Among worldly travellers any description of improbable exploits in foreign places, ending on a note of hilarity, used to be met with the phrase “Pure Paddy!” This referred to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, writer, war hero and raconteur, who died two years ago at the age of 96, leaving a long hoped-for final volume of his early memoirs still unpublished.
First published in the Economist, 14 September 2013.
In the 1930s, at the age of 18, Sir Patrick set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (his preferred name for Istanbul). “A Time of Gifts”, his account of the first section of the walk was a masterpiece of wit and erudition. A good deal of time was taken up being passed between schlosses and castles by the crumbling remnants of the German and Austro- Hungarian aristocracy, while in the background, the Nazis loomed. In the mid- 1980s a second volume, “Between the Woods and the Water”, covered his 1934 walk through Hungary and Transylvania, where he was as much at home in hayricks as in the hovels of gypsies.
“The Broken Road”, Sir Patrick’s final posthumous volume, has now been edited by his literary executors: Artemis Cooper, his biographer, and Colin Thubron, a fellow travel writer and president of the Royal Society of Literature. It takes the author from the Danube’s Iron Gates to Mount Athos and Constantinople. It remained unfinished while he lived for several years with a Romanian princess, and then the second world war intervened. Sir Patrick’s exploits there were indeed legendary: with some friends he kidnapped a German general in Crete and drove him through numerous Nazi checkpoints before spiriting him off to Egypt.
The book brings together two texts: a detailed diary of his time on Mount Athos and a description of the journey there. This last was written up from memory in the 1960s as some of Sir Patrick’s contemporary notes had been stolen in Munich and the remainder were lodged in the Harrods Depository during the war and later destroyed, unclaimed. The pages are filled with brilliant evocations of his life on the road, none richer than the time he spent in a Romanian brothel. A flavour of the “Pure Paddy” style is his description of the high-pitched Russians who drive carriages around Bucharest. It turns out they are an obscure sect of eunuchs who believe that Empress Catherine the Great’s murdered son will one day return as the Messiah. A final notebook was handed back to Sir Patrick in 1965 by his princess, but he chose not to elide or collate it with his then written account.
The only part republished here is the full contemporary account of his time at Mount Athos. The book is occasionally interrupted with later asides by the author on the fate of particular places or people, which drain a portion of the magic out of the account. Sir Patrick’s entire life was a Boy’s Own adventure, but he was an important footnote to the literary genre of English travel writing, which began in its modern form in 1844 with “Eothen”, a hilarious account of Alexander Kinglake’s adventures from Belgrade to Cairo.
“The Broken Road” has an elegiac tone. None of the people described survives and the countries visited have undergone wars and revolutions, leaving them virtually unrecognisable. It is a fitting epilogue to 20th-century travel-writing and essential reading for devotees of Sir Patrick’s other works—though eclipsed by his earlier books and the world they conjured.
Something like the opening line to Sergeant Pepper, it was eighty years ago today, that Paddy Leigh Fermor was on his way, setting out on the journey that more than anything else was to define his life.
I have written about this once or twice before – Nice weather for young ducks – but this time it is different. This is the start of a number of major anniversaries, including the 70th, next year, of the abduction of General Kreipe.
For some time I have had an idea to arrange a tour, In The Steps if you like, of Paddy’s Romania. Much of Between the Woods and the Water, and the recent Broken Road are taken up with a country that Paddy once said was second only to Greece in his heart.
The idea is to get together a party of around twenty people for an 8-10 day tour of Romania next September, 2014. I am planning this with an experienced tour company. The general idea is to meet in Bucharest, then follow Paddy’s Transylvanian route, including stops in Cluj, Sighisoara, Sibiu, and Hunedoara. If possible I would like to include a visit to Baia Herculene and the Danube at the Iron Gates. It would also be great to include a visit to Baleni where he lived with Balasha. It is a little out of the way but may be possible once we look in detail at the itinerary.
Romania is a beautiful country, and Transylvania is very special. We will include visits to the Saxon villages with their fortified churches. Accommodation and food will be good, as will the company.
In order to proceed all I need at the moment are expressions of interest. There is no commitment beyond that. Costs are likely to be around £,1500 per person excluding flights to and from Romania. But this may change. If you are interested all you have to do is drop me a line at tsawford[at]btinternet.com .
The following slideshow gives you an idea of some of the things we night see. These are my own personal pictures and some are of an area to the north of Romania called the Maramures which will probably not be included (the wooden churches in the main).
In the winter of 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople, a trip that took him almost a year. Decades later, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two books now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, and beautifully-written travel books of all time.
First published in the New York Review of Books.
The Broken Road is the long awaited account of the final leg of his youthful adventure that Leigh Fermor promised but was unable to finish before his death in 2011. Assembled from Leigh Fermor’s manuscripts by his prize-winning biographer Artemis Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, this is perhaps the most personal of all Leigh Fermor’s books, catching up with young Paddy in the fall of 1934 and following him through Bulgaria and Romania to the coast of the Black Sea. Days and nights on the road, spectacular landscapes and uncanny cities, friendships lost and found, leading the high life in Bucharest or camping out with fishermen and shepherds: in the The Broken Road such incidents and escapades are described with all the linguistic bravura, odd and astonishing learning, and overflowing exuberance that Leigh Fermor is famous for, but also with a melancholy awareness of the passage of time, especially when he meditates on the scarred history of the Balkans or on his troubled relations with his father. The book ends, perfectly, with Paddy’s arrival in Greece, the country he would fall in love with and fight for. Throughout it we can still hear the ringing voice of an irrepressible young man embarking on a life of adventure.
By any standards, this is a major work. It confirms that Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation, and this final volume assures the place of the trilogy as one of the masterpieces of the genre, indeed one of the masterworks of postwar English non-fiction.
—William Dalrymple, The Guardian
Praise for Patrick Leigh Fermor:
One of the greatest travel writers of all time.
–The Sunday Times
A unique mixture of hero, historian, traveler and writer; the last and the greatest of a generation whose like we won’t see again.
The finest traveling companion we could ever have … His head is stocked with enough cultural lore and poetic fancy to make every league an adventure.
If all Europe were laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
—Ben Downing, The Paris Review
Praise for A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the first two volumes in the trilogy:
This is a glorious feast, the account of a walk in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. The 18-year-old Fermor began by sleeping in barns but, after meeting some landowners early on, got occasional introductions to castles. So he experienced life from both sides, and with all the senses, absorbing everything: flora and fauna, art and architecture, geography, clothing, music, foods, religions, languages. Writing the book decades after the fact, in a baroque style that is always rigorous, never flowery, he was able to inject historical depth while still retaining the feeling of boyish enthusiasm and boundless curiosity. This is the first of a still uncompleted trilogy; the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him through Hungary and Romania; together they capture better than any books I know the remedial, intoxicating joy of travel.
— Thomas Swick, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Recovers the innocence and the excitement of youth, when everything was possible and the world seemed luminescent with promise. …Even more magical…through Hungary, its lost province of Transylvania, and into Romania… sampling the tail end of a languid, urbane and anglophile way of life that would soon be swept away forever.
—Jeremy Lewis, Literary Review
A book so good you resent finishing it.
The greatest of living travel writers…an amazingly complex and subtle evocation of a place that is no more.
— Jan Morris
In these two volumes of extraordinary lyrical beauty and discursive, staggering erudition, Leigh Fermor recounted his first great excursion… They’re partially about an older author’s encounter with his young self, but they’re mostly an evocation of a lost Mitteleuropa of wild horses and dark forests, of ancient synagogues and vivacious Jewish coffeehouses, of Hussars and Uhlans, and of high-spirited and deeply eccentric patricians with vast libraries (such as the Transylvanian count who was a famous entomologist specializing in Far Eastern moths and who spoke perfect English, though with a heavy Scottish accent, thanks to his Highland nanny). These books amply display Leigh Fermor’s keen eye and preternatural ear for languages, but what sets them apart, besides the utterly engaging persona of their narrator, is his historical imagination and intricate sense of historical linkage…Few writers are as alive to the persistence of the past (he’s ever alert to the historical forces that account for the shifts in custom, language, architecture, and costume that he discerns), and I’ve read none who are so sensitive to the layers of invasion that define the part of Europe he depicts here. The unusual vantage point of these books lends them great poignancy, for we and the author know what the youthful Leigh Fermor cannot: that the war will tear the scenery and shatter the buildings he evokes; that German and Soviet occupation will uproot the beguiling world of those Tolstoyan nobles; and that in fact very few people who became his friends on this marvelous and sunny journey will survive the coming catastrophe.
— Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic
Those for whom Paddy’s prose is still an undiscovered country are to be envied for what lies ahead-hours with one of the most buoyant and curious personalities one can find in English.
—The New York Sun
Mr. Fermor…is a peerless companion, unbound by timetable or convention, relentless in his high spirits and curiosity.
— The New York Times
We are aware at every step that his adventure can never be duplicated: only this extraordinary person at this pivotal time could have experienced and recorded many of these sights. Distant lightening from events in Germany weirdly illuminates the trail of this free spirit.
—The New York Times
The young Fermor appears to have been as delightful a traveling companion as the much older Fermor a raconteur.
—The Houston Chronicle
[A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water] are absolutely delightful volumes, both for those who want to better understand what was lost in the violence of Europe’s 20th-century divisions and for those who appreciate the beauty and thrill of travel writing at its best.
—The Houston Chronicle
Leigh Fermor is recognizably that figure many writers of the past century have yearned to be, the man of action.
— The Guardian
He was, and remains, an Englishman, with so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient-pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope, and no more fruitful than sleepwalks. We fret about our kids’ S.A.T. scores, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, shouldered a rucksack and walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul.
— Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
The following article was written by Clarissa Aykroyd on her blog, The Stone and the Star. There is something for everyone in Paddy’s books, and here Clarissa discusses his references to poetry.
By Clarissa Aykroyd
First published on The Stone and the Star, 12 August 1013.
In December 1933, a young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor left England to travel on foot across Europe. Alternately sleeping in barns and in stately homes, he travelled from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (he always calls it Constantinople, although it was Istanbul by then.) He wandered in a leisurely manner through what now seem to be the dreamscapes of Mitteleuropa before World War II. Decades later he wrote about his travels in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Leigh Fermor died at an advanced age in 2011, but the final book, The Broken Road, is being edited posthumously and will appear later this year.
A great deal has been written and said about Leigh Fermor. He had an incredibly adventurous life which included the capture of a leading German commander in Crete during World War II. With a remarkable personal charm and magnetism, Leigh Fermor seems to have been a sort of cross between Casanova and James Bond.
I have just been re-reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. It is not so surprising that Leigh Fermor spent decades crafting these books – there really isn’t a word out of place. The prose is like crystalline mosaics or frescos, hovering on the edge of the unbelievable and fairytale-like, but still believable. It’s entirely possible that Leigh Fermor embroidered after the fact, but his tales of mountainscapes, of dream cities and kind eccentrics are so beautiful that I don’t really mind either way. The books certainly conjure up a world that disappeared – Leigh Fermor repeatedly comments on how, particularly with the rich and titled families who gave him hospitality, the people he met disappeared into darkness during the war and only sometimes emerged. It is true that this is also a world which is rather class-ridden and occasionally interspersed with casual racism, not to speak of the terrible looming shadow of Nazism in Germany. But so much of the books’ poignancy comes from the awareness of the awful storm that was to sweep over Europe, leaving so many scars and in many cases total destruction.
I wanted to write a little about the presence of poetry in these books. In some ways this, too, evokes a world that has disappeared or at least altered beyond recognition. A Time of Gifts is named after a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice, ‘Twelfth Night’:
For now that the time of gifts is gone -
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill -
Here is dull earth to build upon
In A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor writes at some length (several pages) about his “private anthology” of poetry that he had memorized and would recite to himself while alone and walking. “The range is fairly predictable,” he says, “and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiasms and the limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up.” The “private anthology” included Shakespeare as well as bits and pieces of Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Kipling, Wyatt, Marvell, Carroll and Lear, among others. “No Yeats later than the Ronsard paraphrase and Innisfree and Down by the Salley Gardens; but this belonged more to singing than reciting.” He then mentions that he wasn’t interested in Pound or Eliot but enjoyed Edith Sitwell. From other languages and cultures, he mentions a little Baudelaire and Verlaine, and Romans such as Virgil, Catullus and Horace.
Particularly in Between the Woods and the Water, in Hungary and Romania, poetry and poets dog his footsteps. In Hungary he mentions “the southern parts of the Cuman region celebrated by [Sandor] Petőfi – it is strange how the names of Hungarian poets cropped up the whole time in conversation and books!” He later mentions Ferenc Békássy, who studied at Cambridge and was “a friend of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey and especially Maynard Keynes” – this young poet died in battle in Bukovina in 1915. Later, in Romania, he comes across the oldest poem in Romanian, the traditional epic Mioritza. At the Baths of Hercules, an “ornate and incongruous watering-place” in a wild Romanian valley, he meets a young woman who quotes Kipling’s ‘If’.
All of this struck me, not just because my ears are pricked for poetry, but because it all seemed so much of another time. What young man (or woman) would now set out to travel across Europe with a memorised library of poetry to call upon, let alone all the multitude of cultural references that Leigh Fermor seemed to have at his fingertips even as a teenager? It just wouldn’t happen – even a poetry lover probably wouldn’t have more with them than a poetry app on their smartphone. Then, too, there were so many young poets who were also soldiers and who were destroyed in the wars. It seems to me that what started to be broken in World War I was irretrievably broken (in so many ways) in World War II, and this might include the idea of poetry as a sort of force for salvation.
On a more personal note, re-reading these books made me want to go back to Vienna, no small feat because it’s not one of my favourite cities. They also set up in me a longing to go back to Germany, to Prague, and to travel more extensively in Hungary and Romania particularly. I also had a strange experience while reading A Time of Gifts. Leigh Fermor praises the beauty of the German city of Regensburg, and writes about one of its sons, Albrecht Altdorfer. When he wrote about Altdorfer’s famous painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, something swept over me – I had almost forgotten that I owned a small copy of it, from the gallery in Munich where it hangs. It is a remarkable painting and I think the feeling I had (and still have) for it ties into my fascination with certain types of fantasy landscapes – the first edition I owned of The Lord of the Rings featured cover art which now looks very Altdorfer-esque to me. Writing about the landscape depicted, Leigh Fermor said:
It was the valley of the Danube in the throes of one of its hundreds of battles. It must have been. But, on this first visit, how could I have realized it? The battle in the painted canyon is fought out under a lurid October sunset and the rival armies, like windswept cornfields bristling with lances and poppied with banners, collide in an autumnal light. Whereas the battlefield on my first encounter was dulled with snow, with all contours muffled and fanfares hushed. (from A Time of Gifts)
Here is Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree, cited as part of the “personal anthology”, and perhaps also appropriate for its final lines.
THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE (William Butler Yeats)
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The late, great travel writer’s trilogy is finally complete, with a helping hand from admirers.
by Anthony Sattin
First published in The Observer, Sunday 15 September 2013.
The final volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy is almost as hard to review as it was to write. By the time he died, in 2011, 96-year-old Leigh Fermor had acquired near legendary status. In the second world war, he assisted in a partisan mission to kidnap a Nazi general on Crete. Before that, at 18, he walked across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (which he still called Constantinople). And he kept notes as he walked. “My whole life had seemed to revolve around those stiff-covered exercise books,” he said. “Keeping them up to date had acquired the charm and mystery of a secret religion, solemnized daily.” The books came later… much later.
In 1962, a US magazine asked him to write about walking – a 5,000-word commission that spawned a trilogy. A Time of Gifts was published in 1977. Between the Woods and the Water, which appeared in 1986, ended with the promise that the story would be continued. Rumours as to whether Leigh Fermor had managed to complete his trilogy, or whether he had even started the conclusion, have circulated for the past couple of decades.
It turns out there was a manuscript and it picks up where the previous one ended – at the water, the Danube, and the Iron Gates, a gorge at the Romanian-Bulgarian border. It takes Leigh Fermor not to Istanbul, the intended final destination of what he called “the Great Trudge”, but to Burgas, 50 miles from the Turkish border.
Although Leigh Fermor was still rewriting the manuscript shortly before his death, the work was problematic, for reasons Artemis Cooper makes clear in her brilliant recent biography of the man. Now she and the travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron have prepared the work for publication. This, clearly, has involved more than spell-checking, although they claim that “there is scarcely a phrase that is not his”.
The first two volumes were a joy to read, not least for Leigh Fermor’s ability to recapture in later life the intense excitement of being a young man lighting out. The latest book offers similar joys. His allowance of £1 a week – bank notes arriving like manna at post offices along the way – was enough to live modestly. Travelling mostly on foot, in leather jacket, knee breeches and puttees, with backpack, Hungarian walking stick and “uncompromising” boots, carrying two books of verse in the backpack and a head full of literature and history, he has his fair share of luck and adventure in a continent that was still a mystery. There are nights in shepherds’ huts, down-at-heel hotels, palaces, and a brothel he mistook for an inn. And while his older self clearly enjoyed writing about the nights of revelry around campfires with belly-dancing Greek fishermen and other wild characters, he was also happy to laugh at the young Leigh Fermor – for not realising that the woman who welcomed him so warmly into the brothel expected more from him than his head on a pillow.
Also evident are another of the joys of the earlier books – the pyrotechnics of his writing. Exuberance is expressed in heightened suggestions: a cat is panther-like, a silence falls “like angels flying overhead” and swifts make a sound like scissors in a barber shop. The descriptions of waking in unfamiliar places are so seductive that even the most home-hugging reader will long to wake somewhere unknown. And some of the evocations of landscapes and views will live long in the memory, including one of a muezzin calling from a mosque and another of the town of Tirnovo, with its “winged insurrection of houses plumed by belfries and trees”.
The first two books were written without the help of original notes, which had been lost; The Broken Road is based partly on a diary that was returned to Leigh Fermor in 1965. So instead of writing what the editors call “memory-spurred recreations”, we see the older man trying to guess what his younger self did or why he did it. There is also retrospective comment on Europe between the wars from an author who knows that the rise of the Nazis and the coming cold war are about to transform the lives of most people he meets.
Leigh Fermor completed his physical journey in Istanbul on the last day of 1934, then continued to the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. The literary journey concludes without reaching its goal, hence the book’s title. The editors have included sketchy diary entries for Istanbul and more fully written descriptions of Mount Athos, although Leigh Fermor was not convinced about putting them in his story, and with good reason.
The bulk of The Broken Road was written 30 years after the journey. I am reading it 50 years after it was first put down. While it is not the literary masterpiece it might have been had Leigh Fermor been able to work his magic, it captures the joy of the open road, the fresh view he gives of Europe as it began to show the stresses that led to world war, and the glimpses of a long-lost life and innocence.
Some notes and observations by my friend Chris Lawson from the outstandingly successful Transylvanian Book Festival that took place in September. This was written as part of his entry to the Anthony Burgess/Observer literary competition and I am grateful that he let me publish this.
Transylvania : by Christopher Lawson
FORTIFIED CHURCH IN TRANSYLVANIA
Like open umbrellas
In the armpits of walls.
When tourists come by
With pigeon manure.
Transylvania, which I have known for almost 40 years, has one of the most stunning landscapes in Europe. Villagers live in handsome, colourful old homes on lanes lined with pear trees. Beyond their barns lie vegetable gardens, orchards and small farm plots. Farther out are meadows and pastures, carpeted with wildflowers, used cooperatively by the villagers for grazing animals and making hay. Imperious turkeys lead flocks of geese, ducks and chickens. Oak and beech woods cover the steep hillsides, where firewood is gathered.
In 1977, halfway through my teaching contract, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died two years ago at the age of 96, published A time of gifts. In his trilogy, he depicts the Transylvania of the 1930s. The same year the notorious Madame Lupescu, widow of King Carol II, died in Estoril. Both events reminded me of another Romania and another time.
Following an invitation, I flew to Sibiu and was offered wine and tuica (plum brandy), with its wonderful golden colour, to accompany dinner. The following day, with friends, we walked into a valley and practiced FKK (nudity), just as Germans would in Germany. But here there was an element of protest against the highly puritanical Communist regime.
My hosts now live in Freiburg im Breisgau. Many of their former friends and neighbours from Sibiu live in the same city. Rroma (gypsies) have taken over the neat houses and orchards in Sibiu.
On another occasion, on a train journey, Adrian, an economist, invited me to stay in Sibiu, even though this was forbidden for foreigners. Shortly after our arrival at his apartment, his wife arrived, crying with triumphant laughter. Ceausescu had been to Sibiu on an official visit. The factories were closed and schoolchildren had the day off. They were supposed to line the streets, waving Romanian flags and cheering. But they had been directed to the wrong place. The streets were empty. There would be no pictures for the evening news.
Every week a group of friends gathered to watch Dallas. These young Romanians loved the beautiful women, the scheming menfolk, the huge cars and houses.
Sibiu now has a Saxon Mayor, Klaus Iohannis, who is re-elected with larger majorities by Hungarians and Romanians at each election. There are virtually no Saxons left. Iohannis has transformed Sibiu into a city which resembles one in Germany.
The spirit of Leigh Fermor infused the first Transylvania Book Festival, which took place in three Saxon villages from 5 to 9 September. Paddy was an exponent of leventeia, Greek for high spirits, humour, quickness of mind and action, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything. A handsome, bright-eyed teenager aged 18-19, Paddy had walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, reciting verse as he walked, now staying in a hayrick, now in an aristocrat’s mansion. In wartime Crete, the dashing Paddy, Stanley Moss and a group of Cretan guerrillas abducted the German general commanding, drove him past 22 Nazi checkpoints, marched him through chilly mountains, and delivered him to Cairo.
Leigh Fermor was a great traveller and a sublime exponent of English prose.
Some 60 participants came to Richis, Copsa Mare and Biertan. The star of the show was Artemis Cooper, Paddy’s biographer. Her life of the great man, “An adventure”, is already a classic. She is also joint editor of “The broken road”, the long-awaited final book in his trilogy about his 1933-34 walk across Europe. Artemis sparkled. Another big name was Roy Foster, Professor of Irish Studies at Oxford, who spoke entertainingly on Bram Stoker and Dracula, first published in 1897 and never out of print since.
Jessica Douglas-Home, chairperson of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, one of the leaders of the fight to protect Transylvanian villages from Ceausescu’s lunatic systemization policy, was flanked by local Saxons, sundry poets and broadcasters, and the younger generation of burgeoning travel writers.
From the literary firmament came Beatrice Rezzori Monti della Corte, widow of Gregor von Rezzori, chronicler of Bukovina, and Elisabeth Jelen Salnikoff, grandaughter of Count Miklos Banffy who wrote a classic trilogy about the dying days of the Hungarian aristocracy. Presiding over this glitteringly impressive line-up was Lucy Abel Smith, an art historian resident in Transylvania several months of the year, who exuded energy, enthusiasm and good humour.
Shakespeare wrote about half of his late play Pericles (1608). His co-author, George Wilkins, a thoroughly disreputable and violent individual, a keeper of prostitutes, provided genuine inside knowledge of what went on in brothels which the fastidious Bard assimilated and made his own.
Shakespeare’s brothel scene takes place in Mytilene in Lesbos and contains the first reference to a Transylvanian in English, indeed in Western literature.
Pandar. Thou sayst true; they’re too unwholesome, o’ conscience. The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage.
Boult. Ay, she quickly pooped him; she made him roast-meat for worms. But I’ll go search the market. [Exit]
Pandar, a procurer and pimp, discusses with Boult, his servant, the shortage of girls and how drab and diseased their prostitutes are. The “poor Transylvanian” has travelled to Greece to die of syphilis.
Much of Robert Browning’s familiar poem of 1842 about the Pied Piper of Hamelin is rooted in historical truth.
And I must not omit to say
That in Transylvania there’s a tribe
Of alien people who ascribe
The outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbours lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterraneous prison
Into which they were trepanned
Long time ago in a mighty band
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why, they don’t understand.
On 26 June, the Saints Day of John and Paul, in 1284, 130 of the town’s children in Hamelin (Hameln), Germany, totally disappeared. The town’s oldest record, dated 1384, states “It is 100 years since our children left.” A stained glass window (1300) in a Hamelin church which commemorated the event was destroyed in 1660.
King Geza II of Hungary (1141–1162) began the colonization of Transylvania in the mid-12th century to defend the southeastern border of his kingdom. A second phase came during the early 13th century. Saxons, as they were collectively known, were talented miners who could also develop the economy. The settlers came primarily from the Rhineland, the Southern Low Countries, Luxembourg and the Moselle region. To this day the Saxon dialect strongly resembles Letzebuergesch, the official language of Luxemburg.
Rats were not added to the story until 1599. Furthermore, the bubonic plague, the Black Death, did not reach Europe until 1348-1350.
The Saxons are an important element of Transylvania’s history. The vast majority of the Saxons have emigrated to Germany, but a few hundred still remain.
Stoker wanted to call his novel Count Vampyr, or the Undead, when he discovered that the Romanian word Dracul meant Devil. He knew the legend of Vlad the Impaler from Wilkinson’s 1820 description of Wallachia and Moldavia. (But Wilkinson does not even use the name Vlad. He writes of Voivode Dracula.)
Vlad the Impaler was king on three separate occasions. He had acquired a fearsome reputation, but was also a defender of his territory against the Turkish invader. He ordered Turks and his Wallachian enemies to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, buried alive, and stabbed. Impaling was his preferred method of execution.
Dracula scholars, notably Elizabeth Miller, argue that Stoker in fact knew little of the historic Vlad III except for the name “Dracula”. In Chapter 3, Dracula refers to his own background. Stoker directly copied parts of these speeches from Wilkinson’s book. Stoker’s gloomy, threatening Transylvania comes from books. The Irishman never travelled east of Vienna.
Stoker’s Dracula has many influences. Perhaps Dracula owes his existence to Celtic rather than Balkan sources. Stoker was born in the worst year of the great Irish famine and, although he lived most of his adullt life in England, he was steeped in Irish
mythology. Bram Stoker was just as fascinated by folklore and customs from his own country and other lands as well as those of Eastern Europe. Stoker was going to set his novel in Styria (Steiermark) when his attention was drawn to Transylvania.
Since the coup d’etat of 1989, there has been a marked increase in the number of books devoted to Romania and Transylvania. Of books published in the 20th century the most entertaining is Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in Hungary and Roumania (1933) by that modern George Borrow, Walter Starkie, and the most exhilarating is Paddy’s Between the Woods and the Water.
I may be something of a romantic, but it is broadly true that, in Transylvania, Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons, Armenians, Jews and roma have been living peacefully with each other for centuries, a model for the rest of Europe.
An interesting comment recently added to the Your Paddy Thoughts section of the site by Lawrence Freundlich. I wanted to bring it to the attention of a wider audience and hopefully spark a debate. I agree with much of the sentiment in this comment:
Now that the last of PLF’s memoir of the grand trek is published and we can expect no more, I am left with abiding feelings and wonderments. First, if I had been his friend or if indeed I had loved him, after a while, I would have wanted him to be quiet. Also, I would have wanted him to be sober. I would have wanted these things, because without them I would believe that we could not be intimate and touch souls. I am left, also, speculating on what it is that drove PLF to monasteries and their isolation and enforced abstemiousness. Was it that he, too, was looking for silence and sobriety in which intimacy with a lover would be possible? And, deep down, because he never found this, is not this the tragedy which drives his achievement? He could conquer, but he could not surrender.
Let’s get going and debate this. Add your comment below.