Monday, 15 December 2014

Book Review - The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The broken road : from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper

London : John Murray, 2014                                         ISBN 9781848547544

And so it ends - after reading A time of gifts, and Between the woods and the water, it was with some sadness that I finally finished this, the third and last instalment describing Fermor's 1934 walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

Fermor famously spent many years honing the prose for this magisterial trilogy, with - almost as famously - writer's block allegedly stopping him from finishing this third and final instalment. So what we have here is a blessing, and a very interesting insight into Fermor's development as a writer.

Although The broken road is a description of the final part of Fermor's journey, most of this book was  actually written well before he began the other two: Fermor was asked to write about his Bulgarian experiences for a magazine, and when he started writing, the words flowed and flowed and he soon realised he had much more than an article on hand. Fermor then decided to write the whole journey, and what we have here is this earlier writing, skilfully edited.

The difference in tone between this volume and the first two is no doubt due to it being written earlier - so it was not necessarily a case of writer's block that denied us this book while Fermor was alive, but more a case of an inability (for whatever reason) to revise what, in great part, already existed.

The broken road is fascinatingly different to the first two volumes of Fermor's travels. Written in the early 1960s, Fermor had yet to solidify how he actually wanted to write about his travels - the erudite, elegaic style of A time of gifts and Between the woods and the water is not as obvious here - there is more personal input, more questioning of how he is to write his story using just his memory and his map (having no access to any of his diaries at the time of writing), and much more included of the ups and downs of the travelling life - there is more misery and disappointment in this instalment (which might of course also be due to travelling in the colder months).

This difference however, is actually refreshing after the first two books: the reader gets more insight into Fermor's character and personality through this book than in the previous two, and gets more of an idea of what it's like to travel on foot for long distances. There are passages describing in detail the pain of a dodgy boot, the fear of getting lost in the dark, the misery of a cold wet night, and the dismay at being rejected when seeking help. These of course are balanced out by the opposite situations: wonderful days in the mountains in glorious weather, the kindness of local peasants, and Fermor's seeming natural ability to make friends that turn out to be very helpful to him in his travels.

As the book moves further on, the reader can see Fermor developing the style that stood him in such good stead for the later (earlier) volumes, with more discursions on the history of the locations through which he was travelling. The travelling itself describes a lost world of peasants and gypsies, aristocratic students, Jewish quarters, diplomatic parties and peasant hovels, all of which Fermor experiences in joyous wonder most of the time - never, it seems, with a worry about finding somewhere to eat (and drink!) and lay his head.

Most of this book describes Fermor's big detour - after travelling through Rumania, he finds Bulgaria poorer, and certainly much more Turkish in custom and population. Getting to Plovdiv - almost realising his dream of reaching Constantinople - he turns North on the advice of some new friends and re-crosses into Rumania and Bucharest, before heading to the Black Sea and travelling down to Turkey from there. Fermor's ability to be hobnobbing with Ambassadors one day, carousing with students the next and then spending the next night in a cave with shepherds and fishermen, charming all and sundry and noting everything, is what makes him such compulsive reading, and what we get more of in this third volume is a sense of Fermor's youthfulness, with it's attendant energy and wonder.

It all comes crashing to a halt on the Black Sea. Fermor's manuscript ends here, frustratingly short of his goal. Thubron and Cooper add a mere handful of pages of raw diary from Constantinople, which are frustratingly incomplete and inconsequential. The editors suggest that Fermor may have been too overwhelmed by reaching his goal to write coherently, or that he didn't actually like Constantinople much. This may be true, as shortly after his arrival he left for Greece, and the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos. The final 80 pages of this book are Fermor's diary of his month spent travelling the monasteries of the Holy Mountain: possibly spurred to go there by Robert Byron's earlier visit, he wanders from monastery to monastery, gradually falling under the spell of the life of the monks and of the Orthodox services. There are, as always with Fermor, some fine character portraits and descriptive writing.

Three years after beginning this series of books, turning the last page was saying goodbye to someone who had become my friend over the journey - something that Fermor himself did many times, often never to see his new friends again. Fortunately for me I can revisit these books often, which I will assuredly do.

Another must read from Fermor.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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