80 years after he walked across Europe, a travel writer’s final volume
File - In this Dec. 30, 2001 picture British travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, is seen at his house in Kardamyli, Greece. Fermor known for his World War II exploits behind enemy lines in Crete, died in Britain on Friday. He was 96. Greece's Culture Ministry expressed deep sorrow at the writer's death, calling him one of Greece's most significant cultural ambassadors in the world. "Patrick Leigh Fermor, perhaps the greatest contemporary travel writer, loved Greece as his second country," a ministry statement said. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, file)
File - In this Dec. 30, 2001 picture British travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, is seen at his house in Kardamyli, Greece. Fermor known for his World War II exploits behind enemy lines in Crete, died in Britain on Friday June 10 2011. He was 96. Greece's Culture Ministry expressed deep sorrow at the writer's death, calling him one of Greece's most significant cultural ambassadors in the world. "Patrick Leigh Fermor, perhaps the greatest contemporary travel writer, loved Greece as his second country," a ministry statement said. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)
Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of travel literature’s most colorful, beguiling pedestrians, famously decided to walk across Europe when he was 18. Why not? He’d failed out of every school he’d gone to, after all, had given up on joining the army and was li
Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of travel literature’s most colorful, beguiling pedestrians, famously decided to walk across Europe when he was 18. Why not? He’d failed out of every school he’d gone to, after all, had given up on joining the army and was living a somewhat-too-dissipated life in London among the aging remnant of the Bright Young Things. So, in the winter of 1933, equipped with a rucksack, walking stick, military greatcoat, puttees and the Oxford Book of English Verse, he hopped on a boat to Rotterdam, Netherlands, pointing his hobnailed boots in the direction of what he’d always call Constantinople (not Istanbul), where he’d arrive in just over a year.
Eighty years later, we finally have the complete account of that trip. But it was a long road getting there – a kind of parallel journey. In 1962, Holiday magazine asked Fermor to write an article on “The Pleasures of Walking,” which he took as a chance to revisit the “Great Trudge” of his youth. He managed to cover the first two-thirds of the trip in a mere 70 pages, but the conclusion ballooned into a book of its own. Fermor wanted to call it “Parallax,” to underline the dual vantage of adolescence and middle age. His long-suffering publisher suggested “A Youthful Journey” instead. As it happened, it became neither as, busy building a house in the Peloponnese, Fermor abandoned the project altogether. By the time he took it up again, 10 or so years later, he’d decided to start from the beginning again and write not one book but three. A Time of Gifts, which covers his walk from Holland to the middle Danube, was published in 1977. Between the Woods and the Water followed nine years later, taking him as far as the Iron Gates separating the Balkan and Carpathian mountains and ending with the words “TO BE CONCLUDED.” With the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, it kind of is.
The Broken Road is something of a stand-in for the long, long awaited third volume that Fermor planned to write. Assembled by his biographer Artemis Cooper and British writer Colin Thubron, it’s basically the manuscript of “A Youthful Journey” polished up a bit, though Cooper and Thubron claim that “scarcely a phrase” in it is theirs. Why Fermor couldn’t complete the trilogy himself is unclear. He was, by all accounts, a slow writer, working and reworking each sentence so diligently that a friend, said Cooper, once accused him of “Penelope-izing” – unraveling the day’s work every night like Odysseus’s wife. But by the time he died, in 2011 at the age of 96 – a real feat for someone who, by his own accounting, smoked 80 cigarettes a day for most of his life – “Volume III” had been in the works for more than half a century.
Perhaps in his later years, as Cooper suggests in her biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, the author may have felt that “the whole subject was beginning to feel stale, barren, written out, and he feared he no longer had the strength to bring it back to life.”
Fermor’s torment may also have been a case of writerly perfectionism gone awry, as The Broken Road will seem, by most standards, plenty alive. Fermor’s deeply layered narrative, as before, intersperses fetishistically beautiful descriptions with historical tidbits, personal asides and fanciful imaginings. He remains endlessly fascinated by local costume, folklore, genealogy, songs and the doings of monks and muezzins, bouncing happily from peasant village to aristocratic schloss, from student digs on the Black Sea to Romanian country villa. He meets a girl (“half captured Circassian princess, half Byronic heroine”), stomps grapes, smokes hash, witnesses a celebratory riot in a Bulgarian cafe when it’s announced that someone’s murdered the Yugoslavian king, downs countless glasses of raki and slivo, investigates the Hasidim, theorizes on the breeding of mermaids, and sings German songs backwards to entertain a Bulgarian maid. Arriving in Bucharest, he accidentally checks into a brothel, thinking it’s a hotel, to the great entertainment of all, then charms his way into Romanian high society and passes out on the floor of an artist’s flat. He reads The Brothers Karamazov and Don Juan, and somehow always manages to find a bed for the night, usually a free one.
Still, this is a different Europe than that of the first two books – one toward which Fermor seems more ambivalent than the Mitteleuropean splendor he’s passed. Out of the old Holy Roman Empire and the familiar shadow of Western Christendom, he’d entered the strange oriental world of the Balkans – a region so recently free of the Ottoman yoke that it remained steeped in both Turkish culture and oppression’s palpable effects. There are fewer castles and a great many more huts. There’s more racial hatred, too – Jewish/Romanian, Romanian/Bulgarian, Bulgarian/everyone but Russians – a legacy of the region’s violent past. Of course, Fermor’s zestful catalog of certain Balkan cruelties – like the blinding, by Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, of a thousand-man army, leaving one of every hundred soldiers an eye “so that the rest might grope their way home to the czar” – reveal that, for a 19-year-old at least, bloodthirstiness was part of the region’s romance.
Fermor takes obvious delight in language, picking up words as one might souvenirs: In Romania, for instance, “the best word I had ever heard for irretrievable gloom: zbucium, pronounced zboochoum, a desperate spondee of utter dejection, those Moldowallachian blues.” The Broken Road positively drips with exotic names, ethnic designations and obscure vocabularies. A dog is “passant, sejant then couchant,” and beekeepers go about “their Georgic business. mobled in muslin, calm-browed comb-setters and swarm-handlers of the scattered thorps.” Thorps! Fermor’s linguistic revelry also results in descriptive passages that verge on the purple, with images layered one over the other in a positive conflagration of sense: “Cauliflowers sailing overhead, towing their shadows twisted and bent by the ravines, like ships’ anchors, across the whale-shaped undulations, or hovering in the high mountain passes as lightly as ostrich feathers, or sliding along the horizons in pampas plumes. The setting sun turned each of these into the tail of a giant retriever.” The passage, in case there’s any doubt, describes clouds.
Actually though, hard as it is to believe, A Broken Road is a great deal less “written” than the previous two books – it was essentially a draft, unspangled with the oodles of adjectives that customarily embellish Fermor’s Byzantine prose. A representative description of a building from Volume I, by comparison, displays his gifts at full polish: “From the massed upward thrust of its buttresses to the stickle-back ridge of its high-pitched roof it was spiked with a forest of perpendiculars. Up the corner of the transepts, stairs in fretted polygonal cylinders spiralled and counter-spiralled, and flying buttresses enmeshed the whole fabric in a radiating web of slants.” This sort of thing might seem a bit steroidal to some, but the verbal fireworks go a long way toward recapturing the rapturous enthusiasm with which the young Fermor seems to have shone.
“I was unboreable, like an unsinkable battleship,” the author reflects in The Broken Road. “My mouth was as unexactingly agape as the seal’s to the flung bloater. . . . I might, judging by my response to phenomena for most of these thousands of miles, have been a serious drug addict.” The tumultuous rush of his prose mimics the drug-like thrill that reality had for him then, and this – getting the reader as high on his words as he was on life – was what Fermor saw as his greatest challenge, 30 years on. The Broken Road tends more toward introspection than euphoria at times, frankly discussing the periodic bouts of depression that were euphoria’s flip side and Fermor’s doubt in his memories. “Were the domes tiled or were they sheeted in steel or lead – or both, as I boldly set down a moment ago? Or is it the intervening years that have tiled and leaded and metalled them so arbitrarily?”
The distance between living and writing is responsible too for the shadow European history cast over Fermor as he sat down to write his “Trudge” books. Fermor was in Germany in December 1933: Hitler was in power, and the rise of nationalism was apparent in the streets, where heil-ing stormtroopers would “become performing seals for a second . . . as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts.” In Vienna, in February 1934, he arrived in the middle of the riots between the country’s anti-communist militia and Social Democrats, the beginning of a political shift that would culminate in the Anschluss some years on. But the young Fermor, having little interest in politics, didn’t notice at all. “I wasn’t a political observer,” he yells at a Bulgarian friend who’s rebuked him for wanting to visit the hated Romania. “Races, language, what people were like, that was what I was after: churches, songs, books, what they wore and ate and looked like, what the hell!”
If the young Fermor, busy with parties, drinking, smoking, sex, failed to foresee the consequences of Nazism’s rise, the older one certainly does. “I am maddened,” he wrote in 1963, “by not having seen, written, looked, heard.”