Thursday, June 2, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s eye

In the 1950s Patrick Leigh Fermor spent time as a guest in French Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, seeking not God but a cheap and quiet place to write. Here he is shown into his room in the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle:

The monk opened a door and said, “Here is your cell.” It was a high seventeenth-century room with a comfortable bed, a prie-dieu, a writing-table, a tapestry chair, a green adjustable reading-lamp, and a rather disturbing crucifix on the whitewashed stone walls. The window looked out over a grassy courtyard, in which a small fountain played, over the grey flank of the monastery buildings and the wall that screened the Abbey from the half-timbered houses of the village. A vista of forest flowed away beyond. In the middle of the writing-table stood a large inkwell, a tray full of pens and a pad into which new blotting paper had just been fitted. I had only time to unpack my clothes and papers and books before a great bell began ringing and the monk, who was the guest-master, returned to lead me to the refectory for the midday meal. As we walked, the buildings changed in period from the architecture of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries to Gothic; and we halted at length by the piscina in an ogival cloister of the utmost beauty, outside a great carved door where several other visitors had also been assembled. The guest-master shepherded us into the refectory in which the Abbot, a tall, white-haired, patrician figure with a black skull-cap and a gold pectoral cross on a green cord, was waiting to receive us. To each of the guests he spoke a few words; and some, sinking upon one knee, kissed the great emerald on his right hand. To me he addressed a polite formula in English that had obviously been acquired at some remote period from a governess. A novice advanced with a silver ewer and a basin; the Abbot poured a little water over our hands, a towel was offered, and our welcome, according to Benedictine custom, was complete.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence (1957)
What an eye — for architecture, for the contents of a room, for the bits of detail that suggest the Abbot’s character. I especially like the way the eye takes in the room (saving that crucifix for last), looks through the window, and then zooms in on the details of the writing-desk. A Time to Keep Silence, Leigh Fermor’s account of his monastic travels, is available from New York Review Books (2007). I picked up the book by chance in a bookstore last week. I’ve yet to meet a NYRB book I haven’t liked.

[Is Patrick Leigh Fermor still writing? I hope so. In 2007, at the age of ninety-two, he was learning to type.]

comments: 2

jw said...

1. I want to go there.

2. Since I cannot go there, I will read the book.

As I am sitting in a kind of cell myself (it's a study room in the library: a windowless room made of painted cinderblocks with a desk, a chair, and a bookshelf. It's spartan, sure, but it has a lock and when I step outside my door I am surrounded by thousands of books and, in this particular corner of the library, display cases of eighteenth century musical instruments and sheet music), with my own needly stacked sheets of paper, a roll of pencils and a couple of pens, a tiny bottle of blue-black ink, a few of my books, and my leather and canvas satchel. It felt like I was reading a discription of my own experience--not in the details of course, but in the retreat-from-the-world-so-you-can-think-and-write kind of way. What a glorious feeling. Thank you.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome!