Monday, 3 November 2014

Book Review - Between the woods and the water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Between the woods and the water : on foot to Constantinople : the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates
by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Jan Morris

New York : New York Review Books, 2005                                ISBN 9781590171660

Some time ago I had a look at the first volume of this trilogy, A time of gifts, which you can read about here - the book under review in this post is the second volume of the recollections by a mature Fermor of his walking trip from Belgium to Turkey during the early 1930s, just after he had left school.

The end of the first volume left Fermor walking across the Danube to enter Hungary, and in this volume he leads us through that country and Romania, to the borders of Serbia, and the Iron Gates of the title. While the first volume had a feeling of being written by an innocent abroad, this part of the journey sees Fermor engaging in some more mature pursuits.

Thanks to some fortuitous meetings early on in his trip, Fermor finds himself well catered for in Hungary, with plenty of offers of accommodation with various members of the nobility and gentry of the former Empire. And it's clear from his writing that even as a young man he became aware quickly of the pain felt in Hungary over the loss of that empire during World War One - especially galling is the gains of territory by Romania at Hungary's expense. The catastrophe that befell the nobility during the War is evident as well - although many of the friends that Fermor makes still behave, and are treated, like landed aristocracy, they no longer have the land, or the necessary political power, to ensure their gilded lives will continue. And knowing what is to come, it can be painful to read Fermor's descriptions of wonderful evenings dining on the terrace, motoring or horseback picnics, fishing trips, insect collecting - all undertaken with a gay abandon that seems absurd when one considers the whirlwind about to overtake the region.

That nemesis pops up a couple of times during the text, with mentions of the Night of the Long Knives and the annexation of Austria, but Fermor conveys the feeling that, while not good, these events were far away and seemed to have few implications for his hosts. How wrong they were. Fortunately we have this book as one record of what life was like before it all disappeared in a maelstrom of Nazi and Communist madness.

As the dog days of summer wear on, Fermor becomes torn between enjoying the sybaritic life he's living in other people's great houses, the need to keep moving, and the guilt he's feeling given that he started the journey with the intention of travelling rough. His final fling with the nobility is literally that, when he goes on a motoring tour with one of his new friends and an unhappy wife of someone else, with whom he has a passionate affair. All too soon she has to return to her family life and Fermor heads into the hills, where he does begin to rough it with local shepherds and woodsmen.

As in the first volume, Fermors description of the countryside through which he moved is almost baroque in style: reading these books is like eating a mudcake, absolutely delicious but one can only consume a small portion at a time. Between the woods and the water is also a primer in the history of what has been historically a very contested area, so we hear quite a bit about the Draculs, Hunyadis and other famous families and people from history.

As is the case with many great books, this reader was melancholy on finishing this one, partly owing to the sadness of reading about a lifestyle that is no longer, and partly from the mere fact that there was no more to read.

Thankfully there is a third volume, left unfinished by Fermor on his death, but recently published - I look forward to that.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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