The Music of Silence

A portrait of an unlikely monk

I MARRIED into an extraordinary family. Laurent's father was Jean de Brunhoff, the author and illustrator of the Babar books I loved so much as a child. Laurent and his brother Mathieu, barely a year younger than he, now a beloved pediatrician in Paris, were the little boys for whom the story of Babar was invented, by their mother, Cécile. The boys told their mother's wonderful story to their father, a painter, and asked him to illustrate it, which he did, writing a text and slightly modifying the story his wife had told -- adding, for example, the Old Lady. That is uncanny, because Madame de Brunhoff, my mother-in-law, although she was young at the time and looked nothing like the Old Lady, has come more and more to resemble the woman her husband drew in 1931, as though he could imagine her changing in time, like those computer projections of lost children. Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis when he was thirty-seven, leaving his widow with three small boys. Laurent was twelve, Mathieu eleven, and Alain almost three. Alone, never remarrying, Madame de Brunhoff got them through the war and brought them up. She was a pianist and taught at the Ecole Normale de Musique.
Laurent inherited his father's talent and became a painter, living the classic student-artist's life in a studio in Montparnasse until, at the age of twenty-one, he resurrected Babar and began to write and illustrate books about the lovable elephant -- at least in part, he says, as a way of resurrecting his father and continuing imaginatively the family life of his childhood. Few readers were aware of any change in the authorship of the Babar books, partly because the war had intervened to explain any gap, and partly because Laurent had trained himself so well to draw elephants in the style of his father.

Alain inherited his mother's musical talent and, initially trained by her, became a concert pianist, well known in France in the 1960s. By the time I met Laurent, Alain was legendary in Paris for his talent, looks, and charm, and the glamorous life he had led before abruptly retiring from the world and becoming a monk at the age of forty.

Laurent and I visited Alain in the summer of 1990, some years after Alain had left his monastery outside Bordeaux for a hermitage in the Pyrenees. It was remote, but not as remote as I had imagined it, my idea of hermits dating back to the time of Saint Jerome. I envisioned them living on columns in the desert or hauling supplies in baskets up by ropes to their hand-hewn caves, whereas Alain lived on the grounds of a convent in a special bungalow enclave built for hermits, and he could have visitors.

Laurent and I, who were having a late honeymoon in Provence, drove down to see him in an air-conditioned BMW that from the figures Avis gave him, Laurent had somehow imagined was no more expensive to rent than a Ford Escort. From Avignon it was about two hours on the highway that runs by Nîmes, Montpellier, and Perpignan, along the route that the Romans pioneered and that countless tourists now follow on their way to Spain. We traveled at 90 mph the whole way, not feeling the speed, with Così fan tutte on the stereo. Only Mercedes, other BMWs, and very aggressive little R5s and Peugeot 205s failed to move out of our way. At the last exit in France we left the autoroute and headed toward the high peaks of the Pyrenees. Soon, following Alain's directions to the mountain hamlet near which he lived, we were in desolate country, covered with scrub and stunted oaks. The whole mountainside had burned a few years before, but the dense underbrush was already back.

Alain said he would wait for us on the road, and as we came up over a rise at the appointed hour, we saw him walking toward us. He was dressed not in the brown burlap hermit garb I was stupidly expecting but in ordinary corduroy pants and a green cotton shirt, and, like us, wore sandals. A figure recognizably of Laurent's family, handsome, elegant, Parisian, he looked out of place in that wilderness. I had to swallow tears. Loving him from my first glimpse of him through the windshield, I felt an immediate and wrenching sense of loss, something like the grief of mourning, and found it hard to bear that he had chosen to sequester himself this way. I could only imagine how much more strongly this grief was felt by those who knew him better.

We took him to our hotel for lunch and talked all through the meal and for hours after, waiting for the heat of the day to abate before going back to his hermitage. Then we talked more. In all, we spent seven hours talking that day, beginning with appreciation of our car and other reassuringly worldly matters. Gradually Alain began to talk about himself. Although he lived almost entirely in silence and secrecy, he wanted to explain how he had come to where he was in life, understanding that there would not be many chances for us to meet and get to know each other.

HIS had been a lonely childhood. Alain was almost three when his father died, so he did not even have memories of him. Madame de Brunhoff rarely talked about Jean. While Alain was growing up, she was distant, absorbed in her music and in her grief. His brothers and cousins, almost a decade older, seemed to belong to a different generation.

As a gifted musician, he moved into a world of performers and connoisseurs. At the precocious age of fifteen he was already leading a sophisticated, worldly life, and by the time he was eighteen, he had had enough of it and wanted solitude. He went to live alone in the country, where he stayed for four years before resuming his highly social existence. For the next ten years Alain became increasingly well known as a pianist, giving concerts, making recordings. Like his mother, he taught at the Ecole Normale de Musique.

Then a distressing event interrupted the momentum of his life: a house he had lived in and used for storage burned. The fire destroyed the family souvenirs that meant so much to him, including many of his father's paintings, his grandfather's memoirs, and all his music. It shook him profoundly. It was, he said, his first shedding, his first deprivation; he used the word dépouillement, which means "the skinning of an animal."

In his turmoil he had no religion to turn to. His father had been Protestant and his mother, though technically Catholic, really believed only in music. Still, an object that meant a great deal to Alain was his father's Bible. He took it with him everywhere and looked through it frequently. Jean had underlined heavily in places. One day, looking through the New Testament, Alain found a passage that had been underlined so often that the paper was nearly falling apart. It struck him in that moment that his father had really believed, that these words in the Gospel had been important to him.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In