Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Ivory towers and turnips

The day got away from me yesterday - I thought I had all the time in the world and then suddenly it was five o'clock and getting dark outside. So I'm posting early this morning, before opening the shop, before I get caught up in money-making concerns (the end of the month approaches... must... pay... rent...). I've been reading books about monks for the past few days - various books by and about the Dalai Lama, and then also Patrick Leigh Fermor's little book about staying in monasteries, A Time to Keep Silence (Akadine reprint 1999). All these books discuss altruism as a way of living, both to benefit oneself and to ultimately benefit all beings (through devotion, meditation, prayer, good works, doing no harm, etc), though their take on deism is obviously different. I wasn't expecting these similarities, though, because I usually read Leigh Fermor simply for his beautiful descriptive language, such as this, about his stay with the Benedictines at St Wandrille de Fontanelle (p.46):

"It was a wonderful room to wake up in. Dreamless nights came to an end with no harder shock than that of a boat's keel grounding on a lake shore. Sunlight streamed in through the three tall windows and, as I lay in bed, all I could see was layer on ascending layer of chestnut leaves, like millions of spatulate superimposed green hands, and the crystalline sky of October framed by the thin reflected blue-white, or thick milk-white, or, where the sun struck, white-gold surfaces of the walls and window-arches and embrasures."

And this, in my opinion a nearly perfect bit of prose, about the very beginning of his stay with the Cistercians at la Grande Trappe (p.67):

"In the daylight that followed my arrival, the pale grey Trappe resembled not so much an abbey as a hospital, an asylum or a reformatory. It dwindled off into farm buildings, and came to an end in the fields where thousands of turnips led their secret lives and reared into the air their little frostbitten banners."

Of course one of my favorite parts of the book is a very long description of the massive library at St Wandrille, which readers will have to seek out for themselves (pp.30-31). Leigh Fermor concludes, about the life there and his own sojourn, "...I was inhabiting at last a tower of solid ivory, and I, not the monks, was the escapist." (p.35)

Now I'm in the middle of Leigh Fermor's book Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (Harper 1966), and am about to come to a section about visiting Greek Orthodox monasteries. I picked up Leigh Fermor again after all that talk in the comments a few weeks ago about Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin admired him and sought him out in Greece, befriended him, visited Mount Athos with him, and then apparently experienced some kind of spiritual awakening and in fact aligned himself with Orthodoxy before he died.

Back to the Dalai Lama for a moment - I've got shelves full of Buddhist books, and they stem, among other things, from the first one I ever bought, the Dalai Lama's book Kindness, Clarity and Insight (Snow Lion 1984). I bought it in the lobby of an academic building in Massachusetts, immediately after having heard the Dalai Lama speak. I think it was 1984, and I was seventeen years old. Coming from the bleakness of a Maine winter, seeing him and his monks radiant in saffron and maroon, was shocking and fascinating and though I've forgotten the substance of the lecture (which must have been translated), I'll never forget the atmosphere, the knowing that something very important and real is happening here, with this group of people, these believers, this religion. I considered myself a Buddhist for much of the 1990s before finally coming up against a few bits of dogma I couldn't reconcile myself to, or accept. But I'm still searching! Patrick Leigh Fermor was too, and Bruce Chatwin, and I find it hopeful and reassuring to come across evidence of this throughout their writing.

This is longer than I intended, as usual. Feeling particularly introspective today, with all the reading about monks. Back to the books, to keep looking.

What a wonderful post. As often happens when I read your blog I'm opening up ABE books to find some P.L. Fermor books.

There's much about Buddhism that I agree with. I just finished a wonderful little book by Geri Larkin, Stumbling Toward Enlightenment.
Thank you, Tim. I'll be on the lookout for the Geri Larkin book. I also agree with much of Buddhism and am always interested in good books on the subject, particularly personal narratives by westerners coming up against/engaging in Buddhist practice.

I've mentioned PLF here before - I can't recommend highly enough his two books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, and lucky for us, the New York Review of Books has republished them (and his other books) in their lovely softcover series: "A Time of Gifts" and "Between the Woods and the Water." They are so good I want to SHOUT.
I read Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Chatwin last year and seem to remember that he is buried in a tiny Greek Orthodox chapel close to Fermor's home. I wonder if the conversion was due to a real spiritual awakening or to increasing viral fuzziness in his brain.
I have three PLF books on the shelf right next to me - all John Murray hardbacks and too unwieldy to read comfortably, I must look out for the softcover series. He reminds me of the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier and his trip in the early 50s from Geneva to the Khyber Pass. The book is entitled "L'Usage du Monde" - have you ever come across it in English?
Hi Sarah: Just over from reading Lux Mentis. OT, but a book I found to be both beautiful and deeply disturbing when I worked for a very large old bookstore was "The Bookshop", by Penelope Fitzgerald. This led indirectly to the spiritist horror fiction of Hilary Mantel- "Every Day is Mother's Day" and "Vacant Possession" I haven't read her new book, because she scares the living hell out of me. And I'm a crotchety old bastard.
Lesley, hi - it looks like at least two of Bouvier's books have been translated into English, one is his journeys in Japan. I've never seen his books - now I'll have to seek something out, though...

Do look for those NYRB Classics, they are very nicely made little softcovers. Good paper, attractive covers, nice typography. They reprint all of PLF.

I am a complete romanticist and must believe that Chatwin found (in part) what he was looking for before the end of his life. I've read a few accounts of what happened, and his friends seemed to think it was an authentic experience, that something essential had happened to him, and that he was changed by it, and it was both unexpected and a relief. But who can say.

Daddy-o, hi there - I have read "The Bookshop" - a disturbing little tale of a town that doesn't want a bookshop, and the woman who runs it anyway... but have not read anything by Hilary Mantel. If it's super-scary, I probably won't - I have nightmares. Really...
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