#124: AN EXPERIENCE OF SILENCE. After getting booted out of King’s School, Canterbury, in 1933—he was a schoolmate of Alan Watts—Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending up in Constantinople; in his backpack he had a few clothes, an Oxford Book of English Verse and a copy of Horace’s Odes (good man). Described by one distressed teacher as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” he went on to a life of travel, adventure and writing: he fought with Royalist forces in Macedonia and later with the resistance in Crete, led a team there that kidnapped the German commander Heinrich Kriepe, smoked eighty to a hundred cigarettes a day, translated Colette and wrote travel narratives that set the models for the next two generations of British travel writers. But it was a sign of the breadth of his sympathies that in 1952 he published A Time To Keep Silence, one of the titles blessedly rescued recently by the New York Review of Books. This slender volume, three long essays, tells of his time when, in search of cheap accommodation, he spent time at the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, then at Solesmes and La Grande Trappe, and later visited the remains of the old rock-carved monasteries in Cappadocia. It’s all as modest as you can imagine, a view of the monastic call from the outside, and yet the elegance and observation tell as much or more than many a heavier tome. Leigh Fermor captures the skittishness and suspicion many people feel of monastic life in detailing the discomfort, the feeling of threat and sterility, of the first days of his visits; and then absorbs us with his growing understanding of the aim and merit of this way of life. Prose or no, only poets can tell us this much this fast, and after the rattling of some parts of Sven Birkert’s book on the Internet age it was a special joy to be given this chance to taste again of what Merton called “the silent life.” Leigh Fermor says of the letters of Saint Basil, “There is a mood of humanity and simplicity in his writings, an absence of bigotry that seems to flow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still.” So it is with this vivid and tranquil book.
The Cretan kidnapping of the Nazi General Kriepe was written up by W. Stanley Moss as Ill Met by Moonlight (Harrap, 1950), one of the genuine minor classics of World War II literature. The story has the advantage of a limited cast—individuals rather than batallions—each of whom is vivdly characterized, as well as of Moss’s direct and graceful prose. There’s something of the giddy schoolboy escapade here, as if they were all getting away with a bit of mischief, and, behind it (in a quote from Hugh Dormer), the lurking recognition that “things appear romantic enough in prospect and retrospect, that at the time are only monotony, and sweat, and thirst, and sickening fear.”