Tuesday 22 March 2011

'c'est exactement pareil...'

A Time To Keep Silence
by Leigh Patrick Fermor

I have recently gone through another re-rehearsal process in the long running play War Horse, a time that frankly tests the spirit in a number of ways. Each time (this was my third re-rehearsal) I have picked my reading matter carefully, indulging myself last year with David Mitchell's historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Maybe it was because I was so exhausted this time around but I felt my reading capacity would be diminished and that what was in fact required was a book that didn't so much offer escapist thrills as a form of retreat and sanctuary during the hustle and bustle of mounting this beast of a show. Quite opportunistically I happened across a recommendation from Adam Haslett, author of last years grievously overlooked (in the UK anyway) Union Atlantic. On an NPR segment called 'You Must Read This' he spoke about Fermor's 1957 travelogue, a book he used to help achieve calm and peace on a trip away from city life. Fermor, "Britain's greatest living travel writer", was born in 1915 and set off at the age of just eighteen to walk all the way through Europe from Holland to Constantinople. After that staggering journey he travelled around Greece before joining the amy at the outbreak of the Second World War where his knowledge of Greek allowed him to work undercover and play a crucial role in what would later be filmed by Powell and Pressburger as Ill Met By Moonlight, with Fermor portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

A Time To Keep Silence details Fermor's visits to Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries not because he wished to go into retreat but because he was 'in fact, in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay' while he continued to work on a book that he was writing. This isn't about a man discovering faith on his travels but simply about the experience any one of us might endure if secluded within the strict confines of a religious order. I say endure because whether the experience is viewed as positive or negative it is one that forces the monks and Fermor to radically alter their lives. The book comes in three sections: The Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, From Solesmes to La Grand Trappe and The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the shock to the system that comes from conversion to a life of isolation, privation and contemplation the most compelling section is the first, as Fermor comes to terms with a completely different way of living and thinking. The later sections deal more with the monk's history and the extraordinary architecture of the hollowed out rock monasteries, all interesting but in a slightly detached, travel-literature kind of way whereas that first immersion into religious retreat at St Wandrille are fascinating from a human point of view.

As I think I might be myself, Fermor cannot help but be fascinated by the men who populate these dark spaces, their physicality at first the thing that he remarks on when he gets his glimpses of men...

'preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from others.'
'Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of burnt-out melancholy.'

After that slightly prurient interest in the monastery's residents Fermor is challenged by his own reaction to being cooped up in such an unfamiliar environment. I've never been on any kind of retreat and the advent of children in my life means that the relaxation of a holiday is something I can barely remember. Surrounded by such silence and the contemplation of both life and death through scripture, art and thought, Fermor feels as if he has literally been buried alive, his brain totally unaccustomed to having so much time to idle and roam. But slowly things begin to shift.

My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb. I think the alteration must have taken about four days. The mood of dereliction persisted for sometime, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude.

Freed from that oppression Fermor is intrigued by the way in which 'the same habitat should prove favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.' For his hosts 'the Abbey was a springboard into eternity; for me a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom.' The irony being that when the time comes for him to make that journey back into the world he is surprised to find it an even more painful adjustment than the one he had made when entering the Abbey.

If my first days in the Abbey had been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks. This state of mind, I saw, was, perhaps, as false as my first reaction to monastic life; but the admission did nothing to decrease its unpleasantness.

The even more strict surroundings of the Trappist orders cause Fermor to examine not how the sins of the outside world might encroach on the peace of a monastery but how the danger lies in one's own thoughts. He was able to ask a friend who had previously been part of a Trappist order how it felt to have one's spirit's tested.

As often as not, profane and carnal visions would be reinforced by by the murmurings of religious doubt, and at the end of these alarming onslaughts, from which he emerged unscathed only with the help of prayer and a kind of mental flight, he would feel utterly exhausted (but victorious)...no monk, however holy, could say that he was immune for life; the Devil, incensed by defeat, lulled his foe by inaction, and then returned to the attack with sevenfold reinforcements.
When the scene shifts to Cappadocia then we really move into the territory of descriptive travel writing. These ancient monasteries and churches, carved out of the very rock of this unique landscape, provide a fantastic subject for Fermor to demonstrate just why he is regarded so highly.

It was the landscape of a planet, the surface of the moon or Mars or Saturn: a dead, ashen world, lit with the blinding pallor of a waste of asbestos, filled, not with craters and shell-holes, but with cones and pyramids and monoliths from fifty to a couple of hundred feet high, each one a rigid isosceles of white volcanic rock like the headgear of a procession of Spanish penitents during Passion Week. These petrified cagoulards extended for leagues to the farther end of the ravine, where they were reduced by distance to a barrier of shark's teeth.

And after making this journey with Fermor it is worth reflecting briefly on the parallels between my own environment and that he described. Without wanting to make light of the serious dedication and commitment made by those entering the monastic life I couldn't help but laugh as I compared the virtual imprisonment of tech week at the New London Theatre to the period of internment that Fermor described in his first few days at St Wandrille. Cut-off from the outside world with little light or stimulus, immersed in the past and focused entirely on one thing; who wouldn't go a little mad? And emerging exhausted from the other side, stepping back into the hustle and bustle of modern London; who wouldn't feel disoriented and confused. There was a wider comparison too, when considering why anyone would put themselves through the absurdities of trying to make a living as an actor; after all, it may be exhausting when you're working but it's just plain hellish when you're not. What possible return could be great enough to make that vocation worthwhile?

I asked one of the monks how he could sum up, in a couple of words, his way of life. He paused for a moment and said, 'Have you ever been in love?' I said, 'Yes.' A large, Fernandel smile spread across his face, 'Eh bien,' he said, 'c'est exactement pareil...'

(That's the romantic version, the fact of course is that I'm not trained to do anything else!)


Anonymous,  22 March 2011 at 14:52  

Excellent review, Will. I found your final observation about the process of rehearsal (especially tech week) and its isolation from "real life" particularly appropriate (even if it is vaguely blasphemous).

William Rycroft 22 March 2011 at 15:49  

Thank you Kevin. Yes I realised that even mentioning tarting about on stage and dedicating one's life to religious observance in the same sentence might be a little blasphemous but you need a flair for the dramatic in my game!

Wayfaringreader 23 March 2011 at 15:05  

Will, thanks for this post. I had seen Adam Haslett’s mention of the book and was curious about it. However, it has proved rather hard to find here.

It is not listed on Amazon or in my local library and none of the Canadian online used booksellers have copies. I had dropped the idea of tracking it down but now I will try again to find one.

A question and a comment:

Q) You don’t mention what year the book was written. Is it pre- or post-war? Either way, does he mention the war(s) and the affect it has on these contained communities?

C) One of the quotes you pulled caught my attention: 'the same habitat should prove favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.' In context, he is writing about his worldly ambitions vs. the monks other-worldly striving but it could also apply to the “ambitions” of those living within the Abbey. I hadn’t really thought about it before but it dawned on me that contemplatives live simultaneously in community and in isolation. Surely that innate contradiction creates a unique tension.

William Rycroft 24 March 2011 at 13:06  

Thanks wayfaringreader for the comment (especially as we had a little problem making it stick!) Whilst I've pictured the cover of the nyrbclassics edition, my copy was actually an old Penguin paperback from the 70's with a cover so hideous I couldn't bear to pollute the web with it. Is the nyrbclassics edition not available where you are?

The book was originally published in 1957, I believe, and does make mention of the impact of war on monasteries but casting far further back in history to mention the upheavals that came with Reformation, counter-reformation etc.

Your comment about the contradictions is interesting. There must be a huge tension involved in making that commitment and the difficulty in sticking to it. The ultimate ambition of course, and the whole purpose of that life, is to prepare for eternal life - so a very different 'ambition' to most of us! There is another small tension I imagine in that many monastic communities have different sections, monks that spend a lot of time studying and others that perform mainly labour. There is a hierarchy of religious observance and I wonder if that creates a tension of its own.

Max Cairnduff 24 March 2011 at 19:46  

Nice piece Will. I am surprisingly tempted by a book about a bunch of monks and some landscape - to be reductionist.

Still, you and Trevor vouching for it. Hard to resist.

What's tech week?

William Rycroft 25 March 2011 at 08:34  

It's a nice book Max, and one I happened to read at the right time for me personally. Tech week is the period of rehearsal where all technical aspects are added to what the actoes have rehearsed on stage. It means going through the show adding all the lighting, sound and video cues, practicing quick changes etc and even though ours is a show that already has those cues plotted it still takes a while as we have to do everything 3 times. This is because we have four separate teams of actors to puppeteer the horses and there are three different rotations that they work in. To make sure each of those is tech-ed we have to go through it all 3 times (which is a bit dull frankly for those of us doing the same thing again and again - not as bad as waking at 4am each morning for a day of tough labour and bedtime at 8pm however!)

Anonymous,  25 March 2011 at 16:27  

As someone who sat through two "tech weeks" in a regional theatre as an observer, I was intrigued by the process. I think the comparison with the laboring work of monks is appropriate -- it is boring, repetitive, but essential to making things work. And with a production as complex as your show, my experience is like dipping a toe in the water.

William Rycroft 25 March 2011 at 22:46  

To be honest Kevin we are very lucky with this show that it is already up and running. Our tech took less than two days whereas a friend of mine who is in Sir Cameron Mackintosh's latest production, Betty Blue Eyes, recently emerged from a two week tech. The mind boggles.

Actually, it has taken many years to get here but I've grown to rather like the tech. There's something about the regimen that I like and you certainly get proper breaks.

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