03 August 2011

Swashbuckling recollected in Solitude

I'm delighted that my housemate's ploughing through the copy of A Time of Gifts I gave him for his birthday. To be fair, he should be. It starts superbly and its prose never falters. I must find out how my fairy blogmother has got on with her copy.

As I reckoned at the time of Paddy's death, the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog has provided wonderful reading in the week's since Paddy's death. Even with the obituaries all done and dusted, it's carried on, whether giving us today a wonderful extract from A Time to Keep Silence, or encouraging us to donate to fund someone's effort to emulate Paddy's walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, or speculating on whether Gregory Peck's character in The Guns of Navarone might have been based on Fermor, or gracing us with the whole of Colin Thubron's fascinatingly insightful New York Review of Books article on the man who, until a few weeks back, I'd have happily called the Greatest Living Englishman.

Among the article's pleasures are how it contrasts certain choice passages of PLF's writing, such as the middle-aged Fermor's conjuring up the swashbuckling ambition and thirst for novelty of his eighteen-year-old self:
'To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp—or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar…. All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year…there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!'
Which stands in stark contrast to his thoughts in his  early forties on time spent in French monasteries, where, as Karen Armstrong writes in her introduction to A Time to Keep Silence, the whole life of the Trappist monks had been designed to protect them from the distractions of -- and the lust for -- novelty:
'I was profoundly affected by the places I have described. I am not sure what these feelings amount to, but they are deeper than mere interest and curiosity….
For, in the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods—the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.'
It's a fine article, well worth the reading, and though not quite as exhuberantly expansive as Anthony Lane's indispensable New Yorker piece from 2006, its more narrow focus bestows its own rewards.

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