Review: Luke Slatteryon Patrick Leigh Fermor

In defiance of time: The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The finest travel narrative of the twentieth century can at last be read in full in the second decade of the twenty-first, some 80 years after the events it describes and two after its author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, died at the splendid age of 96. These temporal perspectives are worth noting at the outset because time – its passing and loss, its magical recuperation and crystallisation through the white magic of narrative – is at the heart of Leigh Fermor’s enchanting trilogy. Its fulfilment has been an excruciatingly long wait for readers, like myself, who came by chance to the first book in the series, A Time of Gifts (1977), long before its apotheosis into what is generally regarded as one of the supreme works in the travel genre. Jan Morris, perhaps our greatest living travel writer, confers the highest possible praise in her introduction to the New York Review of Books edition, published in 2005, when she describes it as a work of genius, at once ‘learned’, ‘portentous’, ‘prodigiously gifted’ and, despite this enumeration of worldly qualities, somehow ‘innocent’ at the same time.

A Time of Gifts tells of the eighteen-year-old Leigh Fermor’s impecunious trek – though he was later to call it a ‘trudge’ – across pre-war Europe with little more than a rucksack, a pound a week for provisions, a second-hand army greatcoat to keep out the wind and snow, and two literary companions that few eighteen-year-olds today would regard as page-turners: the Loeb Classical Library edition of Horace and an old Oxford Book of English Verse. It is the night of 9 December 1933, cold and rain-swept. And while Paddy, as he was known to his friends, is in jaunty spirits as he catches sight of the ‘glistening umbrellas’ tilted over the bowler hats in Piccadilly, dark clouds loom on the eastern horizon. In a little over three months, Hitler will begin his putsch. The young man is about to preserve in the aspic of his ornamental prose the broad outlines and fine cut-glass details of an evanescent world as it passes from view.

The publication of A Time of Gifts by John Murray was followed a decade later by its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Where the first volume describes Paddy’s journey from London across the channel to Holland and, from there, largely on foot through Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, en route to the final destination of Constantinople, the second tells of the trek through Hungary across the Romanian border into Transylvania. By this time, a year has passed. The wintry scenes that open the tale give way to golden days and moonlit summer nights, and the going is altogether easier: our traveller stays at many a ‘pre-arranged haven’ and traverses the great Hungarian plain on horseback. The narrative leaves off at the end of Mitteleuropa, at the Iron Gates beside the Bulgarian border.

This is where the trilogy’s third and concluding volume, The Broken Road, picks up the thread. The narrative has been assembled from a number of raw and unpolished sources left by Leigh Fermor at his death: an early narrative from 1963-64, later partly revised by the ageing author, together with a diary penned in 1934-35 towards the end of the trek that was lost at the onset of war and recovered in 1965. The book’s joinery and surface have been sandpapered over by the author’s biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer Colin Thubron, thereby completing the trilogy, though not, I suspect, in a form Paddy the consummate prose stylist would have been pleased with.

It begins with a voyage on the Danube steamer into Bulgaria. Immediately, there is a change of mood:

All through Central Europe, from the snowy Rhine, through Bavaria and Austria, the old kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary and even the forested confines of the principality of Transylvania, the aura of the vanished Holy Roman Empire and the realm of Charlemagne and the mysteries of western Christendom hung in the air. The Turkish overlordship of the eastern regions had ended long ago and few traces remained. But here, on the southern bank of the Danube, the mountains were haunted by the ghost of a different sovereignty. So recently had the yoke of Turkey been shaken off that Bulgaria seemed less the south-easternmost corner of Europe than the north-westernmost limit of a world that stretched away to the Taurus mountains, the deserts of Arabia and the Asian steppes. It was the Orient …

There is no lack of curiosity in the following pages about the remnants of Ottoman rule – ‘thick and plentiful on either side’ – or the new world of domes and minarets, charcoaled kebabs, sugary cubes of loukoum, and all manner of oriental sweets from baklava to kadaif. And there is no lessening of the tone of willing seduction to the opiate of sensory experience, of exaltation at the riches that culture and nature send his way. In fact, one of the most powerful passages in the entire trilogy describes an encounter on the Great Balkan range with a wave of migrating storks abandoning Europe at the onset of Autumn. What begins as an ‘indistinct blur’ on the horizon soon becomes a ‘moving mass’ and then, as it passes overhead,

a slow airborne horde, enormous and awe-inspiring, composed of myriads of birds, their leaders becoming distinguishable now as they sailed towards us on almost motionless wings, and at last, as they outlined themselves once more against the sky, identifiable … Soon a ragged party of skirmishes was floating immediately above, straight as the keels of canoes from the tips of their bills to the ends of their legs that streamed behind each one of them like a wake, balanced between the almost motionless span of their great wings, the sunlight falling golden between the comparative transparency of the feathers and the dark bobbin-shaped outline of their craned throats.

Something has happened, nevertheless, to transform the writer’s interior mood in the great walk’s final stages. He dwells on ancient Balkan enmities and acts of enormous cruelty, such as the blinding of an army of ten thousand by the Byzantine emperor Basil (the Bulgar-slayer), ‘leaving a single eye to each hundredth soldier so that the rest might grope their way home to the czar: a procession so atrocious that the czar, when the pathetic procession arrived, died of grief and shock.’ Even before Paddy enters Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935, the lustre of the ancient East-meets-West imperial capital astride the Bosphorus has begun to dim beside the steady glow of another, even more distant beacon: Hellas. The young man whose first impressions of people, pastoral scenes and old world interiors speak of such a refined sensitivity to place and tradition, to the present and the past, and to the presence of the past, fails to record any visual impressions or emotions on the occasion of his long journey’s much anticipated end-point.

In fact, the continuous narrative is abandoned completely after an episode on the Black Sea, a few days march from Constantinople, and from that point on journal entries are deployed in The Broken Road as a substitute. The full implications of the title become starkly apparent. And yet the diary records few of the city’s Ottoman or Byzantine wonders. It is a dramatic, uncharacteristic and ultimately inexplicable lacuna. ‘So tired after the journey and the whoopee on New Year’s Eve,’ reads his laconic journal entry for 1 January: ‘slept till six o’clock in the evening, then, waking up, thought it was only the dawn, having overslept 12 hours, so turned over and slept again till Jan 2nd morning, thus New Year’s day 1935 will always be a blank for me.’ He leaves eleven days later.

Greece has vaulted into place as the new longed-for destination and Constantinople is relegated to the role of penultimate staging post. The grand walk, trumpeted in the subtitle of A Time of Gifts as a journey ‘On Foot to Constantinople’, is distended into a journey to Mount Athos. His arrival is heralded by a characteristic burst of exuberant prose, though still in diurnal form: ‘Rounding the cape, I suddenly saw the goal of my pilgrimage, Mount Athos, a huge, ghostly white peak, as pale and wraithlike as the skeleton moon in the blue sunlit sky …’

He lingers at the Orthodox Greek heartland a month, writing out on the spot the more ample journal entries that close out the book. The independent monastic community is at once the new terminus of the trilogy and a springboard into a new life as a partisan, in a number of senses of the word, for Greece. The Broken Road ends in February 1935. An idyllic two-year sojourn in Greece and Rumania follows, after which Paddy joins the war effort and plunges into the struggle against the Third Reich on Crete and mainland Greece. His most famous deed of derring-do was the capture, along with a band of British special operations forces and Cretan partisans, of the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe from his lair at the Villa Ariadne, Knossos. The deed was later celebrated, despite the savage German reprisals against local villagers that lend the operation a suspect air in retrospect, by the film Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) in which Dirk Bogarde plays Paddy.

Remade by the war, in which he earns a DSO, Leigh Fermor travels to the Caribbean for his first book, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), then back to the hot stones and bare hills of southern Greece: the final destination of his personal odyssey. He writes two highly regarded Greek travel books – Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) and Roumeli (1966) – and settles in 1964 on the western coast of the Peloponnese with his wife Joan in a sleepy fishing village in the shadow of Mount Taygetus. It is here, in the province of Kalamata, that he begins to write A Time of Gifts. By the time it is ready for publication, in 1977, the author is in his 60s.

I stumbled on A Time of Gifts in the early-1980s, while truffling through Melbourne’s Paperback Bookshop in Collins Street. I was lured not by the author’s reputation – he scarcely had one in this country at the time – but by the naïve, if not plainly amateurish, charm of the cover illustration by English artist John Craxton. A young man gazes over a Brueghel-ish winter valley of crystal hues – mauve, purple and pewter – enfolding a serpentine river whose furthest icy reaches are silvered by the light of a sun riding low in the sky. The plump tangerine orb casts a pale shimmer over the snow-clad landscape, yet it spreads, as it sets, a gloriously warm glow across the sky. The young man, his back and rucksack to the viewer, tilts back on a walking stick, taking in the frozen world below. He seems to be on the outskirts of a town or village, for next to him stands a building – clearly of the North – with a crow-stepped gable. He looks across to a hilltop fortress with a slender turret. He is quite alone.

Here is a book that one can judge in at least a superficial sense by its cover, for we are soon in the company of this lone young man on the move along the foggy flatlands of Holland:

In less than an hour I was crunching along steadily along the icy ruts of a dyke road and the outskirts of Rotterdam had already vanished in the falling snow. Lifted in the air and lined with willows trees, the road ran dead straight as far as the eye could see, but not so far as it would have in clear weather, for the escorting willows soon became ghost-like in either direction until they dissolved in the surrounding pallor. A wooden-clogged bicyclist would materialise in a peaked cap with circular black ear pads against frostbite, and sometimes his cigar would leave a floating drift from Java or Sumatra on the air long after the smoker had evaporated.

This, one of the first pages of the journey narrative itself, is animated by some wonderfully deft touches – the ‘escorting willows’ and the ‘drift’ of cigar smoke from the Dutch colonies – announcing a writer working at his height in a mature style that combines panache, rhythm and control. It is the magical confluence of a seasoned craftsman attuned to the sensibility of his younger self – to the springs of his own growth – that sets these opening pages alight. But of course the younger self is being recast by the vastly more complex palette of the older, better read and more knowledgeable writer. What the diary entries of The Broken Road seem, in contrast, to suggest is that the young man travelling laterally across Europe in 1933-35 has a much plainer cast of mind than his vastly more cultivated literary doppelgänger, who labours to fashion these memoirs into a high-cultural adventure story between 30 and 40 years later. But then that is to be expected.

Leigh Fermor wrote in a full-blown literary style filigreed with erudition and embroidered with technical terminology from art and architecture – particularly ecclesiastic architecture. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘Prague Under Snow’. Here the descriptive passages reach a level of high intensity appropriate to the city’s place – ‘the recapitalisation and summing-up of all I had gazed at since stepping ashore in Holland’ – in the youth’s artistic awakening. He lingers at St Vitus’s cathedral before stepping outside to take in the ‘gothic reliquary’ with its baroque detailing:

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. Borne up in its flight by a row of cusped and trefoiled half-arches, each of them carried a steep procession of pinnacles and every moulding was a ledge for snow, as though the masonry were perpetually unloosing volleys of snowfeathered shafts among the rooks and the bruise-coloured and quick-silver clouds.

In such passages of excitement and movement, the style becomes so ornamental that it occasionally drew scorn from critics who sensed the showy airs of the autodidact. There is something to this. Paddy left school at sixteen – forced out by high spirits, or ‘early anarchy’ as he somewhere calls it, rather than obtuseness. He was to complete his education at an army ‘crammer’ in London. He passed, and began mixing with a fast crowd, but was soon lured by the romance of his pilgrimage. In any event, he came away with a grounding in French, Latin and Greek that would serve him well on his travels, as well as an impressive catalogue of rote-learned verse including, but not limited to, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Baudelaire, Villon, Virgil, Horace, Homer and Sappho. All boomed out across the mountains on lone stretches of the walk.

I had not fully realised, until reading The Broken Road, how burdensome the isolation of the long walk had become. The narrative of the previous two books is warmed by such a procession of generously drawn characters that it is easy to forget the immensity of the spaces – gulfs rather than mere interstices – between companionship. There is explicit mention on his approach to Constantinople of the ‘slight but growing feeling of loneliness, brought on by shortened days, the beginning of December, and the dash of melancholy that Balkan winters always bring me’. Earlier in the book, he had fallen in with the beautiful French-speaking Nadejda, an ‘amusing, very pretty, fair-haired frowning girl’ who knew how to drink, and their final, shattering farewell prompts a reflection on the obvious, yet until now implicit, point about the journey’s emotional texture:

There was something intrinsically melancholy, a sudden sharp intimation, like a warning tap on the shoulder, of the fleetingness of everything, in bidding goodbye to people who had been kind, as nearly everyone was, and knowing that, in all likelihood, I would never see them again.

One of the benefits of reading this posthumous work is that it provides a perch from which to survey the author’s life to that point, and the literary achievement in which the life is entangled. Not only is the trilogy a tale of adventure within a constantly moving landscape; it is a sincere and affecting Bildungsroman, a record of a vanished world, and a meditation on history and time. What makes the story more interesting than À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27), and for that matter Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75), is the incomplete form in which the final book has come to us.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was an old-style romantic intellectual, and his books attest to a capacious knowledge of history, genealogy, geography, literature, architecture, art and philology. He could read in several European languages, modern and ancient, and his hold on Latin was firm enough that when General Kreipe began to intone Horace’s Ode to Thaliarchus from the top of Mount Ida, the then Captain Leigh Fermor was able to pick up the thread where the general left off, much to the German’s subdued delight. And yet, while his erudition was never in doubt, Leigh Fermor never possessed the systematic mind of the scholar-theoretician. It is ironic, then, that the final roughly finished book in the trilogy will doubtless keep scholars busy for an age with its reflections on the processes, problems and perspectives of narrative recuperation.

Leigh Fermor was always happy to divert the course of the narrative. From the very first chapter of A Time of Gifts, he alludes to gaps, blanks and losses from the account he was composing three to four decades after his journey. But they become more frequent and more insistent in The Broken Road, despite the fact that the original template for this section of the story was written in the early 1960s. His trek across the anti-Balkan range breaks off with a concession to the reader that he can remember nothing at all at this point. ‘This brings up the whole question of piecing together things which have happened a number of years ago – twenty-nine in fact – and I ought to have tacked the whole question earlier on,’ he continues with great candour. A little later, he is gnawing on the same bone while brooding on the possible reasons why a journey from Moldova to Bulgaria that should have taken one week stretched out to almost two. ‘Why was I so slow? Perhaps something tremendous occurred to hold me up, which will burst on me in an illuminating thunderclap the moment these pages are irrevocably out of my hands.’

Once in its grip, the urge to problematise – an ugly word that Paddy would never have used – will not let go. A little later, he raises three problems: the ‘sudden blur’ of memory loss; the equally confounding surfeit of ‘irrelevant detail’, which ‘acts as potently as the taste of madeleine which made the whole of Proust’s life unfurl’; and the ‘anxiety to present an impression of a country which is true’ while simultaneously observing the reportorial strictures of the youthful story. He is alluding here to the ‘temptation to slide in one or two post-dated wedges’: an oblique reference to the time he spent in these parts between the end of the walk and the beginning of his war.

It was a time spent in the company of his first great love, sixteen years his senior, whom he had met in Athens. After a summer spent with Princess Balasha Cantacuzene in the Peloponnese – he writing and she painting – the couple doubled back to Rumania to winter at her family estate at Baleni. The war and the descent of the Iron Curtain severed that relationship. It wasn’t until 1965, by which time Paddy was married to Joan, that he managed to visit Balasha in Rumania, and during the intervening 26 years she had aged dramatically. It was a moving reunion with a dramatic denouement from the perspective of this great trilogy’s evolution. For on her last night at Baleni, before her eviction by communist gangs, Balasha had managed to seize a battered green notebook: the last of four journals that Paddy had kept on the trip, and the only one to survive the chaos of that time. She pressed it, now, into his hands. Without the admittedly scratchy account of the trail from Bucharest to Mount Athos preserved in this diary, The Broken Road would have been irretrievably shattered. And so the tale of an adventure begun 80 years ago owes its completion to a hand extended providentially through, and in defiance of, time.