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From the French Abbey of St Wandrille to the abandoned and awesome Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey, the celebrated travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor studies the Rigorous contemplative lives of the monks and the timeless beauty of their monastic surroundings. In his occasional retreats, the peaceful solitude and the calm enchantment of the monasteries is passed on as a kind of ‘supernatural windfall’ which A time to keep silence so effortlessly records.
The long walk, in PLF’s own description, was his university, teaching him to observe, scribble, question and think. It also turned out to be the foundation stone for his life’s work as a writer.
He always wrote in longhand, although in his 90s he planned to take typing lessons in order to speed things up (on a 1951 Olivetti). That plan didn’t materialise, and perhaps we should be thankful that it didn’t. His writing style is leisurely and digressive. He never seems in a hurry to get anywhere particular, but nothing seems out of place. His life motto was solvitur ambulando (“it is solved by walking”), and certainly his writing proceeds at the pace of a long walk, as if he thought like he walked and wrote like he thought. There is none of the fragmentation of the digital, which even an old Olivetti might have occasioned.
PLF’s obituarist in the Guardian, James Campbell, said that he was “at some deep level essentially a poet”. Dalrymple called him a prose-poet. Listen a moment. “Rich in digressions and vallonia oaks, the plain and the pale blue ridges glided by.” “The peaks all round us sent darker volleys of shadow along their path, all of them streaming westwards and tilting down into the canyons.” “The soft murmur of the town took over again, wooing me down into its midst.”
Dalrymple and Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin agreed in calling A Time of Gifts (the title is borrowed from a poem by Louis MacNeice) the best of travel books. Campbell referred to it as “one of the wonders of modern literature”. Others argue that Mani is the most astonishingly interesting and lovely of PLF’s works, illuminated by his profound delight in everything Greek – the people, their faces, their hands, the food, the wine, the songs, the buildings, the boats, the sea, the sea. A whole page is devoted to eyes and three pages to the light.
“All the vapours that roam the Italian atmosphere and muffle the outlines of things are absent here. A huge magnifying glass burns up the veils of distance, making objects leagues away leap forward clearly as though they were within arm’s length… A distant cordillera completes a curve begun by the vein along the back of a plane-tree leaf, a far-off belfry has the same intensity as a goat’s horn a few yards away, a peninsula leans forward to strike the stem of a dried-up thistle.”
In writing out this passage, one is tempted to go on and on, for it gets even better. There is something in the quality of observation and imagination that is truly extraordinary, and still effortless.
How did the troublesome teenager turned war hero, “clubman, guerrilla and grandee” in Dalrymple’s words, played on screen by the Fifties matinee idol Dirk Bogarde, come by such insights? There may be a clue in the slimmest of his books, A Time to Keep Silence, which recounts brief sojourns in French monasteries, experiences which he described as a “supernatural windfall”. The book is about monks and monasticism, attended by PLF’s sure grasp for the history, the architecture, the rules and patterns of things. With the enforced inward-looking silences and the pervasive contemplative mood, it is also about himself. His reaction to monastic life is somewhere between admiration and incredulity, but he became aware that “the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away… 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”. One imagines a similar non-ordinary state taking hold when he was writing.
His curiosity about monasteries took him to Cappadocia, travelling “from Constantinople through Broussa and Ankara through the lion-coloured uplands of Anatolia to the ancient Caesarea… Biblical and gaunt. Buffalo carts and an occasional string of camels, all heading for the odd town [Kayseri] on the flank of an extinct volcano”. His preference for obsolete names suggests an older time, as do the images redolent of the past – lions, camels, the Bible, the extinct volcano.
But he’s not at home here as he always is in Greece. The ravine leading to Ürgüp is “tormented”; “cloth-capped Turks bubbling in silence over their nargiles” are “the last vestiges of humanity before the labyrinth swallowed us up”. The church interiors are “tenebrous”, Solomon and Elijah “glower” from the columns, “the blind matrix of rock presses in on all sides”. Outside, “the day seemed stationary, as if Joshua, conjuring the cobalt sky, had commanded the sun to stay still”.
The half-dozen or so pages on Cappadocia wonder at the industry of the 11th-century monks who carved out exact replicas of Byzantine churches, complete with windows that can never open, arches and columns that support nothing, apses, basilicas and cupolas all from a single rock. Who were these people, why did they resort to this lunar landscape, what were they fleeing, and what caused them, suddenly, to move on, leaving behind them almost indestructible monuments to an isolated sanctity?
What’s missing, in comparison with his tales of Greece, is the human contact, the larger-than-life characters that spring up in every Greek village and around every feasting table. In “The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia”, there are no people, there is no dialogue, no folk memory. Apart from the bubbling nargile smokers, only a handful of women appear, on their way to the well. “On their heads their right hands supported heavy pitchers, and at our approach their left hands drew their veils across their faces with a fluttering and simultaneous motion.” No word is spoken.
This may have been partly due to the natural reserve of Anatolian villagers and the unlikelihood of conversing with the women. But one suspects more recondite influences. The land was strange, the mysteries more intractable. Cappadocia, like so many places in Turkey, has a sense of uniqueness, as if the Anatolian landscape has over the centuries given birth to quite separate marvels – Nemrut, Hatay, Pammukkale, Sumela, the City of Midas, the citadels of the northeast – each requiring distinct and barely related explanations, whereas Greece, for all its variety, has always a quality of Greekness.
No one has understood this quality better than Paddy Leigh Fermor or expressed it with a finer touch.
The novelist Roger Norman has spent equal amounts of time living in Greece and Turkey. He was a wheelbarrow farmer on Euboia for years. In 1995, he walked from Istanbul to Athens for a Turkish–Greek charity, writing for the Turkish Daily News as he went. He now lives in Eskişehir and lectures at Anadolu University.
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