Friday, December 6, 2013
Worth the wait
My next review: long-awaited is putting it mildly...
Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road
Published by John Murray
In the 1970s and 1980s, Patrick Leigh Fermor published A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the first two volumes of a projected trilogy, describing the walk he made in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to the city of Istanbul (or, as he insisted on calling it, Constantinople). Between the Woods and the Water took the young Paddy Leigh Fermor to the Iron Gates (on the Danube at the frontier of Romania and what is now Serbia). And there everything stopped. The promised third volume never appeared, and in 2011 Paddy died.
The Broken Road is the nearest we will get to the missing last volume. Its editors, Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron, explain in their introduction that Paddy had actually begun this third volume before he started the two that were published. In 1962, as the result of a commission from an American magazine to write about 'The Pleasures of Walking' he began to write up his great walk. Around about the Iron Gates, he realised that he was compressing his memories uncomfortably, so began to be more expansive, producing an extended, book-length account of most of the last third of his walk. He eventually had, therefore, a short account of the first two-thirds, a longer, more reflective and allusive record of the Bulgarian portion – and nothing that would do as an article for his American magazine.
In the mid-1960s he put the project to one side, and when he returned to it in the 1970s, he realised that he had to start over, writing a new account of the first portion, the account that became A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Then nothing. Paddy, it seems, despaired of turning part three into anything as good as the first two books (which had, of course, received adulation from reviewers and readers alike). He just couldn't see how he could do it – and things were made worse with the death of his two greatest supporters, his publisher Jock Murray and his wife, Joan. Even in his last years, though, fighting tunnel vision, Paddy returned to the old manuscript, working in pen on a large-size print out.
Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron have prepared this version for publication as The Broken Road – it's their title (though nearly all the words in the book itself are Paddy's) and it acknowledges that the manuscript was never finished: it breaks off by the Black Sea, a few days' walk from Constantinople. A very brief diary Paddy wrote in the city on the Bosphorus, together with a more extended diary covering his subsequent trip to Mount Athos, complete the book.
Although the author would no doubt have changed much more if he could, and rewritten whole chunks, the book is still a marvel. It's full of the evocative descriptions of places – from the Bulgarian town of Tirnovo, its 'sharp flight of houses hovering in ascending waves along the lip of a precipice', to Messembria with its ancient churches 'embedded by heaps of rubble and choked with weeds and brambles'. People too: itinerant bee-keepers, cobblers, a wheelwright, a man unsuccessfully shooting at wildfowl from a small boat. And animals and flocks of birds: cormorants with necks like submarine periscopes, an airborne horde of storks portrayed in a great set-piece. Other perennial Paddy preoccupations – language, costumes and hats, architecture, the tectonic movements of Central European history – are all here.
There's also a certain amount of comment about the perilous process of writing about things that happened decades before. He says quite a lot about piecing together the memories, about the unreliability of the marks he made on his map (surely he stayed in more places than he marked), about the places he had revisited in the interim, so that memories are overlaid and difficult to disentangle. Paddy is also honest about his periods of depression – something little touched on (as far as I can recall) in the first two books. This makes his hesitations, prevarications, and delays in producing book three all the more easy to understand – but also helps us to understand the corollary of all this – Paddy's relentless enthusiasm for so much of what he saw, his wonder, his delight, and his determination to capture this in his jewelled, sometimes Baroque, prose.
Perhaps at the end of the day what matters most is that the three books chronicle, with such faithfulness and beauty, that process of youthful acquisition of experience that means so much and stays with us so long:
One is only sometimes warned, when these processes begin, of their crucial importance: that certain poems, paintings, kinds of music, books, or ideas are going to change everything, or that one is going to fall in love or become friends for life; the many lengthening strands, in fact, which, plaited together, compose a lifetime. One should be able to detect the muffled bang of the starter's gun. This journey was punctuated with these inaudible reports: daysprings veiled and epiphanies in plain clothes.
The book may be unfinished, but these cultural encounters – with books, buildings, places, and people too – pull us up short time after time, giving form and meaning to the author's life, and bringing illumination to our own.
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My post about Patrick Leigh Fermor's gravestone is here.
My review of Artemis Cooper's biography of Paddy is here.