick Leigh Fermor


In medieval traditions, abbeys and convents were always considered to be inexpugnable centres of revolt against infernal dominion on earth. They became, accordingly, especial targets. Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrors was rumoured to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend. This solitary demon, the legend continues, sleeps at his post. There is no work for him; the battle was long ago won. But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beat of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence, 1957

I have the bad habit of dog-earing pages where I read something particularly striking, or that resonates with me. This passage qualifies as the former. Sable wings, darkness crepitating, the masonry of ascetism. And the lone, junior fiend asleep at the switch. I'm sure he look like George W Bush, all hunched over and sulking.

I read and fell in love with Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, descriptions in two parts of his remarkable journey on foot from Holland to Turkey when he was an ancient teenager, in the mid 30's. I immediately bought Roumeli and Mani, but will have to appreciate them at a later stage, if at all. Either I am not ready, too little educated, or they are too turgid. His breadth and depth of historical and cultural knowledge is vast and perhaps that is what leaves me gasping for water on long stretches of Classical name and event droppings. I'm just lost.

His descriptions of people and of places, and of events, though, in his present, are what hold me. Even in the exhausting bits I still dog-ear: Undocumented, free and unregimented, people wandered where they liked between the Thames, the Danube, the Euphrates and the upper Nile - anywhere, in fact, that was free of the Barbarian menace, and often beyond. Now everyone is numbered and ringed like a pigeon and held captive in a cage of frontiers.

Mani, 1958

A Time to Keep Silence is a wonderful way, on the subway, of immersing myself in solitude and stone walls and, well, silence. It is a slim volume about his visits to monasteries, to work on his writing.

It's beautifully written, and a little troubling. Because our lives are so very, very noisy.

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