From Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper (New York Review Books, 2013), Kindle loc. 3920ff.
When Paddy turned up on the doorstep unannounced one Sunday afternoon, he had no idea whether the monks would be willing to take him in or not. But he was allowed in and shown to a cell, a high seventeenth-century room overlooking a courtyard. It contained a bed, a prie-dieu, a crucifix and a table. Meals were taken in silence, in the enormous refectory hall. Working at the coalface of salvation, the monks spent several hours a day in church, and several more in study, private prayer and meditation. All that was required of the guests was to obey the rules set out for them.
How different the Benedictines were to the raki-swigging, pistol-packing, ballad-singing monks he had known in the monasteries of wartime Crete. These pale cowled figures, who were never seen to smile or frown, seemed to him barely alive. It was impossible to work in this suffocating, tomb-like place. By nine o’clock – just when his friends in Paris were beginning to think about how to spend the evening – the whole monastery was asleep. Paddy slept badly the first few nights, falling into deep wells of hopeless misery. By day he was restless and tired. This was followed by a period of intense lethargy, when he found himself – for almost the first time in his life – spending more hours asleep than awake.
He emerged from this period of narcolepsy feeling not only refreshed, but revitalized in a way that was quite new to him. He began to understand how the monastic rule conserved energies that, in real life, were dissipated in ‘conversations at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo . . . This new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom.’ Paddy spent it walking in the autumnal forests around the abbey, while at night he worked in front of the pile of manuscripts, maps of the Caribbean islands, and photographs of the Central American jungle.
Almost a month was spent at Saint-Wandrille, which went from being a sepulchre to a sanctuary. He felt he could not impose on the monks much longer, but work was progressing and he did not want to break the monastic spell. It could also be that he was rather nervous of the direction Joan wanted their relationship to take. ‘I got the curse so late this month’, she wrote in one letter, ‘that I began to hope I was having a baby, and that you would have to make it into a legitimate little Fermor. All hopes ruined this morning.’
He returned to Paris filled with resolution, but soon felt the need for another monastic immersion. This time he went to the great monastery of Saint-Jean-de-Solesmes on the river Sarthe, where the tradition of plainchant had been revived under its founder, Dom Prosper Guéranger. Again the monks welcomed him, but ‘I’m not enjoying Solesmes quite as much as I did Saint-Wandrille . . . There are many more monks here, everything is much more organized and impersonal.’ The long cold passages, and the swing doors with frosted glass panes, gave him that sinking feeling of going back to school. However, ‘I am working like anything at the moment, and in spite of Benzers [benzedrine tablets, sent to him by Joan] I feel absolutely exhausted.’ In between bouts of writing he read in the vast and well-catalogued library.