Many of you will now be reading Nick Hunt’s fine new book, Walking the Woods and the Water. As is usual Nick is hard at work promoting the book in a number of ways and this Saturday, 3 May, will find him on the quirky BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Live from 9.00 am.
He will be joined by the acerbic food critic Jay Rayner who has managed to achieve the nickname Acid Rayner due to his sour demeanor – [Edit - listening to the show Mr Rayner comes over as a pretty friendly type].
I am sure Nick and Jay will get down to discussing the quality of food on such a long journey. If you have read the book it is no surprise to say that it was extremely variable.
We wish Nick well with this excellent opportunity to let more people know about his journey and wonderful book. Brief programme details are available here.
BBC Radio Four rarely disappoints. At least not over the course of a few hours where there will be enough variety and quality for everyone. On Good Friday the Point of View programme was given over to William Dalrymple William who celebrated the writing of Peter Matthiessen who died this month. Dalrymple compares him with another of his favourite travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders.”
Listen here on BBC iPlayer. The programme begins after about 30 seconds. If you are in a location where this is not possible, the text is below.
Happy Easter to all of you.
William Dalrymple pays tribute to two fellow travel writers – Peter Matthiessen, who died recently, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
The great American writer Peter Matthiessen died earlier this month at his home in Sagaponak, New York, after a prolonged struggle with leukaemia. He was 86.
Matthiessen was one of my great literary heroes, a wonderfully versatile and profoundly truthful writer whose sentences oozed integrity and an austere clarity of thought and spirit. His writing drew on his richly restless and enviably courageous life, which was as remarkable an artefact as anything he actually wrote. He remains the only author to win the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.
Matthiessen, a craggily handsome man, with clear blue eyes and a face that seemed to have been sculpted out of basalt, was at different times a naturalist-explorer and a deep sea fishermen, a pioneering environmentalist and editor, an artist and activist defending the rights of migrant labourers and Native Americans, as well as a CIA agent who underwent a strange metamorphosis into literary shaman and Buddhist sage. He lived and travelled in a variety of wild landscapes (rainforests, oceans, mountains, deserts and swamps) around the globe, and he set his books in these remote places – the Peruvian Andes and the jungles of New Guinea, Tierra del Fuego and the Tibetan Plateau, the Serengeti and the Bering Straits.
He is perhaps best known for a single great masterpiece, The Snow Leopard, a jewel of a book and one of the great travelogues of our time. The book tells the story of a long journey on foot to the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas to study the wild blue sheep and to catch a glimpse of the rare and almost mythical snow leopard. But for Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist recovering from the recent death of his wife, it was more of an inner journey of recovery and resignation than some zoological field trip.
In many ways, Matthiessen resembles Patrick Leigh Fermor, another lyrical writer who travelled widely and lived richly, setting his books across the globe. Like Matthiessen, Paddy – as everyone knew him- lived an enviable life. In his teens he walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, while in his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron who swam it in 1810. In between, he joined possibly the last cavalry charge in European history, participated in a Haitian voodoo ceremony, and pursued a passionate affair with a Byzantine princess. He was car-bombed in Greece, knifed in Bulgaria and pursued by German troops after being parachuted into occupied Crete where he kidnapped the Nazi commander.
Paddy and Peter were very different men of very different generations. Matthiessen was a blue-blooded New Yorker, descended from Friesian whalers, and grew up on post-war Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, in the same building as George Plimpton, with whom he later co-founded the Paris Review. The American 1960s marked him forever. He experimented with psychedelia, especially LSD, became an anti-Vietnam activist and his friends were the great New York writers of that era – Kurt Vonnegut, EL Doctorow and William Styron. Leigh Fermor, by contrast, had the speech patterns, polished brogues and formal manners of a pre-war British officer, and his conversation was peppered with the likes of “ripping”, “topping”, “I say!”, “frightful rot” and so on. His friends tended to be Brits of a similar background and era – Noel Coward, Dirk Bogarde, Diana Cooper, the Mitfords and later, Bruce Chatwin.
Nepal Himalayas Matthiessen describes the Nepal Himalayas in lyrical terms
It is also true that these two great descriptive writers wrote very dissimilar prose. Matthiessen’s writing had a spare and austere simplicity, yet was as beautiful and craggy as his wonderfully weather-beaten face. Here he is waking up in the Nepal Himalaya: “A luminous mountain morning. Mist and fire smoke, sun shafts and dark ravines: a peak off Annapurna poises on soft clouds… Pine, rhododendron, barberry and purple gentians. Down mountain fields, a path of stones flows like mercury in the sunlight; even the huts have roofs of silver slates.”
In contrast, Paddy’s books, with what Lawrence Durrell called their “truffled style and dense plumage”, were sometimes “madly, intoxicatingly over-written”. Yet at his best he was a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly an equal in modern English letters. For many of us his descriptions of walking through midwinter 1930s Germany have the status of sacred texts: “Sometimes the landscapes move further back in time,” he writes in the Winterreise chapter of his masterpiece, A Time of Gifts. “Pictures from illuminated manuscripts take shape; they become scenes which Books of Hours enclosed in the O of Orate, fratres. The snow falls; it is Carolingian weather… Then the rooks fell silent; the light dwindled over the grey fields; and life ebbed with a shudder like a soul leaving the body.”
Yet these two very different writers had so much in common. Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders. Both were writers of great sensitivity and erudition, yet both were also men of action who became intelligence agents – Leigh Fermor in wartime Crete, while Matthiessen worked for the CIA in post-war Paris spying on American expatriate communists suspected of KGB links.
Both men moved easily from the world of the flesh to the world of the spirit and back. They understood what Paddy described in A Time to Keep Silence as “the capacity for solitude that accompanies the silent monastic life”.
The same was true of Matthiessen, who while the lively centre of many a mescaline-fuelled literary party in his youth, ended his day as a Roshi, or Zen Master. “Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and be awake,” he said in one of his last interviews. “Zen is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware for five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”
The world of literary travel writing, usually associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has recently begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years or so, Wilfred Thesiger, Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have all – like Peter and Paddy – gone on their last journey. But for me, Leigh Fermor and Matthiessen remain, along with Bruce Chatwin, the greatest of them all.
On my last visit to see Paddy at the villa he built in Kardamyli, deep in the Greek Mani, I went with him to see the Byzantine chapel around which Chatwin had had his ashes scattered. The chapel was very small with a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It was a perfect place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Paddy whether he would like to be buried there too.
Continue reading the main story
“Oh no,” he replied instantly. “My wife, Joan, is buried in Gloucestershire. I’d like to end up there. England is not a foreign country to me.” The same was true of Matthiessen who in the end found peace in Sagaponak, where he set up a Zen meditation centre at the back of his estate.
It’s a characteristic of many of the greatest travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, another wandering writer turned intelligence agent, was the same. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he wrote about what is I think a surprisingly common dilemma, and one I certainly recognise in my own life – that of the traveller who moves abroad, embraces another culture, immerses himself in it, and then finds that he has been changed forever by the experience and cannot ever fully return.
I had dropped one form and not taken on the other,” wrote Lawrence, “the inevitable fate of the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.” Matthiessen could not have put it better.
A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer
One of the most significant of the characters that inhabit Paddy’s pre-war world is Baron Philipps (Pips) von Schey. Paddy’s stay with Pips at the Schey country house at Kovecses enlivens the later pages of A Time of Gifts. This episode gets an unexpected reference in Edmund de Waal’s sparkling biography The Hare with Amber Eyes (p. 177 of the illustrated edition, Chatto & Windus, 2010) due to an important family connection.
In 1899 Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla married de Waal’s great grandfather, banker Viktor von Ephrussi. Pips was her younger brother and Kovecses becomes a recurring presence in the lives of the Ephrussi family.
In The Hare Kovecses is described as ‘a very large and very plain eighteenth century house (“a large square box such as children draw”…) set in a flat landscape of fields with belts of willows, birch forests and streams. A great river, the Vah, swept past, forming one of the boundaries of the estate…There was a swimming lake with fretted Moorish changing huts, lots of stables and lots of dogs.’ Trains stopped ‘at the tiny halt on the estate.’ The Hare includes several pictures of Kovecses.
Pips is pictured in a pen-and-ink drawing playing Wagner at the piano. He had been educated by tutors and had ‘a wide circle of friends in the arts and the theatre, is a man around town in several capitals and is impeccably dressed…’. A further sign of his high profile: ‘Pips appears as the protagonist of a highly successful novel of the time by the German Jewish novelist Jakob Wassermann…Our aesthetic hero is a pal of archdukes…He is erudite about incunabula and Renaissance art…’. Kovecses became a retreat for the Ephrussi family, a refuge from the banking hothouse of Vienna for games, music and plays, for swimming, walking riding and shooting in the years before 1914.
With the advent of war, ‘Uncle Pips is called up, handsome in his uniform with its astrakhan collar, to fight against his French and English cousins’. In 1915 he ‘is serving as an imperial liaison officer with the German high command in Berlin, where he is instrumental in helping Rilke get a desk job away from the Front.’ Wartime shortages beset the Ephrussies in Vienna and in 1916 they go to ‘…Kovecses for the whole long holiday. This means that at least they can eat properly. There is roast hare, game pies and plum dumplings…’. By August 1918, ‘There are only two old man to tend the gardens and the roses on the long veranda are unkempt’ at Kovecse.
After the war Pips maintains his friendship with Rilke and gives his niece, Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother, an introduction to the poet. She sends him her poems and they correspond, though they never meet.
By the early 1930s and with the ascendancy of fascism and anti Semitism life became increasing difficult for the Ephrussies. In 1934 (the year of Paddy’s visit) ‘Viktor and Emmy holiday together at Kovecses, but since the death of her parents it is a strangely diminished place, with only a couple of horses in the stables and fewer gamekeepers and no great weekend shoots any more…The swimming lake has been let go. Its edges are susurrating reeds.’ Following the Anschluss in 1938 Viktor and Emmy flee Vienna for the relative safety of Kovecses. ‘In the summer of 1938 Kovecses looks much the same as it has done, a jumble of grand and informal…[but] The roses are more unkempt…The house is much emptier.’ The safety is only relative: ‘The borders are under review and Czechoslovakia is fissile. And Kovecses is just too close to danger.’ Germany occupied the Sudetenland; Emmy died at Kovecses on 12th October 1938 and was buried in the churchyard of the nearby hamlet. In early March Viktor got permission to leave for Britain, where he died in 1945.
The war and its aftermath wreaked their havoc on Kovecses and the Schey family, though happily Pips survived and Paddy records that he died in Normandy in 1957.
I have found that you can read The Hare with Amber Eyes on-line here.
First published in Ekathimerini.com 8 March 2014
On May 27, 1941, days after the first airborne invasion in history, the German army hoisted a Nazi flag atop an abandoned mosque in Hania, western Crete. The gesture was poignant. Crete – which had overthrown three centuries of Turkish rule just three decades prior – was again under the heel of an occupying power.
The Cretans were unshaken. The island’s peasantry armed itself with muskets and daggers and took to the crags and caves of the White Mountains. The campaign of sabotage that followed – an echo of repeated revolts against the Ottomans, Venetians and Arabs – marked the first mass civilian resistance to Nazi rule in Europe. “We had encountered for the first time an enemy that was prepared to fight to the bitter end,” marveled a German lieutenant.
Wes Davis’s “The Ariadne Objective” (Crown, 2013) traces the British intelligence service’s collaboration with this hardscrabble fifth column. The plans to wrest Crete from Nazi control formed part of a larger wartime strategy to “set Europe ablaze” through the Special Operations Executive (SOE), “Churchill’s secret army.” In Crete the stakes were particularly high. Cretan restlessness proved crucial to delaying Hitler’s march to the East. As the war in North Africa came to a close, the island was to become a strategic linchpin to the European theater. By 1943, the British naval command looked to Crete as a promising base from which to retake the Aegean and the Continent at large.
“The Ariadne Objective” distills existing accounts of the Cretan conflict – W. Stanley Moss’s “Ill Met by Moonlight,” George Psychoundakis’s “The Cretan Runner,” Antony Beevor’s “Crete” – into a thrilling, highly readable narrative. The book benefits from a remarkable group of protagonists. Just as the Greeks of 1821 attracted a spirited cast of Western philhellenes, so too did the Cretan resistance become a curious meeting ground for a platoon of Anglophone scholars. Most were Classicists who had scraped together the rudimentary basics of Modern Greek. Many – N.G.L. Hammond, Thomas Dunbabin – went on to hold distinguished academic posts after the war; others – Evelyn Waugh, Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor – were to become the literary giants of their generation. “It was the obsolete choice of Greek at school which had really deposited us on the limestone,” recalled Leigh Fermor.
Davis weaves in and out of these figures’ fascinating back-stories. The book narrates Leigh Fermor and Xan Fielding’s respective hikes across Europe in vivid detail; the one-eyed Cambridge archaeologist John Pendlebury provides an excursion into the British excavations at Knossos; a chapter on life in wartime Cairo – including a detour into the rowdy antics of the “Tara villa” inhabitants – acts as a kind of comic relief from the grittiness of the Cretan front.
Sporting shepherds’ crooks and cork-dyed mustaches, these British guerrilla leaders spent months sleeping in caves, organizing resistance bands and smuggling supplies to the beleaguered islanders. Over time their efforts paid off. In the words of a German commander on Crete, the Nazis made the mistake of “regarding a quite substantial partisan movement as nothing more than a few gangs of cattle thieves.”
This thinking was not entirely unfounded. Some Cretans chose to collaborate with the Germans against their countrymen. Those who did resist were internecine and uncertain of their objectives. The available weaponry was hopelessly antiquated. “Stand still, Turk, while I reload” was still the threat of choice among the elderly fighters.
But if the Germans underestimated the determination of this ragtag uprising, so too did they misunderstand its means. In order to deny the Germans any legitimate right to bring reprisals against the local population, the British SOE commanders concentrated the Cretans’ efforts on disrupting Nazi supply lines, provoking discord between Axis commanders and draining the occupiers’ morale through a carefully crafted propaganda campaign. “We want not so much to kill Germans as to terrify and bamboozle them,” advised SOE resistance leader Tom Dunbabin. The smuggling of Italian commander Angelo Carta from Crete to Cairo in 1943 was one such bloodless blow to the enemy’s morale. It was also the dry run for a more devastating attack on German confidence – a ruse that forms the theatrical climax of the “The Ariadne Objective.”
On April 26, 1944 Patrick Leigh Fermor, W. Stanley Moss and a team of Cretan partisans abducted the German commander of Crete, General Heinrich Kreipe, from his headquarters at the Villa Ariadne in Iraklio. Passing through 22 enemy checkpoints, the team worked their way to the southern coast of Crete, sheltering in caves by day and evading German search parties by night. By May 15 Kreipe was in Alexandria; two weeks later he was a prisoner of war in Canada.
“The galvanizing effect of the mission could still be felt in the tense months that followed the end of the war,” writes Davis. “As the rest of Greece plunged into civil unrest – pitting factions of Communist partisans against each other and against various stripes of nationalists – Crete remained relatively calm.”
An intriguingly highbrow current runs through the book’s otherwise soldierly narrative. Greece was not merely a shared strategic prize for German battalions and British spies; it was also an intellectual middle ground for two competing nationalisms, each of which claimed the cultural mantle of the Classical world as its own. Evidence of this mutual enthrallment to antiquity resurfaces throughout “The Ariadne Objective.” The German invasion of Crete is code-named “Mercury.” The British cruisers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean are named the Orion and the Dido. Shipping out to the front line, Pendlebury reads Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” for a crash course in military strategy. Following their conquest of Crete, the Germans import their archaeologists to tend to the island’s historical sites. The diary entry of a German commander flying out of Crete: “just as Daedalus had done so many centuries ago.” “Minotaurs, bull-men, nymphs of Ariadne, kings of Minos, and German generals – a splendid cocktail!” writes Moss after abducting Heinrich Kreipe.
The most arresting example comes a few days following the general’s capture. In a well-cited incident on the slopes of Mount Ida, Kreipe quietly quotes the opening lines of Horace’s “Soracte” ode. Taking up where the general had paused, Leigh Fermor, Kreipe’s captor, recites the rest of the poem’s 24 lines.
“It was a reminder that the war itself was the aberration, interrupting something far more important and lasting. The moment of connection he and the general had just shared had sprung from a deep-running current of literature, art, and civility,” notes Davis.
The incident – like much of the clash in Crete – represents a strange last flowering of the world of the 19th-century imperialist scholar. “The Ariadne Objective” examines that story ably and admirably. This is necessary reading for anyone interested in Greece in the Second World War.
Artemis Cooper’s review of Nick Hunt’s ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’. Hunt retraces the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor across the suburban wastelands of Holland to the woods of Transylvania.
by Artemis Cooper
First published in The Spectator 10 April 2014.
When Nick Hunt first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his youthful trudge across Europe in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, he knew ‘with absolute certainty’ that one day he would make that journey himself. When I embarked on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s biography, I made an equally firm resolve that I wouldn’t walk a step of it. Paddy’s books had left me with a vision of a timeless Europe suspended somewhere between memory and imagination, and I didn’t want that vision distorted by layers of personal impressions.
But to Hunt the books posed a question. Eighty years on, was there anything left of the ‘gifts’ Paddy had enjoyed in prewar Europe? Was there still room enough for wildness, freedom and spontaneous hospitality? In this moving and profoundly honest book, the answer is ‘yes’.
Hunt was in his late twenties when he set out from London, and he got off to a bad start. In Holland and Germany he was obliged to walk for miles on tarmac, under motorways and across industrial and suburban wastelands. He had done no prior training — after all Paddy hadn’t, and what was more natural than walking? The result was tendonitis so severe that he was laid up for a week in Ulm, cursing his stupidity and looked after by a couple called Dierk and Dora.
He found that the kindness of strangers — who included musicians, caretakers, house-painters and Buddhist soap-makers — was an ever recurring miracle. And like the grandees Paddy met, Hunt’s benefactors contacted their friends and relatives, urging them to help the traveller too. He found these guardian angels online, through the Couch Surfing network. Their website is designed to weed out loonies, but it still requires a high level of trust — a trust that was never misplaced. His hosts gave him food and drink, took him to the pub, lent him their laptops — and not once did he feel uncomfortable or threatened by them. At the same time, Hunt was more willing than Paddy to brave the elements. He often slept in the open, twice in sub-zero temperatures; and he became expert at ‘castle-squatting’ — finding snug holes in ancient walls.
As he walked on, the industrial sprawl gave way to landscapes that Paddy would have recognised. Hunt is often haunted by the ‘unimaginable inhumanity that lay between his walk and mine’, but at the same time many things remained startlingly similar. Swapping cigarettes is still a great ice-breaker; the sheepskin coats and cross-gartered moccasins were gone, but in a bar one morning Hunt could see that all the men there had known each other since childhood, and worked in adjoining
fields. Hungary still mourned the loss of Transylvania like an amputation, and still hated the Romanians. Just like Paddy, Hunt was told that the moment he entered Romania he would be attacked by bears, gypsies, wolves and thieves. But as the author observes, people became nicer as he travelled eastwards, although their dogs got nastier.
Hunt is not Paddy, and never pretends to be. Baroque architecture and princely lineage leave him cold, and he never plunges into historical speculation or conjures fantasies out of thin air. But one of the most moving passages in the book tells of his meeting with Ileana Teleki, the great-granddaughter of Count Jeno Teleki, one of Paddy’s hosts in Transylvania. With her, he visits a number of the country houses described in Between the Woods; but now they are gutted, abandoned or used to shelter those who would never recover from the experience of being a Romanian orphan: ‘Traumatised children,’ writes Hunt, ‘housed in the ruins of a traumatised culture.’
The reader familiar with Paddy’s oeuvre will find that something of him has rubbed off on Hunt, which is hardly surprising: he took no other books on the journey, and he feels intimately connected to his predecessor. So in walking through the wooded Pilis Hills, or in watching for changes in physiognomy as he crosses from one territory to another, he is — consciously or unsconsciously — paying homage to Paddy by absorbing his way of looking at things.
At the same time, I’ve learnt so much from the vivid way Hunt describes the physiological effects of trudging on for month after month. Sometimes it brings a sense of unlimited freedom, sometimes joy, sometimes an extraordinary, dreamlike dislocation, always accompanied by a dazzling sharpness of hearing and vision. I see now how that youthful walk informed so much of Paddy’s style. Before embarking on his journey, Hunt was going to write to Paddy. The letter was never written, and by the time he set off, Paddy was dead. How touched and fascinated he would have been to read this book.
Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt
Nicholas Brearley, pp.336, £10.99, ISBN: 9781857886177
It often takes me quite a while to post items that have been very kindly sent to me by some of our many readers. This is just one such example and I have to apologize as I have lost the details of whoever sent it to me. Suffice to say that the content on here is often the result of your hard work in finding items and sending them to me so please do keep it up and I will always acknowledge your contribution. This is unique example of being unable to do that. If you sent me the original link and are reading this please step forward! PS – the mystery contributor has been found. Thank you Rob MacGregor!
Below is an extract from Neville Phillip’s 2008 biography The Stage Struck Me! in which he mentions an amusing episode involving Paddy at the shops! Can you imagine him shopping?
You can actually read the whole book online via Google Books where we are told:
“The Stage Struck Me!” is a funny, informative and sometimes sad account of the life of a jobbing actor and writer in the 1940s and 1950s, full of anecdotes about the famous, the infamous, the charming and the downright loopy people he met along the way. After joining the South African Army and serving as a gunner in the coastal artillery, Neville Phillips was transferred to the entertainment unit where he spent four years doing shows for the Allied troops in North Africa and Italy. In 1946 he was demobbed to London and it was here that Neville Phillips met and got to know some truly remarkable people, as well as writing West End reviews, pantomime, cabaret, and a musical starring Pat Kirkwood. “The Stage Struck Me!” is a fascinating and sometimes poignant account of times, places and people that played such an important part in a young aspiring actor’s life.
Read the extract in pdf format here.
In the winter of 1933, an 18-year-old named Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from the Hook of Holland to cross Europe on foot. His goal was Istanbul, which he bookishly insisted on calling Constantinople. He had little more in his rucksack than a volume of Horace and a few blank notebooks. He also had a bad reputation: The masters who expelled him from school — for a flirtation with a local girl — saw only “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” He spent the next year charming his way through a doomed prewar landscape of landed aristocrats, feudal peasants and benevolent monks, sleeping alternately in schlosses and hayricks. It was a journey that would become legendary, not so much for the extraordinary things he saw and recorded as for his prose — an utterly unique, hybrid vehicle that combines youthful exuberance with a dense, dauntingly erudite display of verbal artifice. Unlike most authors of travel literature (a rattlebag genre that doesn’t really do him justice) Leigh Fermor does not confine his role to that of camera obscura. He builds dense whorls of wordplay to echo the carvings in an old church door; he slips into baroque historical fantasias, scattering a shrapnel of words like “gabions,” “hydromel,” “eyot” and “swingletrees” at the unsuspecting reader. In between salvos, there are moments of ferocious humor and quiet, lyrical beauty.
By Robert F. Worth
First published in the New York Times, 7 March 2014
In part, this richness is a measure of the extraordinary gap between the experience and its narration. Leigh Fermor did not begin writing the first book about his journey, “A Time of Gifts,” until the 1970s. In the intervening decades, he had written several other books, becoming a fiercely learned autodidact and adventurer. His exploits during and after World War II — when he helped to kidnap the Nazi commandant in Crete and deliver him to a waiting British submarine — are said to have helped inspire his friend Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. As a result, the travel narratives are a kind of palimpsest in which his younger and older selves exist in counterpoint. He initially considered naming the first book “Parallax,” to reflect this split perspective.
Few books have been as keenly or lengthily anticipated as the third and final volume of Leigh Fermor’s youthful travels. (A second installment, “Between the Woods and the Water,” was published in 1986.) It never appeared; burdened by writer’s block and frailty, Leigh Fermor was still working on it when he died in 2011 at age 96. But he did leave a manuscript. His biographer, Artemis Cooper, and the British travel writer Colin Thubron chose to tidy it up and publish it as “The Broken Road,” a reference to the abrupt narrative halt before the author reaches Istanbul.
“The Broken Road” narrates Leigh Fermor’s travels in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, a more tribal and violent world than Northern Europe. It does not always have the gemlike polish of the first two volumes. But it is an unforgettable book, full of strange encounters with a prewar Balkan cast of counts, prostitutes, peasants, priests and castrati. The greatest pleasure of all, as usual, is Leigh Fermor’s own infectious, Rabelaisian hunger for knowledge of almost every kind. His memory seems eidetic; his eyes miss nothing. He seems to carry within himself a whole troupe of sharp-eyed geographers, art historians, ethnologists and multilingual poets. For anyone who has tried to document a journey, reading him is a humbling and thoroughly inspiring experience.
“The Broken Road” is also full of his signature verbal architecture: The Orthodox bishops “in copes as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings, and the higher clergy, coiffed with globular gold mitres the size of pumpkins and glistening with gems, leaned on croziers topped with twin coiling snakes.” Or the Virgilian evocation of a passing flock of storks in the Balkan mountains, which goes on for pages: “All at once we were under a high shifting roof of wings, a flotilla that was thickening into an armada, until our ears were full of the sound of rustling and rushing with a flutter now and then when a bird changed position in a slow wingbeat or two, and of the strange massed creaking, as of many delicate hinges, of a myriad slender joints. They benighted the air.”
In some respects this book is even more satisfying than its predecessors because it is less guarded; the narrator emerges as an angrier, more troubled and more persuasive character. One of my few quarrels with “A Time of Gifts” is the dogged high-mindedness of Leigh Fermor’s youthful self. Where is the lust? Where is the rage? This man is 18 years old, for God’s sake. He never gives way to the curse-spitting xenophobia that overcomes most travelers (certainly me) at some point in their journeys. He runs into plenty of jams, and meets plenty of pretty young girls; but there is something a little too noble about him, too much of the innocent abroad.
This time things are different, and the young man seems to break free of his older narrator. At one point, lying on the damp earthen floor of a Bulgarian peasant’s hut, he gives way to revulsion at the “noisily hibernating rustics swathed all over this stifling hellhole.” He is overcome by self-hatred and yearns for the comfort and status of his school-bound peers. Elsewhere, he meets a spirited Bulgarian girl named Nadejda and falls in love with her; their romance, though apparently unconsummated, reeks of the adolescent emotional frailty that seemed absent in the earlier books.
One of the most vivid passages in “The Broken Road” takes place in Bucharest, where young Paddy (as all his friends called him) checks into what he takes for a modest hotel, the Savoy-Ritz, giving his bags to a baffled patronne. He returns late that night and discovers that it is not a hotel but a brothel. The laughing madam ushers him into the kitchen, where four attractive young prostitutes are eating a late supper: “I was given a chair and a glass of wine, and the girls on either side cut off bits of chicken breast and offered them on their forks with friendly solicitude.” The women, charmed by his youth and innocence, feed and fuss over him for several days, telling him stories about their clients and themselves, though he remains discreetly silent about whether he got anything for free.
“The Broken Road” ends in midsentence, and the editors have chosen to follow it with excerpts from the diary Leigh Fermor wrote in early 1935, mostly at Mt. Athos in Greece. These are fascinating precisely because they are so ordinary: Suddenly we see how lucky we are that Leigh Fermor chose to wait four decades before starting. Young men have strong legs and eyes, but it is the older narrator, with his multilayered perspective, who knows how to turn memory into art.
History also played a role. “The Broken Road” is strewn with ominous, proleptic hints about the future that only we — and the older narrator — are privy to. In “A Time of Gifts,” the Nazis were a constant presence, crass and often ludicrous, waiting to inherit Europe. In this book, it is both the Soviet boot and the Balkan breakup that lurk throughout, as young Paddy listens to his Bulgarian and Romanian friends spew hatred of one another. But he also evokes a quiet, starlit world where countless eccentricities of folk art and culture bloomed in isolated villages and persisted for centuries, untouched by the glare of television and the Internet. Much of this is gone now. We can be grateful he was there to record it.
THE BROKEN ROAD
From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper
362 pp. New York Review Books. $30.