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.

Around that time a woman he knew died suddenly at the age of forty. Her husband was a very religious man, and Alain was struck by the funeral he arranged. There was grief, of course, but there was also a beautiful faith, serenity, and acceptance. As time went by and his thoughts turned more to religion, he had no one to talk to. He got in touch with the husband of the woman who had died, and the man recommended that Alain speak to the priest who had conducted the funeral service. They met a couple of times, and then the priest announced that he was leaving for vacation in Brittany. Easter was coming. The priest suggested that Alain come to Brittany and take his first communion there. He knew a Trappist monastery at which Alain could stay.

Alain liked that monastery in Brittany so much that he almost became a Trappist monk, which would have meant never seeing his family or talking to anyone outside the monastery again. Eventually he decided against it, in part because Trappist life is too communal for someone who loves privacy as much as he does, and in part because the total, brutal break with the world that Trappists are required to make would have caused too much pain to his family and friends.

A few people he knew told him about Roissac, which is a Benedictine monastery. He went to look at it and liked it. He made a second, longer visit to Roissac, but remained tempted by the Trappists. The abbot of Roissac told him not to worry about it, but to go home and wind up his affairs; when the answer was in place, he would know it. So he returned to Paris for a year or two, taking on no new students but bringing all the ones he had through to the end of their studies. In time he decided to enter the Benedictine monastery. He didn't tell many people what he was planning to do, so when he did announce it, it seemed abrupt. But in truth it wasn't. Before he left Paris, he gave away all his possessions and stopped accepting bookings. He performed his last concert a few days before he joined the Benedictines at Roissac. Madame de Brunhoff took his decision hard. Music had been the bond between them and the most important thing in the world to her.

AT Roissac, Alain was immediately happy and knew it was where he belonged. He stopped playing the piano. He felt that his religious life demanded complete commitment and so did his music. He had to choose between them. Many of the monks were men of accomplishment -- one designed tapestries, another worked in stained glass, another was a ceramicist, yet another was a composer -- and continued to practice their art in the monastery. Alain's renunciation was something he imposed on himself.

He became a hermit gradually. The abbot had arranged for a few of the monks to take part in some discussions of spiritual matters at a place outside the monastery where they would be free to concentrate -- a kind of retreat. The place they chose, at the random suggestion of someone who had never been there, was an enclave of cottages on the grounds of a convent near the hamlet of St. Paul. Alain loved the quiet of the spot. Later, when he went through a period of mental fatigue so great that the abbot noticed and suggested he take some time off, he chose to return there. He began going there regularly for two weeks a year. Eight years went by. Since he discussed everything with his abbot, the abbot knew that he wanted to leave Roissac and move permanently to St. Paul. They decided that he would go back for a month, as a test; they chose January, the hardest month. It was cold, damp, and miserable, but Alain felt spiritually comfortable there, and eventually the abbot decided to let him move.

Alain related his tale to us with the intensity he had brought to playing Chopin and with an inclusiveness I know from my mother's accounts of her illnesses. As she describes, with a reverence that is hard to enter into, her dealings with the doctors, the nurses, and the orderlies in the hospital, he described meetings with his abbot and consultations with his fellow monks. What came through most clearly to me, in addition to the purity of his commitment to the life he had chosen, was a recurrent need to withdraw from other people, which seemed a response to and perhaps also a source of his intense desirability.

We spent an enormous amount of time at lunch; then we sat in the leather chairs of the hotel lounge and talked more. When the sun was lower, we headed back to Alain's hermitage. Past the spot where we'd first met him, the road dipped down and ran alongside the nuns' compound. We drove beyond that, over a small bridge, and around another few bends to a gate, where we left the car. Then we walked past a wooden outhouse, a shower shed, and a chapel, and up a path, with little houses visible through clearings in the scrub.

The enclave had room for ten hermits, who came for stays of a week to a month; Alain was the only one who remained on a permanent basis. The tile-roofed yellow-stucco house in which he had been living for three years when we saw him was about ten by ten feet, the size of a large tool shed. Its one room contained a mattress on raised boards, covered with an army blanket, a desk and chair under a wall of windows, which were covered in burlap to keep out the sun, and an armoire, also covered in burlap, on top of which were a suitcase and some folders. On the wall by the bed was a cross made from two branches roughly nailed together. The floor was covered in linoleum-patterned Con-Tact paper. A lightbulb with a simple metal shade hung from the ceiling. The roof tiles showed above the supporting beams, and the effect was pleasantly rustic. On the desk were a Bible, prayer books, postcards of religious art, and a box containing family photographs. In a bookcase next to the desk Alain kept his correspondence, a ceramic-disc heater, and an electric pesticide diffuser, as well as books.

NATURE is violent in this region. When it rains, torrents come down the mountainside. Sometimes the hermitage was cut off from the sisters by flash floods that covered the bridge over what was at the time of our visit a totally dry, rock-strewn streambed. The hillside was gashed where water had cut through the land. During the first winter Alain had watched the water rise outside the house. When it was a foot deep, he began packing his suitcase. Before he could leave, the door burst open under the force of the flood, and the house was instantly filled with water brown from mud and cow dung. This, he said, was his lowest point.

In winter the cold was intense, but a large, old-fashioned heater made it bearable. He hoped the new disc heater would help too, but wanted to know if it consumed much electricity, because he didn't want to burden the sisters, who paid the electric bill. In the fall and the spring everything got wet and stayed that way. Moisture soaked through from the outside, and mildew covered the walls. Three lumberjacks who lived nearby had built him a little lean-to or porch at the front of the house, so that rain would not beat directly against his door and front window. When we were there, too much heat was the problem. With no foundation and no insulation in the roof, the temperature in the bungalow often reached 95&deg.

"It's a dangerous thing to be a hermit, because if you're not serious, it quickly becomes ridiculous," Alain said. He had begun to teach himself Hebrew, to read the Old Testament. But he found that he was spending more and more time at it. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would turn to the Hebrew book. It began to fill his head, so he finally had to stop: after all, he wasn't there to learn languages. He had constantly to remember what the ultimate purpose of all of it was, and stick to it. You can easily become a nature-loving bum, he said, or someone who sleeps a lot.

In fact he was busy; his time was full. He received letters, many of them enormously long, from friends, family, and former students. Answering them was a drain on his energy, and since they were serious letters, they had to be answered seriously. People brought him their problems. A friend who twice had tried to commit suicide had just written saying that he urgently wanted to come see him. How could Alain say no? He had prayers to say several times a day, and he went to mass with the sisters every morning. Since they fed him, preparing a bucket of food that he picked up every morning, he felt he had to pay them back somehow. He did it by cutting brush. He had a large-wheeled brush cutter that he operated in the afternoon -- the only free time he had. In the heat of the day it was brutal work.

He showed us his view. To the side and in front of the house, across a deep cleft, the land rose sharply to a majestic rocky ridge. It was like a wave about to crash down, frozen in stone. He had asked the mother superior for permission to cut an oak in order to get this view, and Laurent twitted him. Didn't this smack of aestheticism? It depended on the purpose, Alain replied. If it was an end in itself, yes. If it aided him in communicating with God, no. He had chosen renunciation not for renunciation's sake but in the service of something else -- his relationship with God. If things got in the way of that, as music did, then he had to give them up. He couldn't split himself. "But I'm not a Cartesian, bound in by walls so I can look up only to the sky. Whatever helps me is okay. This helps."

One of the things he liked most about his hermitage, he said, was the silence: "Silence is my music now." He could pick up the small sounds of the wind in the leaves, the sounds of insects and animals. Sometimes when the wind was strong, it blew the sound of the traffic on the autoroute to him. He liked it. He liked to think of all the people going on with their lives and to think of himself as in a sense staying where he was for their sakes, "like a lighthouse keeper."

He said he had done a little writing, but he was wary of it. It becomes gargarisme-- throat-gargling. You begin to think you're important. You write things up, inflate them. You moussify inside -- that is, I guess, foam up like egg whites. (At this point I was feeling very shabby, a gargariste and a moussifier. Moreover, I had every intention of going back to the hotel and writing down what Alain had said.) The point of passing time in solitude is to strip yourself bare, to discover what is essential and true. When you're stripped down to this point, you see how little you amount to. But that little is all that God is interested in. He doesn't give a damn about the rest.

Alain disapproves completely of my having written this and asked me not to publish it. I've changed his name, the name of his monastery and its location, and the name and location of his hermitage to protect his privacy, but I will never get him to see my having written what he told me as anything but a violation of a confidence. By profession and national temperament, I believe in making things known; by profession and national temperament, he believes in keeping them quiet.

Phyllis Rose is a professor of English at Wesleyan University. Her essay in this issue appears in somewhat different form in her book The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, to be published by Scribner this month.

Illustration by David Johnson

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; The Music of Silence; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 44-48.