Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney

July 6th, 2006

Excerpt

I soon learned that variety is not the spice, but the very stuff of life. We need the constant ebb and flow of wavelets of sensation, thought, perception, action, and emotion, lapping on the shore of our consciousness, now here, now there, keeping even our isolation in the ocean of reality, so that we neither encroach nor are encroached upon. If our minds are thus like islands, they are of many shapes, some long and straight, others narrow and bent, impervious to the sea and belching from deep unapproachable cones the unversial warmth which lies beneath us all. We are narrow men, twisted men, smooth and nicely rounded men, and poets; but whatever we are, we have our shape, and we preserve it best in the experience of many things.

If the reach of experience is suddenly confined, and we are left with only a little food for thought and feeling, we are apt to take the few objects that offer themselves and ask a whole catalogue of often absurd questions about them. Does it work? How? What made it and of what? And, in parallel, when and where did I last see something like it and what else does it remind me of? Andif we are dissatisfied at the time, we repeat the series in the optative mood, making each imperfection in what we have to had evoke a wish or an ideal. So we set in train a wonderful flow of combinations and associations in our minds, the length and complexity of which soon obscure its humble starting point.

The objects in my cell were few and bare; I have enumerated them all in the last chapter, except the gamelle, or mess-tin, and spoon with which we ate our soup. There was neither comfort nor company in any of them, but they served a brief term of slavery to the orgy of speculation to which confinement drove me. My bed, for example, could be measured and roughly classified with school beds or army beds, according to appearance and excepting the peculiarity of its being hinged to the wall. Yet it was a bed with a pronounced difference from any other. The broad lattice-work of iron laths, which took the place of springs, was unique and almost supernatural in its torment. If I lay on my back, at least one vertebra was wedged in a sharp corner; if I lay on my side, a hip or shoulder-blade or elbow found itself pressed against an edge; and if I lay on my stomach, my nostrils were filled with straw-dust. Yet this bed retained a quality of bedness which summoned all my associations with all the beds I had ever known. In it my fears, joys, sorrows and relief were those of bed, not to be found in haystacks or ditches or on the floor, but common to every bed from canopy to canvas.

When I had done with the bed, which was too simple to intrigue me long, I felt the blankets, estimated their warmth, examined the precise mechanics of the window, the discomfort of the toilet (perversely, for its very presence was an unexpected luxury), computed the length and breadth, the orientation and elevation of the cell.

There was also some decoration to be seen, for my predecessors had evidently been better equipped than I. There were smears of oilpaint on the walls and a great deal of pencil work, raning from signatures and salutations to lewd sketches derived from interrupted love-lives. Some had also counted the days, but the longest line of pencil marks was fifty-six, so either their patience or their imprisonment had been short. The first case would have been natural and the second desirable, for it the physical nature of this cell was only to be described by understatement, its spirit or atmosphere defied all words.

The adjectives which sprang to mind were those which might properly be used of stagnant pools, although the place was dry and not obscure; there was an obscenity in this calculated degradation of a human dwelling-place which chilled the heart as no fungoid squalor could. There was no filth, generally no vermin: only the diabolic essence of perversion and the smugly spruce technology of a stockyard.


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Solitary Confinement is Christopher Burney’s account of the 526 days he spent in Fresnes prison, outside Paris, after being captured by the Germans as a suspected spy in 1942. Contrary to what you might expect, though, this is not a Wooden Horse/Escape from Colditz book of British derring-do and ingenuity. Escape was never a serious consideration for Burney, something he chides himself for rather late in the narrative.

Instead, he fully expected something worse than solitary confinement, and even pictured the firing squad he’d face if his real identity as a spy were found out. What makes Solitary Confinement stand out among war and prison memoirs is that Burney focuses, to the exclusion of almost all extraneous details, on the mental and emotional experience of his long stretch in solitary.

With no distraction but a mid-day serving of watery soup and a chunk of bread, and with only a small patch of sky to see through the high window in his cell, Burney had to devise ways to fill the hours between waking and sleeping. He slowly ran through old memories, recalling walks taken and meals eaten. He rehearsed and perfected alibis to tell his interrogators–that he was an escaped prisoner of war, that he was a special operations officer–that could avoid implicating the French members of his support network.

And he spent a great deal of time remembering bits of the Bible and other religious teachings from his youth, and puzzling over their meaning. The notions of the two extremes of good and evil, in particular, troubled him, for he found it difficult to resolve the notion that evil opposed good, that evil resulted from the sins committed by men, with his immediate experience. Had the information he gave in his interrogations led to the arrest and execution of members of the French resistance, they would, through no fault of their own, come to suffer for his sin of confessing.

At the same time, he also struggled to understand what it meant if God is love:

I did not hate my enemies. I would do what I could to furstrate their schemes against me, but I would not be savage with them. If the Toad [one of the more brutal prison guards] would go back to Germany and leave my door open, he could go in peace; I would try to neutralize his unpleasantness, but I would not harry him to hell. But the Toad and love seemed to be incompatible terms. It would be easy enough to couple them in church, especially in the general proposition, an exhortation given in peculiarly suitable circumstances where outright refutation or even doubt would be unlikely. For in those peaceable surroundings the vision of enmity recedes. But does the vision of love advance? Do we know what we are talking about?

Left to explore these thoughts, Burney eventually comes to decide that he must “replace this old polar system of value–the good of every kind faced with its evil opposite–by a scale which would all be positive degrees of good”:

There is no critical mark to the right of which is Good and to the left Evil,” he decides. “Life is not a gloomy and impossible grey, as moralists would have it, to be sorted into black and white: all its aspects form a spectrum, of which the greater part is hidden to a single pair of eyes, but all which originates from a single source. To suppose that there are contrary principles of light and darkness, or good and evil, is as presumptuous as to deny the existence of infrared light on the grounds of its invisibility.

When it becomes clear that he will be moved to collective confinement in a camp in Germany, Burney admits that, “I was reluctant to leave.” His time in solitary has, in a way, been an opportunity:

I knew that so many months of solitude, though I had allowed them to torment me at times, had been in a sense an exercise in liberty. For, by absolving me from the need either to consider practical problems of living or to maintain the many unquestioned assumptions which cannot conveniently be abandoned in social life, I had been free to drop the spectables of the near-sighted and to scan the horizon of existence. And I believed that I had seen something there. But it was only a glimpse, a remote and tenuous apprehension of what lay behind the variety and activity of life, and I was afraid toturn my attention back to my immediate surroundings.

To go from abrupt capture and interrogation by the Gestapo to this revelation is a remarkable journey. Frank Kermode was moved to write of Burney, “The courage and the intellectual integrity of this writer are far beyond what most of us would expect of ourselves….” The author’s interior journey, as it were, comes to overshadow even the drama of his physical adventures. And his sensitive, thoughtful, yet always self-deprecating account makes Solitary Confinement a truly exceptional book. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it “certainly of classic quality. . . . a wonderful little book,” and it’s among the most memorable I’ve come across in the course of editing this site.


Reviews

This is a beautiful, simple, and moving book. To my mind it deals with a question more important than even the war and intrigue, which are its setting–how a man may find and build his own self.

Rollo May, New York Times, 1 March 1953

This is a story of great courage and steadfastness, and it is all the more impressive as proof that men of integrity can stand on their own under the greatest pressures without creeping to the shelter of superstitions and orthodoxies. It is as powerful a justification of intellectual freedom and of the intellectual as one could wish to have.

Anthony West, New Yorker, 11 April 1953

Locate a copy

Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney
London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1952

4 Responses to “Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney”

  1. Sebastian Hayes Says:

    This is a truly remarkable book. I came across it in a church on Clapham Common some twenty-five years ago, amongst a few dog-eared paperbacks you could take away with you for a few pence. I was arrested by the title and myself leading a solitary brooding life at the time — though by choice not, as in his case, necessity. It is simply and powerfully written by an educated man who could easily have made it much more erudite (and pretentious) had he wanted : this is the truth, nothing but the truth, at any rate as near as he remembers it.
    Extreme situations may bring out the best or the worst in people and this was certainly an extreme situation : eighteen months of solitary confinement without knowing whether he might be called out and shot the next day. The author admits, somewhat shamefacedly, that “my life since the war has been of no great consequence”. The author looks back to the experience with the ambivalence of an older man recalling a love affair that nearly destroyed him. He says, “if the events in this book were repeated I would go out of my mind”. Yet, “down upon the bedrock, life becomes a love affair of the mind…. I would not lose… those moments when the mind’s eye…sees reality as no more than an outline against the faintly discerned first light of truth”.
    Get this book from the Library, buy it from Amazon, but READ THIS BOOK and life will never seem the same again. Sebastian Hayes

  2. editor Says:

    I completely agree. When I stand in front of my book shelves wondering what to read next, I often find the spine of Burney’s book calling out to me: “Forget the rest: I am in a class of my own.”

  3. annabel cole Says:

    I first read this fairly soon after the war, and I’ve re read it so often that the spine is almost off, but the paper and type cannot be damaed by age, and fit the contents in their austerity. But it;s not an austere book, because the tone of slight self=mockery means that Burney never seems to be vindicating himself or pushing his presenet self to the forefront. It’s a most beautifully written book which leaves me still full of admiration for Burney’s ortitude and charm and hesitant humour.

  4. editor Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Annabel. It certainly is not an austere book–it’s an inspiring one, although in the most discrete and self-effacing way. The way Burney manages both to be humble and–through his ability to weather the experience–self-confident is remarkable and probably what I most admire about it. That is a balance I aspire to.

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