is one of the most compelling and charming books I’ve ever read. I understand completely why it was a best seller when it was published in 1948 and why it remains in print. It’s especially appealing to the young man in me, who envies the life the young Merton lived, a life of travel back and forth to Europe, of reading on riverbanks and hillsides, of flânerie and art-film houses, of girls and cigarettes.
The prose is extraordinary. Listen to this, from p. 115: “I started out from Hyères again, this time more weary and depressed, walking among the pines, under the hot sun, looking at the rocks and the yellow mimosas and the little pink villas and the light blazing on the sea. That night I came down a long hill in the dusk to a hamlet called Cavalaire, and slept in a boarding house full of sombre retired accountants who drank vin-rosé with their wives under the dim light of weak electric bulbs, and I went to bed and dreamt that I was in jail.” This from a man who at the time he writes of was eighteen.
It was in Rome that Merton, traveling by himself, began to think about a religious life. Here are some of the places he stayed and/or visited: a pensione “that looked down on the sunny Triton fountain in the middle of the Plaza Barberini and the Bristol Hotel and the Barberini Cinema and the Barberini Palace.” Also: Sts. Cosmas and Damian; St. Pudenziana; St. Praxed’s; San Pietro in Vincoli; Santa Maria Maggiore; San Giovanni in Laterano; Santa Prassede; Santa Sabina; Santa Maria sopra Minerva; Santa Maria in Cosmedin; Santa Maria in Trastevere; Santa Agnese; San Clemente; Santa Cecilia.
On first thinking he could like to be a Trappist monk, he wrote: “There was very little danger of my doing so, then. The thought was only a daydream–and I suppose it is a dream that comes to many men, even men who don’t believe in anything. Is there a man who has ever gone through a whole lifetime without dressing himself up, in his fancy, in the habit of a monk and enclosing himself in a cell where he sits in heroic austerity and solitude, while all the young ladies who hitherto were cool to his affections in the world come and beat on the gates of the monastery crying, ‘Come out, come out!'”
Like me, Merton went to Columbia, where his mentor was Mark Van Doren, of whom he writes: “Mark would come into the room and, without any fuss, would start talking about whatever was to be talked about. Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had ‘educed’ them from you by his question. His classes were literally ‘education’–they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas.” That was exactly my experience with Edward Tayler at Columbia, in his classes in literature humanities, 17th century literature, and 17th century poetry.
P. 165: “…October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and the quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun.” Again, my experience in high school and in college, less my experience now, perhaps because I am in the October of my life.