Tag Archives: NYRB-project

A Time To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time To Keep Silence - Patrick Leigh FermorA Time To Keep Silence – Patrick Leigh Fermor
NYRB Classics, 2011 (first published: 1957)
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After reading Between the Woods and the Water, I became fascinated with Patrick Leigh Fermor and started looking for other works of him. When I read the description of A Time To Keep Silence, an account of Leigh Fermor’s experiences visiting several monasteries around Europe, I could hardly resist buying it and reading it right away. And so I did.

In the introduction, Karen Armstrong remarks that Leigh Fermor’s conclusions about monastic life are at times faulty. For example:

“As he watched the monks going about their daily lives, Leigh Fermor assumed that ‘the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer’ and concluded that without ‘this first postulate of belief’ monastic life would be farcical and intolerable. I think that he was mistaken in this. It is only since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that the Christian West made ‘belief’ – the acceptance of certain creedal propositions – ‘the first postulate’ of religious life. (…) In the premodern period, however, in all the major world faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behavior. First, you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God (…). This has been the experience of monks and nuns.”

This is not just Armstrong’s opinion. Catholic monastic life developed around the principles of acting out faith, instead of the idea that the acceptance of, believing in, Christianity, was enough. Though the above citation suggests that Armstrong links the monastic principles encountered by Leigh Fermor in the twentieth-century to pre-modern times (as if Catholicism is pre-modern at its core), she does in later paragraphs explain that this is simply where this lifestyle originated, and that thus, even though belief would be key to the lives of the monks Leigh Fermor encountered, practicing it through their lifestyle would still be the essential of monastic life.

I am not writing this review to argue for or against the views expressed by Leigh Fermor. In contrast, I think that the fact that in this book someone who has been raised in a different Christian environment, portrays Catholic monastic life according to his experience of it as an outsider, is what makes it so very interesting. Throughout the book, I wondered about the ways in which this small booklet reflects so many perspectives on a (by now) niche Christian phenomenon. Here I was, a girl raised atheist, but from a Catholic background, and having been schooled academically to a certain extent on Catholic traditions, reading a book by an English man who was most likely Anglican (?), that sets out his perspective on Catholic monastic life in Europe, through his own experience and his talks with monks who gave their own views on their life. It was not because of his information that I found this an interesting read, Leigh Fermor’s language can be quite dense and long-winded, with details that at times make little sense, but exactly because it was fascinating what he had to say about this way of life. Clearly, at first he felt it was not for him at all, and you can read the scepticism in some of the paragraphs, but he also admits he was changed by the experience, the rhythm of life, the simplicity. It becomes incredibly clear that Fermor is sympathetic towards Benedictines, but has troubles understanding what would bring spiritual fulfilment about life as a Trappist monk. While I do understand his questions, I felt at times he was very quick in dismissing someone else’s choice of life. Throughout the book it felt as if Leigh Fermor remains at a distance from the monastic lives he describes. To some extent this feels more as an memoir in which we learn little about monasteries and more about Leigh Fermor himself, but in which questions surrounding religion and worldviews are central. I may have found some of his more critical remarks baffling, in the same way that I find it quite hard to understand how you could start living in a monastery for a while without knowing what the basic precepts are, but I was keenly interested all the same. I guess this proofs once again that in all my studies of religions, I am never interested in the rules and official worldview per se, but intrigued about the perceptions and individual appropriation of them.

Now that that long-winded ramble is out of the way, let me tell you that I would not recommend this book to anyone. You would have to be able to look past Patrick Leigh Fermor’s tendency to write long-winded detailed sentences, and his sometimes pompous self-assertion, and definitely you would have to like venturing into a book that describes travels and religion (though I admit, I generally do not enjoy travel writing that much). I think this book serves a niche-audience more than his travel memoirs of Europe during the 1930’s, but for those who are intrigued by the subject matter, it is a worthwhile read, and a short one at that.

Other Opinions: A Work in Progress, Fizzy Thoughts, The 2 R’s, Book Garden, The Mookse and The Gripes.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add it to the list. 

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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

The Vet's Daughter - Barbara ComynsThe Vet’s Daughter – Barbara Comyns
NYRB Classics, 2003 (Originally published 1959)
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You may remember that I felt some trepidation about this book. Having read the reviews of Claire and Polly, I expected this book to be oppressive, dealing with a horrible and tough subject matter. And while that is true, it was also not that hard to read, for various reasons. In the end, I thought The Vet’s Daughter was beautiful, even if I’m still not sure about the rather strange ending.

The Vet’s Daughter is a story about Alice Rowlands, told through her eyes, about her life with her cruel father, her dejected and sad mother, and later on her small steps towards a better life.

Her father’s cruelty is portrayed from the start. The scene of Alice’s life is set, really, as soon as you read the second paragraph:

I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

Barbara Comyns uses exactly the right words to describe the circumstances Alice finds herself in, which makes the setting extra sinister: she uses sparse wording, Alice Rowlands observations are matter of fact, detached and never over the top. This makes that her father becomes even more truly horrible, because he never becomes a cartoon evil character, but instead has little glimpses of humanity left in him.

Comyns sucked me into the story, and I followed her lead into these oppressive circumstances willingly. I was even quite ready to believe Alice’s wonder and acceptance of the strange ability she discovers in herself. And, until the last few pages, I wanted to rate this 5 stars, proclaim it a favourite. But then the final denouement happened, and it wasn’t that this was even more strange per se, but something about it left me a little unsatisfied, left me feeling that I would have needed a few more words, another paragraph perhaps. Because everything happened in such a rush and was so surreal that I am still not sure what to think.

But perhaps this is the way Comyns likes you to feel? It is almost as if The Vet’s Daughter is the surreal opposite of a fairytale. And even if I still feel confused by its ending, I know that I will want to come back for more, reread this, and read other books by Comyns too.

I read The Vet’s Daughter as part of the NYRB-Project.

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Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Between the Woods and the Water - Patrick Leigh FermorBetween the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor
NYRB Classics, 2005
(first published 1986)
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Mind you, it was a contented sigh. There is nothing quite like the quiet out-of-this-world travel descriptions of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Or at least, in my opinion. I am no expert in the genre of travel memoirs. I don’t think I will ever be. Sometimes I feel like I do not know enough about the countries the author describes and that the books would be more fun had I been there myself. Not so for this book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Which is incidentally the first one I read by him, so my claim that there is nothing like his writing is not very well founded. But it feels like it anyway.

Between the Woods and the Water is the second book in what was originally meant to be a trilogy of travel memoirs about Fermor’s youthful travels through Europe, from Hoek van Holland to Constantinople, on foot, sustained by the kindness of people he meets on his way. I should have started with the first book in the series, A Time of Gifts, but it was unavailable when I wanted to read it which is why I turned to this one. And it is not as problematic as it may sound. This second volume is about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travels through Eastern Europe. On the eve (or well, only a few years before) the start of the Second World War.

It is a completely different world you find here. Stories of castles and nobility, the rich of Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe itself, before the devastation of the Second World War and later communism. I know next to nothing about Eastern Europe, but that did not matter. It is so very different. So fairytale like, almost, that none of the problems of regular travel memoirs occur.

This book asked me to suspend my place in the here and now, it makes you let go of time and reality. While the book mentions names and sometimes even dates, you feel like you are wandering through the memories of Fermor as much as you are wandering through this forgotten world, even more so because this was written years after his actual travels. There is no map to complement his journey, something I lamented at times. But it also contributed to the otherworldly feel. To the feeling that reading this book was like meditation. A meditation on a world that is no more. But also a meditation on how it came to be. With many side trips to where the people he met came from, why the languages in the region are so alike and yet so different, stories of the many ‘tribes’ that fought for hegemony there, during the Middle Ages. Explanations about religions and the different strands of Christianity and later Islam that he came across on his travels. And sometimes, a small peak at what is to happen, at how things will never be the same in a few more years. But always glimpses, very short, before Patrick Leigh Fermor returns to the reality of back then.

The only small difficulty I had with the book is that, even if you meet people along the way, some of which apparently become life long friends, I never felt any personal connection to them. They were just figures you meet but never get to know. The landscape is a character the reader gets much more intimately acquainted with. I felt like I was often reaching, but rarely managed to grasp the persons he describes, even himself.

Between the Woods and the Water was a gem of a book. I am very grateful to Danielle for pointing it out to me many months ago. It may not be the kind of book every one enjoys. It is also one that needs a specific reading mood, but it was perfect right now. I cannot wait to start A Time of Gifts and I also have A Time to Keep Silence (focused solely on monasteries) on my TBR pile.

I read this book as part of the NYRB Classics Project.

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The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado - Elaine DundyThe Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy
NYRB Classics, 2007
(first published 1958)
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The Dud Avocado is about the adventures of a young American girl in Paris called Sally Jay Gorce. She slowly discovers her freedom in the unrestrained environment while she associates with other young Americans and artists. Sally is discovering her freedom: she dyes her hair pink, she walks around in an evening dress before lunch, she has sexual encounters with several man for whom she does not necessarily have any feelings. She feels empowered, but is also clearly a little lost and scatter brained. And while as a reader you can appreciate her independence, you are at the same time  a little apprehensive of some of the people she becomes entangled with.

Last year, Bina highly recommended this title. And I admit, I had high expectations when I started this book. Maybe that is why I was not completely convinced. Yes, Sally Jay Gorce makes astute observations, that are also very humourous. Take these three observations, for example. Who can resist smiling and nodding vigorously while reading them?

“they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.”

“the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”


“The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way?”

Sally Jay Gorce is a lively, witty and very loveable heroine. But I admit, I got a little tired of her after a while. I struggled through the middle part and it was only in the last 40 pages or so did I begin to appreciate the story again. But my hesitant liking of this story may also be due to the time at which I read it. I can imagine reading this by the poolside with a lot more pleasure than in the little hours left in between writing a thesis.

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The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût

The Ten Thousand Things - Maria DermoûtThe Ten Thousand Things – Maria Dermoût
NYRB Classics, 2002 (translated from Dutch by Hans Koning, published in 1955 in Dutch as “De tienduizend dingen”)
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The Ten Thousand Things is about Felicia, a woman who returns with her baby son to an island in the Moluccas, Indonesia, after she has been away for many years. The island is reigned by her grandmother. There, she learns that everything carries stories: nature, houses, and all other objects. Some are to be feared, others to be respected. You may even meet the dead. This book, in which time and storylines circle around each other, expand and retract, is one of the first works of “magical realism” in Dutch fiction.

I struggled with The Ten Thousand Things. I had written half of this post in my head by page 60 and I was ready to just admit that maybe this style, maybe this thing they call magical realism (I think?) just isn’t for me. There was so much going on, so much strangeness and yet familiar family storylines. So much “exotic” landscape with stories tied to everything. I wasn’t sure if I could keep up, or if I was interested enough in trying. Nor was I able to come to terms with how I felt about Dermoût’s way of painting the scenery: at what time is the story situated? how did she feel about the Dutch colonial presence in Indonesia? What should I think about her portrait of the Javanese, and others in the region? I wasn’t sure.

[Actually, her reflections on Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies (probably still? at the time she is writing about?) are very interesting. There is no agreement with one side or the other, or so it feels, in the end. She shows many sides, a joyful professor and his Javanese helper, who nonetheless feel estranged from each other because of all the othering going on between them. The description of what we might consider exotic, and yet Dermoût’s utter respect for it. She never judges, she shows. I don’t know, the thing is, I had to let go of these questions, while reading. Because that is not what reading this book should be about, for me, at this time.]

Around page 70 things started to change. Not because I suddenly started to understand what Maria Dermoût was trying to tell me, or what her views were, or anything. That only started to happen a little while later, if it happened at all. But because I was able to let go. Of my more scholarly perspective (That was hard considering I am trying to write a thesis about Indonesia’s colonial years at the moment), of my confusion, and just enjoy the story. The flow. Because once you get used to it, and just read, the story does have a certain flow. And I started to care for the characters, where at first I couldn’t quite do that either. I cannot pinpoint why. But somewhere around the time that the story started to diverge even more, it started to work better for me. I became curious: why introduce all these other characters, all these other stories? How on earth are you going to make them come together, in the end, in only 10 pages?

But wow, those last pages. They are so poignant. Maybe it is because things become more personal there. Maria Dermoût writes about Felicia’s feelings and unwillingness to get over the murder of her son:

She wasn’t an oversensitive woman and certainly not sentimental, but she would always keep that deep and burning pity for those who had been murdered; she rebelled against it, murder, she couldn’t accept it, not for her son nor for anyone, not then, not now, and not in all eternity.


But she was a woman living on earth who had loved her child living on earth – perhaps it was his silence which she could not bear.

Those scenes! Watching, reading, how Felicia tries to, but fails to, and yet accepts that she cannot, come to terms with the loss of her son. All the more touching when you know that Maria Dermoût lost her own son, who died in a Japanese war camp.

And now, I am left with a feeling that I want to read more by Dermoût. She is said to have published one more book, and a few short stories. But maybe I will read them in Dutch this time? This book is one of the few times that I was left wondering what this book would have been like in Dutch. Because, while it didn’t feel like it at the end of the book, the beginning made me question whether this was her style, or the translation, and if the translation did not keep me separated, in a way, from the story that was being told here.

The Ten Thousand Things is not for everyone, I think. I had trouble getting through those first pages myself. But while reading, I felt it might be a lot more suitable to some bloggers I know (The Wolves & Sasha, perhaps?) than it was for me. And yet I enjoyed the book. And I am sure it is a story that will stay with me for a long while, even if I felt a little lost at first.

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