Just recently I’ve read two books on the subject of silence. I will say up front that I am a fan, after spending long, quiet, chronic fatigued years mostly alone. The experience has made me crave silence rather than avoid it, because it’s only in quietude that you can think, really think, and whilst it wouldn’t suit everybody, profound contemplation has certainly given me the richest hours I’ve known. But both these books consider what justification there can be in a life lived in solitude and reflection, as it is a route chosen by so few and one that is often accused of being selfish and even dangerous. One is by the prince of travel writers, the dashing Patrick Leigh Fermor, who describes three separate experiences of monasteries in A Time to Keep Silence. The other is written by the feminist and short story writer, Sara Maitland, who decided in her fifties that she wanted to choose a life of retreat and has detailed her explorations in A Book of Silence. I didn’t set out to read the two books together; I just wanted to read something by Leigh Fermor and that was the book I happened to pick up. But they do make for an intriguing comparison.
Let’s begin with Patrick Leigh Fermor, a kind of traveling James Bond. He left behind a very undistinguished education, getting thrown out of posh boarding schools, to walk at the tender age of 18 from Rotterdam to Istanbul, sleeping in castles and hayricks en route, and ending up living with a Byzantine princess, twelve years his senior, in Moldavia until the war separated them. His first two books recounted this epic journey and made his name. I mustn’t get sidetracked by his biography, although it’s easy to do so because it’s full of romance and espionage and adventure in lovely locations. Leigh Fermor doesn’t read like a man who had a sketchy education. In fact he has described himself as a wandering scholar, and his books are packed with glorious detail of history, anecdote and reportage. He is one of those writers who finds the exact word for absolutely everything, which gives his prose an oddly poetic effect, full of terms like ‘triforium’ and ‘chasuble’, ‘pontificalia’ and ‘myrmidon’. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what these mean (I certainly didn’t), the effect is ripplingly rich.
The story of the first monastery he stays in, The Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, a gorgeous Benedictine establishment, is concerned with the effects of adapting to a silent, regulated existence. Left completely alone and in silence, Leigh Fermor has initial difficulties adapting. He sleeps badly, he feels restless and depressed, lonely and flat. And then a different, more profound sleeping takes over that opens him up to a small, personal resurrection. ‘No demands,’ he writes, ‘once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy; there were no automatic drains, such as conversations at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.’ He says, in a way that makes my mouth water, ‘Work became easier every moment’. Packed around the account of his experience are descriptions of the life of the abbey and the monks he does exchange brief conversations with, as well as an account of the history of the monastery, which seems to have been fraught with dissolutions, attacks and disasters. But despite this, the atmosphere is one of eternal peace, and his experience is a positive one.
It seemed a bit odd that Sara Maitland, who describes herself as a religious person, should eschew the monastic altogether in her account, although she does spend time with both the zen Buddhists and the Quakers. The heart of her experience of silence is in the wilds of Scotland, however, where she first rents a small house for forty days and forty nights, and then eventually builds one in which she will live. Maitland gives a brief account of her life, with its start in a big, noisy, highly educated family, her political and religious enlightenment at Oxford, her marriage to a minister of the church and its ending, and her gradual embrace of ever greater quiet and isolation. She incorporates other accounts of long stretches of silence encountered by explorers, sailors and other recluses, and the second half of the book (which I haven’t finished) is a bit more theoretical, although never dry. It seemed to me that at the bottom of this book was a battle Maitland was fighting with a composite figure made up of all the people who told her she shouldn’t cut herself off like this. She quotes extensively from a friend’s letter, telling her that silence is a route to oppression and annihilation. The letter is deliberately provocative she says, but she returns to it across the text, as if she can’t quite free herself from its message. Despite the experience of hearing voices (it was a choir singing in Latin, she tells us, fiercely defensive – what’s not to like?) and having the odd hallucination and low moment, she is quite determined that everything about silence is good, valuable and productive for her. I found this an interesting and intriguing book, but to be completely honest, Maitland got on my nerves a bit. I’m all for silence, but the element of polemic in the account jarred occasionally.
I wondered whether the resolute positivity of her book had anything to do with the creeping associations of selfishness that dog the pursuit of silence (and almost always isolation). Maitland talks a lot about the experience of silence, but she doesn’t (or not in what I’ve read so far) say what she wants the silence for, what she wants to get out of it, beyond a testing of her own limits. In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, one of his later retreats is at a Trappist monastery, the monks renowned for their austere and comfortless existence. I didn’t realize until I read this that the discipline of the monk is offered up as a kind of endless atonement for the sins of humanity. Fermor describes how ‘By fierce asceticism, cloistered incarceration, sleeping on straw and rising in the darkness after a few hours’ sleep, by abstinence, fasting, humiliation, the hair shirt, the scourge, the extremes of heat and cold, and the unbroken cycle of contemplation, prayer, and back-breaking toil they seek, by taking the sins of others onto their own shoulders, to lighten the burden of mankind.’ I was struck by this, by its nobility and dedication, and yet felt sure that such an undertaking would be open to all kinds of misinterpretation in the modern, fundamentally self-oriented world. Leigh Fermor’s account of monastic existence is always steeped in serenity and gentleness, whilst admiration colours his experience of these holy places, and there seems to be a genuine balm in the quiet laying to one side of the rigors of selfhood. By contrast, Maitland’s account is about getting ever deeper into herself, using silence to extricate an experience and a selfhood that are threatened by noise and external demands. Which is curious in a way, as she didn’t strike me at all as a retiring or shy sort of person.
Maitland’s book is full of fascinating information and lively accounts of her experiences but it seems very noisy in its fulsome support of silence. I would have been happier with a more balanced approach, one that fully took on board the difficulties associated with silence (there is a chapter on ‘the dark side’, but even here, disadvantages are regarded with great neutrality). Patrick Leigh Fermor’s slim volume was for me the better read, exquisitely written and broad in its interest and tone, despite its brevity. I am undoubtedly on the side of silence, contemplation and retreat, but even I think it must inevitably be balanced by speech, loving relationships or profound spirituality. But I should finish the Maitland – she may yet say what it is I want to hear from her, if I could only work out what that is.