A quiet life

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Sara Maitland

Having written a stark potrayal of her isolated existence, Sara Maitland switches the phone on long enough to tell Rosalie Doubal that stillness is nothing to be afraid of

It would seem that we’ve all become a little wary of silence. The sizeable majority of British society who own mobile phones may agree. Plug in, jump online, talk in libraries, and you’re doing OK. Withdraw however, and you have issues. Accomplished novelist Sara Maitland has been pursuing this social taboo for the last ten years and, perhaps unsurprisingly, her findings on silence do not document a savage and terrifying dip into some insipid void. Maitland’s new work unfolds silence’s cultural history as something both symphonic and significant.

A Book of Silence portrays long periods of reclusion on the Isle of Skye, in the Sinai desert and in the Scottish hills. The first to admit that a life of total exclusion would be implausible, Maitland continues to teach and write from a small hermitage she recently built on an isolated moor in Galloway. She spends around three hours a day in prayer and two days a week in total silence, unplugging both phone and internet. ‘I do have silence because I don’t have a television, a radio or a tumble dryer,’ admits the assured Maitland. ‘The idea that you cannot live without permanent open contact with anyone who wants to contact you, is a clear sign of where we’re at.’

As the eldest daughter in a family of six, an outspoken feminist, a scriptwriter for Stanley Kubrick, a wife to an Anglican vicar, and a fiercesome mother of two, Maitland has filled many busy roles. Her breakthrough novel Daughters of Jerusalem won the Somerset Maugham prize for literature in 1979 and a considered body of fiction, non-fiction and short stories has followed. Socialism, feminism and Christianity have been her informing polemics; the bind of beauty and terror, her unending fascination. An unlikely candidate then, for a life of all-encompassing hush, Maitland’s explorations of silence have been met with some criticism. ‘They’re curious about me: am I completely mad? They feel they need a psychoanalytic explanation, and when I say, “actually I’m doing it because I like it”, they say, “do you have problems with authority?”’

Maitland addresses the stresses caused by enforced silence with great sensitivity in her work, chronicling its dark effect in cases of torture and solitary confinement, acknowledging that there is some sense in the contemporary association of silence with madness. ‘There is, however, a difference between chosen silence and not chosen silence, and that is fear. I really doubt that I have anything to be frightened of.’ Like her other works of non-fiction on theology and gardening, Maitland unfolds an intricate history of her subject, touching on its significance to the Western and Eastern religious traditions, and its use in fairytale, myth and art. Still, something indiscernible remains, for this is a book that demands an unusual level of concentration. ‘The style in which it is written is certainly different from anything I’ve done before. This is because of wanting to create it as silence.’ Offering at once personal anecdotes, cultural diagnoses and soothing antidotes, these memoirs make for a timely and nourishing read.

A Book of Silence is published by Granta on Thu 13 Nov.

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