Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Time to Keep Silence

There are times when the outsiders' perspective leaves the reader with a sense of being slightly short-changed, but there are also occasions when the outsider is able to communicate what he sees with as much (or more) clarity than those on the inside. Take Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, for instance, a great book about monasticism from an acclaimed travel writer.

This passage gives a sense of what you are given in the book as a whole: "Listening to the singing of the Hours in the language of fifth- or sixth-century Western Christendom, one can forget the alterations of the twentieth and feel that the life-line of notes and syllables between the Early Church and today is still intact: that these, indeed, might have been the sung words to which King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha listened when St Augustine first set foot in the Isle of Thanet."

What we have here is a sympathetic author who a) writes beautiful prose b) understands and appreciates the Church's continuity c) to many students' delight, writes a book that weighs in at under 100 pages. 

But those same students might find these 95 pages lexically challenging. Take this extract from page 36: "Tierce ended, the officiating monk entered in his vestments, and the deacon and sub-deacon, the acolytes and torch-bearers. They genuflected together, and the Mass began. Every moment the ceremony gained in splendour. If it was the feast of a great saint, the enthroned abbot was arrayed by his myrmidons in the pontificalia. A gold mitre was placed on his head, and the gloved hand that held the crosier was jewelled at the point of the stigma and on the third finger the great ring sparkled over the fabric. The thurifer approached the celebrant and a column of incense climbed into the air, growing and spreading like an elm-tree of smoke across the shafts of sunlight. The chanting became steadily more complex, led by a choir of monks who stood in the middle of the aisle, their voices limning chants that the black Gregorian block-notes, with their comet-like tails and Moorish-looking arabesques, wove and rewove across the threads of the antique four-line clef on the pages of their graduals. Then, with a quiet solemnity, the monks streamed into the cloister in the wake of a jewelled cross."

Not that the comparative complexity of the language should be a reason to ignore this book. Rather, in much the same way that the author had to adjust himself to the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we, his readers, need to adjust our reading to his language. Just as he had to adjust to the pace and rhythm of the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we need to adjust our reading to the pace and rhythm of his prose. Just as there is a time to keep silence, so too is there a time to read slowly.

1 comment:

  1. Have recently read the biography by Artemis Cooper. A great read, Looking forward to reading this one soon. He really worked at his writing, revising and rewriting often, giving heartburn to his publisher.