Category Archives: Volume Three – The Broken Road

The gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

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Paddy’s World – Transcript of John Julius Norwich’s talk for the PLF Society

Many blog readers and members of the PLF Society were privileged to her John Julius Norwich give a very personal account of his memories of Paddy at the Hellenic Centre in London on 10 November. My account of the evening is here

I am very lucky to be able to present the full transcript of the talk. Didn’t I say we had some good stuff coming up? Enjoy this 🙂

On 22 February 1951 my mother wrote to me: “Just off for my jaunt to Passy sur Eure to spoon with P. Leigh Fermor. Shy. Fluster.” At that time she had only just met Paddy and hardly knew him, and she would have been – as indeed she confessed she was – extremely nervous. But all was well. The next letter read:

Well, the gallivanting was a red letter. It took me a good two hours cross-country by Pontoise and Mantes. Strange little village house in which he lives – the loan of a Lady Smart – was warm and welcoming and I really felt myself back in the pond I was raised in. Fascinating conversation with a male man who delights in one. Paddy was superb. Cultured, funny, telling wonderful sagas, zealous. We had a charming filthy little lunch over the stove of sardines, Pernod and vin ordinaire and afterwards we walked for two hours over low wooded downs in sparkling sun, talking ten to the dozen about people, grievances and enthusiasms

That was the beginning. My parents saw quite a lot of Paddy and Joan – whom my mother thought looked just like Joan of Arc, except that Joan of Arc didn’t wear sun-glasses – in the next year or two. I was at Oxford at the time, and I remember seeing them once or twice during vacations, and being invariably knocked sideways – as everyone was – by the sheer brilliance of Paddy, and the glorious fun of him. Every time he walked into a room it was as if the sun had come out; never have I laughed more uncontrollably round a luncheon or dinner table, and as for his erudition, never have I met anyone who knew so much about everything under the sun, yet wore his learning so lightly. There seemed to be no language he could not speak, or indeed sing songs or recite poetry in: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Rumanian for a start, but there were probably several others as well.

Then, in the summer of 1955, a wonderful thing happened. By then I had joined the Foreign Service. My first wife Anne and I were by that time living in Belgrade, where I was Third Secretary at the British Embassy. Another letter arrived from my mother. She had been lent a Greek caïque by the ship-owner Stavros Niarchos for a fortnight’s sail through the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan were coming; could we come too? As far as we were concerned, it was a question of “can a duck swim?” At the end of August we drove down from Belgrade – which in those days had no airport – to Athens, and thence to the Piraeus, where we boarded the Eros.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and Paddy gave it a whole new dimension. It was the first time I had seen him, as it were, on his home ground, and it was wonderful. He lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, its customs and its literature. But nobody – and that was the wonder and joy of him and – I know I’ve said this before – nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly. His conversation was consistently dazzling. As we sailed from island to island – and in those days there were virtually no tourists, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, about Greek history, about Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, with those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men like Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the west over more of those words, like filioque and ͑ομοούσιον; but his talk roamed far wider than that, taking in the whole eastern Mediterranean and, in particular, Byzantium.

Now in England Byzantium has always had a terrible press. The great nineteenth-century historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote that it constituted, “without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed…. There has been no other enduring civilisation, he claimed, “so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness”. He went on,

Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous…. Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots…. The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.

Strong words indeed – although to modern ears that last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining. But that long campaign of denigration continued well into the twentieth century. It was only in the time of which I’m speaking – the fifties – that the writings of people like Robert Byron, David Talbot Rice and Steven Runciman, together with the new-found ease, speed and relative comfort of travel in the Levant, made the glorious heritage of the Byzantine Empire at last generally accessible. Now, thank heaven, the Empire has come into its own again, and is seen as a worthy successor to the two mighty civilisations which it followed and so beautifully combined, the Greek and the Roman.

The trouble was, for most of us, that we knew so little about it. Those old attitudes died hard. During my five years at Eton, the entire subject was the victim of what seemed to be a conspiracy of silence. I can’t honestly remember Byzantium being once mentioned, far less studied; and so complete was my ignorance that I should have been hard put to define it even in general terms till I went to Oxford. And, for heaven’s sake, why? After all, it was not even the successor, it was that same old Roman Empire of Augustus and Tiberius and Claudius and the rest, which continued to exist in its new capital of Constantinople for another one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years before it was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks on that fateful day, Tuesday 29 May 1453, after one of the most heroic sieges in all history. It was Paddy and Paddy alone who revealed to me its mystery and its magic, although he also recommended to me, among much else, that I should read an extraordinary book by Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement, which that most precocious author wrote when he was twenty-five. I read it with utter fascination, and ended up completely captivated. When I got home I devoured every book I could find on the subject, and the following year Anne and I drove to Istanbul for a week. Twenty years later I was to write a History of Byzantium myself – three volumes of it, which were necessary if I was to cover more than a millennium; but I very much doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, those three volumes would ever have been written.

One evening, I remember, Paddy was talking about a poor fisherman at Kardamyli – this was long before he went to live there – a friend of his called Strati Mourtzinos, who, he told us, might just possibly have been the last heir to the imperial throne of Byzantium. Suddenly his imagination took over, and he built a magnificent castle in the air. It seemed, by some miracle, that the Turks had restored Constantinople to Greece. Byzantium was reborn and Strati Mourtzinos was formally crowned as its Emperor. Paddy was later to work up the idea further in his first book about Greece, Mani:

Bells clanged; semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore. Then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared, saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks….. In the packed square of Constantine, a Serbian furrier fell from a rooftop. An astrologer from Ctesiphon, a Spanish coppersmith and a money-lender from the Persian Gulf were trampled to death; a Bactrian lancer fainted and, as we proceeded round the Triple Delphic Serpent of the Hippodrome, the voices of the Blues and Greens, for once in concord, lifted a long howl of applause. The imperial horses neighed in their stables, the hunting cheetahs strained yelping at their silver chains. Mechanical gold lions roared in the throne room, gold birds on the jewelled branches of artificial trees set up a tinkling and a twitter. The general hysteria penetrated the public jail: in dark cells, monophysites and bogomils and iconoclasts rattled their fetters across the dungeon bars. High on his Corinthian capital, a capering stylite, immobile for three decades, hammered his calabash with a wooden spoon….

Would you like a bit more? All right: Continue reading

A Paddy centenary event in Verona – Omaggio a Patrick Leigh Fermor

Luigi Licci, who runs the bookshop La Libreria Gulliver in Verona, Italy, has contacted me to say that he will be running an event on 8 May to celebrate Paddy’s centenary and the publication in 4 June of Italian translation of The Broken Road, under the title La Strada Interrotta, published by Adelphi.

All are welcome at the event to be held at Villa Ca’ Vendri, Via Vendri 39, Quinto di Valpantena, Verona kicking-off at 8.45 pm. There will be talks by Paddy’s friend William Blacker, author of The Enchanted Way, and Matteo Nucci, a well known Italian author specialized on Greece who is also a regular contributor to the major Italian daily La Repubblica. The evening will finish with some excellent Italian food and wine.

Further details can be found on the La Libreria Gulliver website or telephone 045 8007234. If you are able to attend I hope that you have a wonderful time and only wish I could be there.

The Inspired Voyage of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Phlomochori, a village on the Mani peninsula, southern Peloponnese, Greece (Joan Leigh Fermor/John Murray Collection)

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Phlomochori, a village on the Mani peninsula, southern Peloponnese, Greece (Joan Leigh Fermor/John Murray Collection)

“The irony of the publication of his final, posthumous work is that it creates, retrospectively and almost accidentally, something of that meaningful arc for the entire trilogy. By the end, the lacquered manner has dissolved, and a different, far more touching and sympathetic hero emerges. The whole thing couldn’t have been better structured if the author had planned it this way all along.” It is somewhat ironic that many of the best reviews and profiles, and indeed the most lengthy and detailed, come from American publications. This is one of the best of the crop using a review of The Broken Road as the vehicle for a wider discussion of Paddy’s style of writing.

by Daniel Mendelsohn

First published in the New York Review of Books, 19 June 2014

“We shall never get to Constantinople like this.” This rueful aside, which comes toward the end of the first of the three books that the late Patrick Leigh Fermor devoted to his youthful travels on foot across Europe in the early 1930s, was to prove prophetic. “Like this” ostensibly refers to the author’s weakness for detours. By this point in A Time of Gifts—written some four decades after that remarkable journey and first published in 1977—it is late in 1933, and the high-spirited, precocious, poetry-spouting eighteen-year-old, long since expelled from school (“a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” a housemaster clucked), weary of England, and hungry for adventure, finds himself in Czechoslovakia, having walked from the Hook of Holland through the Low Countries, southern Germany, and Austria, his battered copies of The Oxford Book of English Verse and Horace’s Odes firmly, famously in hand.

His plan at this point was to follow the Danube all the way to the Black Sea, whence he would head south to Constantinople—the name by which the romantic-minded youth, his head brimming with memorized verse, insisted on calling Istanbul. But in Bratislava, with Hungary and the continuation of his southeasterly route shimmering just across the great river, he finds himself unable to resist a Czech friend’s invitation to go north to see Prague, that “bewildering and captivating town.”

Here, as often with this erudite and garrulous author—the dashing autodidact and World War II hero, considered by some to be the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century—the geographical digression becomes a narrative one. As the impecunious Leigh Fermor zigzags around the city, the guest of his better-heeled and well-connected friend (the blithe sponging off obliging students, postmistresses, madams, diplomats, and aristocrats is an amusing leitmotif of his travels), goggling at the castles and bridges, the relics and the nightclubs, the text goggles and zigzags, too. And so we carom from the murder of the tenth-century Bohemian leader we know as “Good King Wenceslas” (actually, a duke; later a saint) to the brief Mitteleuropäisch reign of James I’s daughter, the so-called Winter Queen; from swoony evocations of medieval architectural details (“in King Vladislav’s vast Hall of Homage the ribs of the vaulting had further to travel, higher to soar”) to the tale of the Defenestration of Prague in 1618; from Kabala, Rosicrucians, the “sad charm” of the Habsburgs, and the tomb of the creator of the Golem to a triumphant conclusion (via an offhand rumination about the identity of Shakespeare’s Mr. W. H.) in which the teenaged narrator believes he has solved the mystery of where the mysterious “coast of Bohemia” in The Winter’s Tale could possibly have been. It is only after all this that the Leigh Fermor of 1933 heads south once again, to the Danube and his planned itinerary.

So it is possible to take “we shall never get to Constantinople like this” as a humorous acknowledgment by the author of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative, one that will be familiar to anyone who has read even a few pages of Leigh Fermor’s books: the early one about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree (1950); a slender volume called A Time to Keep Silence (1957), about his visits to three monastic communities; Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), his two lively and impassioned books about Greece, the country he loved best and where he ended up living part-time; and of course the trilogy of his walk across Europe—A Time of Gifts and its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two installments, now completed by the posthumous publication last year of an unfinished final volume, The Broken Road.

The author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following. It has more than a little in common with the “centrifugal lambency and recoil” he found in Central European design, the “swashbuckling, exuberant and preposterous” aesthetic that he so extravagantly admired in a picture of Maximilian I’s knights, which he came across one night while leafing through a book on German history in the luxurious apartment of a charming girl he met and ended up staying with in Stuttgart. (The strange new city, the chance meeting, the aesthetic reverie, the hints of money and eros: this would prove to be the pattern of the young man’s progress across the continent.)

It is indeed odd that, among the many classical authors to whom Leigh Fermor refers in his writing—none more famously than Horace, verses of whose Soracte Ode the author found himself swapping, in Latin, with a German general he had kidnapped on Crete during World War II, a famous incident that was later turned into a film starring Dirk Bogarde—Herodotus does not figure more prominently. There is no writer whose technique Leigh Fermor’s more closely resembles. Expansive, meandering, circular, it allows him to weave what is, after all, a relatively straightforward tale of a youthful backpacking hike into a vast and highly colored tapestry, embroidered with observations, insights, and lessons about the whole panorama of European history, society, architecture, religion, and art.

And yet the author’s charming and useful tendency to lose track of his destination became a serious real-life problem in the case of the books about the walk across Europe—the most beloved of his works, which have achieved the status of cult classics particularly among adventure-bent youth. (“Those bibles of backpacking seekers everywhere”: so Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, a young California-based writer and geographer who wrote the preface to a recent reissue of The Traveller’s Tree by New York Review Books, which has now republished nearly all of the author’s work.) However many the detours, Leigh Fermor’s youthful journey did have a destination, which the author finally reached: he got to “Constantinople” on New Year’s Eve, 1935, a little shy of his twenty-first birthday. The two installments he eventually published committed him inexorably to writing about that climactic arrival.

For A Time of Gifts, which ends with Leigh Fermor arriving at last in Hungary—he crosses the Danube from Slovakia in the spring, just in time to witness a magnificent Easter service at the Basilica of Estergom—closes with the legend “TO BE CONTINUED.” So too Between the Woods and the Water, which follows its young hero through many a Hungarian and Yugoslavian castle’s “antlered corridor” to the Iron Gates, the gorge on the Danube that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania; he reaches them at the end of his nineteenth summer, on the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin. (That the climaxes of both works are marked by great religious events is not accidental: the mondain and sensual Leigh Fermor, who always knew how to find his way into a count’s castle or a duchess’s good graces—Somerset Maugham once dismissed him as a “middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”—was beguiled by religious ceremonials; and, perhaps not so paradoxically, by intense religious feeling.) This book also ends with an all-caps promise: “TO BE CONCLUDED.”

But the conclusion never came. When Leigh Fermor died in 2011, at ninety-six, he had been afflicted by a writer’s block that had lasted a quarter of a century. Already soon after the publication of Between the Woods and the Water in the 1980s, he was worried that the subject was, in the words of his friend and biographer Artemis Cooper, “stale” and “written out.”* In the early 1990s, his wife Joan wrote to a friend that he was “sadly stuck”; not long after, Charlotte Mosley, who at the time was editing a volume of Leigh Fermor’s correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire (another distraction), observed that “it takes his mind off Vol III which is clearly never going to appear.” Given his predilection for wandering, invention, and improvisation, it’s hard not to feel, in this culminating crisis, that the public expectation of a concrete result had caused a kind of creative paralysis. When Leigh Fermor’s name appeared on the 2004 Honors List, a fan wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph declaring that the knighthood should be conditional on finishing the trilogy.

It now turns out that the work was, in a way, already complete. As you learn from the preface to The Broken Road (edited by Artemis Cooper and the British novelist and travel writer Colin Thubron), a preliminary draft describing the last leg of his European adventure had been composed long before, in fact when the idea for the books about the walking tour first germinated. In the early 1960s, Leigh Fermor was invited by the editor of Holiday to write an article on the “pleasures of walking.” As he began to write about his youthful journey, the floodgates of memory opened; he wrote to his longtime publisher and friend John Murray that the article had soon “ripened out of all recognition.” After nearly seventy manuscript pages he’d only got as far as the Iron Gates—at which point, frustrated by the need for compression, he began to write at the more expansive, elaborated pace he preferred, bringing his narrative as far as his arrival at the shores of the Black Sea.

This manuscript, tentatively known as “A Youthful Journey,” eventually formed the basis for the whole trilogy. After setting the pages aside for a decade (during which time he published Roumeli and built a fabulous house for himself in the Mani, the Wild West–ish tip of the southern Peloponnese, about which he also wrote: more distractions), the author went back to the beginning, expanding those compressed first seventy pages into what became the richly wrought narratives of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

It was only when he was in his early nineties that Leigh Fermor finally summoned the will to confront the decades-old pages covering the final third of his journey, from the Iron Gates to the Black Sea—the part he’d slowed down to treat at greater length in the original manuscript—and painstakingly set about elaborating them in his inimitable style.

The text he was working on at his death, along with excerpts from his original travel journal—brief entries covering his stay in Istanbul and a much longer narrative about his visit to the monasteries of Mount Athos—make up The Broken Road: the long-awaited “Vol III.” Precisely because its author didn’t have time to bring his text to its usual level of high and elaborate polish, this final work—plainer, more straightforward, less elaborate, and more frank than its predecessors—provides some intriguing retrospective insights into Leigh Fermor’s distinctive tics and mannerisms, strengths and weaknesses.

Patrick Leigh Fermor with Spiro and Maria Lazaros, owners of the watermill at Lemonodassos, Greece, where he first stayed in the summer of 1935 (Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/Trustees of the National Library of Scotland)

Patrick Leigh Fermor with Spiro and Maria Lazaros, owners of the watermill at Lemonodassos, Greece, where he first stayed in the summer of 1935 (Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/Trustees of the National Library of Scotland)

In a review of Mani that appeared when the book was first published, Lawrence Durrell referred to the “truffled style and dense plumage” of Leigh Fermor’s prose. What you think of his writing, and indeed what you make of the final installment of his most beloved work, depends on your taste for truffles and feathers.

Structural rigor was, as we know, never Leigh Fermor’s strong point—inevitably, perhaps, in the case of narratives that follow a real-life itinerary. The two walking-tour books published during his lifetime have a fortuitous coherence—he is, after all, heading somewhere—but what holds the others together are the intensity of the author’s curiosity about whatever happens to (literally) cross his path, and the brilliance of his talk about them: the “saga boys” of Trinidad in their wildly patterned shirts, “worn with a flaunting ease and a grace of deportment that compels nothing but admiration”; the nomadic Sarakatsáns of the northern Greek region called Roumeli (Roumeli opens with a dazzling set piece about a Sarakatsán wedding); the miroloyia or funeral dirges that are the only poetry prevalent in the Mani; Jewish lumbermen in Romania; the Uniotes of Eastern Europe, who observe the Eastern Rite while submitting to the authority of Rome (a recurrent object of fascination).

Small wonder that a salient feature of Leigh Fermor’s style is the long list, that most unconstructed of devices. His penchant for lengthy enumerations confirms your suspicion that what delights this writer is the sheer abundance in the world of things for him to look at and learn about. Mani memorably opens with one such enumeration, in this case of the varieties of Greek communities throughout the world (to which the author hopes to add a group of Jews who, he has heard, live in the Mani):

I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores,…the phallus-wielding Bounariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamandlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf,… the Basilian Monks,…both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards’ Club,…the Shqip-speaking Atticans of Sfax,…the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos, the Karagounides of the Thessalian plain,…the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India,…the lepers of Spinalonga…—if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?

There is an incantatory charm about such accumulations that, among other things, neutralizes the critical faculty. I have read this book three times—it is by far his best, a work in which the author’s high style finds an appropriate correlative in the piratical dash of his favorite region’s inhabitants—and have still never bothered to find out just who the “exaggerators of Mykonos” might be. Such stylistic prestidigitation is an advantage when you are a fabulist like Leigh Fermor, who admitted late in life to having distorted and elaborated his ostensibly nonfiction works.

A related stylistic tic, born of the author’s resistance to the strictures of factuality and his relish for long concatenations of chewy words, is the occasional flights of prose in which he indulges in extended imaginative riffs that allow him to leave, briefly, whatever scene he happens to find himself in and provide a bird’s-eye view of some bit of geography or history. Some of these, like the one in Mani in which the cock-a-doodle-doo of an Athenian rooster is picked up, from bird to bird, until it spreads around the world (“swelling now, sweeping south across the pampas, the Gran Chaco, the Rio Grande…to the maelstroms and the tempests, the hail and the darkness and the battering waves of Cape Horn”), are little more than self-indulgences.

But others can be deliciously pointed. In the same book, the author excitedly pays a call on a humble fisherman named Strati who, he has heard, is a remote descendant of an imperial Byzantine dynasty. As the kindly man tediously recounts the story of a near disaster at sea, Leigh Fermor sits across from him, constructing a private fantasy in which this last scion of the Paleologues is whisked to Istanbul to be crowned at Hagia Sophia as the emperor of a restored Byzantium. The increasingly funny oscillation between the two narratives and two narrative styles—one bejeweled (“Semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore; then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks”), the other plainspoken (“I was never in a worse situation!… There I was, on all fours in the bilge water, baling for life”)—becomes a tart vehicle for ruminating about the special burden of history that contemporary Greece has to deal with.

A drawback of these predilections is that the books can sometimes feel like agglomerations of showy set pieces. (In her biography, Artemis Cooper describes Leigh Fermor’s mother, a bright and talented woman who found herself married to a dour geologist, as someone who “sparkled a little too brightly”; the son could be like that, too.) Roumeli, in particular, is a stew in which the ingredients, delicious as many are, never quite blend. At one point the author gets so bored with the book’s nominal subject that he writes at length about his years in Crete, which clearly he felt more passionately about. John Murray once observed, as Leigh Fermor was preparing to write his first book, that “there is no doubt that he can write though sometimes rather incoherently”; the problem, he went on, was to give the book “a sense of purpose.” It would remain a problem.

A certain narrative purposefulness, an organic shape, might, in other hands, have derived from an autobiographical impulse: the tale of a young man’s walk across Europe in the years just before World War II could, indeed, have made an ideal vehicle for a stirring Bildung narrative. But between his British distaste for public introspection and his magpie’s curiosity, Leigh Fermor is at his best when he avoids emotions and hews to the bright surfaces of things. He’s fascinated by, and knows an astonishing amount about, the glamour of history, the glitter of ceremonial, the gilt on a reliquary; and he knows how to make them gleam for us, too.

Leigh Fermor’s travel books are the works of a great talker, and his strong points are those of the best conversationalists. He has, to begin with, a memorably vivid turn of phrase. Turkish loanwords in modern Greek are like “a wipe of garlic round a salad bowl”; Armenians whom he encounters in Sofia are “grouped, their eyes bright with acumen on either side of their wonderful noses, in the doors of their shops, like confabulating toucans.” His deep affection and admiration for the Greeks are reflected in particularly colorful and suggestive writing. There is a passage in Mani in which the letters of the Greek alphabet become characters in a little drama meant to suggest the intensity of that people’s passion for disputation:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

He also has the born teacher’s gift for bringing to arresting life the remote and complicated histories that lurk beneath the landscapes, architecture, and artifacts he encounters. Early in The Broken Road we find him in Bulgaria, where for the first time he gets a glimpse of a substantial number of Turks—“the westernmost remnants” of the “astonishing race” that had forged a mighty Asiatic empire and come close to overrunning Europe. This remarkable fact, which (he implies) Europeans themselves have lost track of, is vividly present to Leigh Fermor:

When we remember that the Moors of Spain were only halted at Tours, on the Loire, it seems, at moments, something of a fluke that St Peter’s and Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey are not today three celebrated mosques, kindred fanes to Haghia Sophia in Constantinople.

He is, too, a master of the illuminating aperçu. Italian statues of the Virgin Mary, he remarks in the course of a terrific excursus in Roumeli about Byzantine icons, “woo her devotees,” but “the expression of the Panayia, even at the foot of the Cross, says ‘No comment.’” And he knows how to leaven his legendary and occasionally irritating penchant for ostensibly offhand pedantic display (“What figure could seem more remote than Swiatopluk, Kral of the brittle Moravian realm?” he wonders aloud at one point in Between the Woods and the Water) with exclamations of disarmingly ingenuous charm. “With what ease populations moved about in ancient Greek lands, in the world conquered and Hellenized by Alexander, the wide elbow room of Rome and the Byzantine Empire!”

Wide elbow room: not the least part of Leigh Fermor’s appeal to us is his concrete sense, however romanticized it may have been, of the past as a kind of mythic outback, the habitation of grander, more authentic, more liberated men than we can hope to be today. Small wonder that the people Leigh Fermor admires the most are those canny and swashbuckling Maniots, with whom he clearly identified. His worshipful description of a famous Maniot leader in the Greek war of independence is, you suspect, a fantasy that the womanizing, hard-drinking writer had of an idealized self:

His fine looks and dignity and gracious manners were the outward signs of an upright and honorable nature, high intelligence, diplomatic skill, generosity, patriotism, unshakable courage and strength of will: qualities suitably leavened by ambition and family pride and occasionally marred by cruelty.

Certainly his need to sparkle at all costs could cause him to be cruel: at least a small part of Somerset Maugham’s hostility can be attributed to an evening during which Leigh Fermor, a guest at the older writer’s table, entertained the company by making fun of his host’s stutter.

The narcissistic glitter, the aversion to introspection, can hinder some of the books from being all they might have been. There is, among other things, a startling lack of interest in the politics that were seething beneath the landscapes he so loved to describe. A Time of Gifts covers his walk through Germany in 1933—a setting that, you’d think, would inspire some broader ruminations and deep thinking in a youth so fervently interested in history. But the young author—as his older self, to his credit, would acknowledge—“didn’t care a damn”; he thrilled to the dramas of the past, without seeming to care a great deal about their import for the present. “The gloom didn’t last longer than breakfast,” he blithely writes after the assassination of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss in 1934.

The youthful apathy eventually ossified into a staunchly reflexive, monarchist conservatism. Leigh Fermor can summon outrage about the deprivations, during World War II and the cold war, suffered by his aristocratic Hungarian and Romanian friends; but given his deep and clearly authentic love of Greece, it is disturbing to read, in Artemis Cooper’s biography, that this extravagant philhellene—a friend of George Seferis, no less—never spoke out against the oppressive right-wing regime of the Colonels in the 1960s and 1970s.

His tendency to stick to the surfaces becomes a problem even when politics isn’t an issue—as, for instance, in the underpowered and, I think, overrated A Time to Keep Silence, about the Benedictine and Trappist monasteries where he spent some time in the 1950s in order to work quietly on his first couple of books, and about his visit to the abandoned cells of Orthodox Greek monks in Cappadocia. It is hard not to find amusing the underlying premise of the notoriously voluble and social author forced to be silent for the first time, an experience that gives him a fleeting, climactic appreciation of the outside world as an “inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks” when he returns to it. But such aperçus feel generic. Here as elsewhere, you feel that, whatever his interest in religion and spiritual devotion, he is finally far more comfortable flourishing his eruditions. (“The gulf between the cenobites of Rome and those of Byzantium was often in my mind.”) It is hard to write profoundly about spirituality when you don’t really like to talk about the inner life.

In The Broken Road, we get many of the things we love in Leigh Fermor. Here again, he goggles and zigzags, flirts and pontificates. There are the vivid descriptions and the donnish asides; a touching near romance with a Greek girl—his first exposure to the people who would capture his imagination later—and a fantastical encounter with dancing fishermen in a cave, which affords the elderly author a chance to discourse on Greek folk choreography in a way his younger self couldn’t possibly have done. (“The other great dancers of the hasapiko and the tzeibekiko, as the two forms of rebetiko dances are severally called…”)

Still, one of the most interesting revelations afforded by the new book is that the high style of later years was already more or less fully formed by the end of his great walking tour. This is clear from reading the latter part of the book—the original entries from the journal he was keeping during his voyage to Mount Athos after he left Istanbul. (Ironically, all we have of the long-awaited sojourn in the historic capital city are terse and colorless notes.) The prose here already bristles with the flights of invention and erudite riffs we know so well from the finished books:

I thought of the triremes of all the empires that have sailed these same waters, and called to mind the tales about Perseus, Jason and Odysseus, and the Tyrants of the Archipelago; the piracy of Mithridate…

In other important ways, the Leigh Fermor of this final book of the trilogy—which, as we know, was in fact the first installment to be written, and in many ways the freshest and least mediated by subsequent authorial fussing—isn’t quite the person familiar from the earlier books. A gratifying new element is an emotional frankness, even vulnerability, that was edited out of in the earlier books. Here, for the first time, you see the flip side of the blithe self-involvement and brash charm (“Not for the first time, I concluded despondently, I have wounded somebody badly without meaning to; nor, alas, for the last. But I wish I knew exactly how”). Here you get the moments of terror that, you always felt reading the earlier books, must have been part of all that solitary wandering: “Then my guts seemed to drain right out of me,” he writes at one point, “and a fit of panic came, thoughts of passing the night there, without food in the rain.”

And whereas in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water Leigh Fermor liked more than once to draw attention to the “ecstasy” he always felt on realizing that nobody in the world knew where he was—an emotion that travelers today are unlikely ever to have, and that surely accounts for some of the nostalgic appeal of these volumes—here he admits, for the first time, to a paralyzing homesickness:

Outside now, the moon and stars are shining brightly on the snowy roofs, and making a silver track across the inky sea. I do so wonder what everyone is doing at home now.

I have said that Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first two books about his great adventure lacked the satisfying structure of Bildung narratives. The irony of the publication of his final, posthumous work is that it creates, retrospectively and almost accidentally, something of that meaningful arc for the entire trilogy. By the end, the lacquered manner has dissolved, and a different, far more touching and sympathetic hero emerges. The whole thing couldn’t have been better structured if the author had planned it this way all along. When you put down The Broken Road you feel what he himself felt on departing from Mount Athos, another place of quiet that he had to leave in the end in order to rejoin the noisy world: “a great deal of regret.”

Why Couldn’t Patrick Leigh Fermor Finish His Masterpiece?

Photo: Sean Deany

Photo: Sean Deany

An interesting perspective is taken in this review of The Broken Road which takes as its subject Paddy’s inability to complete his trilogy and the perils of posthumous publication. By Jason Guriel First published in The New Republic, 23 December 2014 In 1933, a 19-year-old Englishman, finding himself booted from school for holding hands with a local, decided to cross Europe on foot. He had a mind to make it from the Hook of Holland down to Constantinople—unpurple “Istanbul” would never do. Even more romantic than the goal was the gear: used rucksack (its previous owner had tramped about with the travel writer Robert Byron), Oxford Book of English Verse, and ace sidekick (Horace). He slept outdoors, but in castles, too, as freshly minted friends—an ever-expanding network of social capital—reached ahead of the young traveler, by post, to ensure he would be received by the next available count or baron. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, over four decades later, that Patrick Leigh Fermor—by then, an established author and war hero—turned his full attention to writing up the European walk. A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977, followed by Between the Woods and the Water, in 1986. By the end of the first book, Leigh Fermor’s younger self had reached the edge of Hungary; by the end of the second, Bulgaria. There he waited, stalled in 1934, for decades. A cult began to fire up after the publication of these books. Blame the affable character Leigh Fermor cuts in the first two: ravenous for knowledge but willing to risk expulsion for the girl. He’s charming, too; he tries to pay his way (“…I would make a frantic flourish with two thousand-lei notes…”), but others wave him off (“These two bits of paper sank to the symbolic role of stage currency”). After decades of angry, quirky misfits, Leigh Fermor’s charming young man—the Ur-backpacker—would’ve seemed crisp. (Today, we would bloody him with the word “privileged.”) It’s unsurprising that a cult came to be transfixed; after the walk across Europe, Leigh Fermor helped carry out the kidnapping of a German general, spent time among monks, traveled in the Caribbean, erected a house in Greece (the setting for the recent Richard Linklater film Before Midnight)—his life was so colorful it seemed to stream from a prism. But he had chops, too. Vision. His prose was the slow output of an eye committed to registering exact contours, but only in original terms. “Blown askew, the Trafalgar Square fountains twirled like mops,” he writes near the start of A Time of Gifts. “Bristling regiments of lancers moved about like counter-marching cornfields,” he writes at another point. If you’re tasked with putting over a windblown fountain or marching lancers, there are no better solutions than these. At a time when plenty of upstarts have already committed to print their formative years—when trauma is trumpeted, and meta-memoir, over-Eggered—Leigh Fermor’s patient approach to prose is positively alien. His patience may have left him paralyzed, too. In 2011, when Leigh Fermor finally died, his younger self was still stranded at the edge of Bulgaria. But there was a manuscript. The intervention of editors, and the publication of The Broken Road, the final book of the trilogy—holiest of those systems by which we mete out the franchise—gets the younger self moving again. In a slightly more just universe, people would have lined up for The Broken Road with all the enthusiasm they bring to the subject of adolescent life in dystopias. On this side of the wormhole, however, The Broken Road was published earlier this year by NYRB Classics and is coming out in paperback next month. (John Murray brought it out in England in 2013.) NYRB Classics is to literature what the Criterion Collection is to film: a prestige imprint that, by issuing niche titles in handsome editions, attempts to rescue title from niche. We long ago ceded the useful word “curate” to artisanal butchers and Pinterest, but NYRB Classics curates in the best sense. (Mary Olivier: A Life, by May Sinclair, On Being Blue, by William Gass) Over the last few years, it has restored much of Leigh Fermor’s catalogue to the bookstore and done a public good. The Broken Road, however, is far from the fully realized book Leigh Fermor’s fans were hoping for. It covers the last leg of his journey, from Bulgaria to Constantinople, but as editors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper explain, the new book was composed before its predecessors, in the early 1960s, when a magazine invited 5,000 words from Leigh Fermor on “The Pleasures of Walking.” Leigh Fermor, then in his forties, finally began to set down the European journey of his youth, and came to focus on the final stretch. But in the mid-1960s, he abandoned the manuscript. When he resolved to return to the subject of his European travels in the 1970s, he started over, repositioning his narrator in London, the day of departure. The rest we know: Leigh Fermor’s renewed effort produced the two best works of travel writing of the twentieth century. But for the next two decades, he was unable to make headway on a book that would bring the trilogy to an end. The editors describe a “long ice age”: the “loyal and long-suffering” publisher was lost in 1993, the wife, ten years later. Leigh Fermor consulted a psychiatrist, but his energy had been flagging for some time. “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,” is how Cooper puts it, darkly, in his recent biography of Leigh Fermor. Then, in 2008, the biographer turned up a copy of the ’60s manuscript, and the writer, in his nineties and abetted by magnifying glass, began to fuss with it. Not too long after, Leigh Fermor passed away. The 40-year-old text breaks off before reaching Constantinople—breaks off in the middle of a sentence, in fact, a rough edge the editors have respected. (No ellipsis sands it down.) They have supplemented the manuscript with fragments from a diary he kept, but the impressions of Constantinople are partial, and the diary firms up and expands only when Leigh Fermor finds himself among monasteries in Greece. And that’s where The Broken Road ends. The legendary destination of Constantinople, then, remains mostly unremarked upon: a rip in space around which the book, like sparkling debris, swirls—and around which thoughts of what could have been, the thoughts of the fanboy, spin. The poignant title is an imposition of the editors; the sacred text, a salvage job: recovered by apostles from the late author’s leavings and pieced together. What’s really absent, of course, isn’t so much an account of Constantinople, as a third book written by the mature author of the first two. Thubron and Cooper are clear about the lack of polish, but it’s not until you start in on The Broken Road that you realize how crucial to his prose was the mature writer’s patient, if unsustainable, perfectionism. Generic adjectives function as placeholders for yet-to-be realized images (“amazing colours,” “amazing robes,” “amazing sunset”), or serve to reel off a character quickly (“She was so pretty, kind, funny, intelligent, and good”). When he does write well, it’s often too well: a “sweep” of land “climbs and coils and leapfrogs clean across Northern Bulgaria from Serbia to the Black Sea”—a metaphor that sounds good (listen to that alliteration) but lacks the precision of Fermor’s better prose (land doesn’t have legs). “Plumed with poplars and mulberries,” on the very first page, is lovely enough, but the plume-idea comes to be plumed again and again. He is more original elsewhere. “The dome and the walls were almost intact,” he writes of a mosque, “but most of the plaster had fallen away and the minaret was broken diagonally near its base, exposing to the moon the twist of the stairs round their central pillar like the volutes of a smashed ammonite’s fossil.” That’s enough to keep you going, if you need the pellet; fans of A Time of Gifts, who will have already sought out the hardcover, will push forward on principle. The Broken Road, after all, belongs to a class of aesthetic object that includes The Beach Boys’ Smile, Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, and Nabokov’s The Original of Laura —works that benefit from their incompleteness because they spark speculation, devotion, delusion. Reviewers certainly seemed to be reassuring themselves. “Friends and fans, acolytes, devotees and disciples can all rest easy,” declared one. “In some respects this book is even more satisfying than its predecessors…” hazarded another. Why don’t they recognize that Leigh Fermor’s failure to bring off a third book—and it is a failure, let’s not pretend otherwise—only buttresses his legend? The line that weighs down the last page of Between the Woods and the Water, “TO BE CONCLUDED”—and that applied drag to Leigh Fermor’s last decades—gains even greater pull now that we know a proper conclusion cannot be provided. Had it been provided, and promptly, we might be slightly less romantic about the author. He might strike us as less tortured, less remote. Perhaps the release of recent long-gestating albums by Guns ‘n Roses and My Bloody Valentine has dissolved some of the legend that once occluded the very real humans behind those bands. Perhaps David Foster Wallace’s estate should’ve kept back The Pale King, his unfinished novel, for a generation or two. Let the corpse of work cool. Let the cult heat up. In Fermor’s case, The Broken Road is a carefully presented box of brilliant bits: a kit for keeping up one’s enthusiasm for one of the great travel writers of the previous century. It’s also part-emptied skull, part-time capsule: like its publisher, it extracts voice from void, paper from ashbin, expertly. (“Nearly all the people in this book …” Leigh Fermor observes, “were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning.”) But The Broken Road is no place to begin—as Leigh Fermor himself may have sensed when he turned away from it more than four decades ago. Those wishing to fire up an enthusiasm would do well to search out any of the other books, including especially A Time of Silence: a slim, quick account of time spent among monks, whom Fermor’s fans, in their extreme, cultish devotion, can start to resemble.

The imaginary Istanbul in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s literary odyssey

An interesting discussion about Paddy’s perspective of Turkey, the Ottomans and his Constantinople with reference to his trilogy of the Great Trudge.

By Charles Sabatos

First published in The Daily Sabah, 25 August 2014

In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, 18, set off from London with the goal of crossing Europe on foot from the Netherlands to Istanbul, which he reached at the end of the following year. Decades later, he retold this youthful adventure in “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), the first two parts of a planned trilogy that made him one of the most acclaimed British travel writers of the 20th century. Yet the second book left off at the Romanian-Bulgarian border, with the tantalizing phrase “To Be Concluded,” and for almost 40 years, his readers awaited the final volume, which he left unfinished when he died at age 96 in 2011.

The conclusion of Fermor’s trilogy was finally published in 2013, posthumously edited by his friend Artemis Cooper, but as its title “The Broken Road” suggests, the account abruptly ends on the Bulgarian coast just north of Turkey. Fermor’s impressions of Istanbul were relegated to an anticlimactic few pages of notes from his original travel diary. Cooper (also the author of the definitive biography “Patrick Leigh Fermor,” 2012) suggests in her introduction that Fermor’s disappointment hindered him from describing the city: “he recounts nothing of the leftover Byzantine glories of the old capital. . . and little of its Ottoman splendor.” Instead, his journey ends with a detailed account of his visit to Mount Athos, where he went after spending less than two weeks in Turkey. Having spent the last decades of his life living in Greece, Fermor saw the fading capital of the Orient (which he always referred to as “Constantinople”) as a place whose Western heritage had irretrievably disappeared. Yet he had already discovered an imagined Istanbul before even reaching the Golden Horn, in scenes across Central Europe and the Balkans that foreshadow his imagined destination.

In “A Time of Gifts,” which takes Fermor across Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Czechoslovakia, he first encounters the Turks in Vienna. There, the museums hold relics of the 1683 siege that he describes in typically dizzying detail, including “scimitars, khanjars, yatagans, lances, bucklers, drums … the turbans of janissaries, a pasha’s tent, cannon and flags and horsetail banners with their bright brass crescents…” The destiny of Haghia Sophia is reflected in his fantasy of an Ottoman siege of London: “What if the Turks had taken Vienna, as they nearly did, and advanced westward? … Might St. Paul’s, only half rebuilt, have ended with minarets instead of its two bell-towers and a different emblem twinkling on the dome?” For most of “Between the Woods and the Water,”

Fermor is crossing territory formerly ruled not just by the Austrians but by the Ottomans, and references to the Turks reveal their legacy across the region. At the end of the second book, Fermor visits the island of Ada-Kaleh on the Danube in Romania, whose Turkish inhabitants were culturally, linguistically, and physically exotic: “Something about the line of brow, the swoop of nose and the jut of the ears made them indefinably different from any of the people I had seen on my journey so far.” At a time when the fez, the veil and the Ottoman script had already been banned in the Turkish Republic, Fermor felt the island to be “the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away,” and their antiquated dialect is his first exposure to the Turkish language: “astonishing strings of agglutinated syllables with a follow-through of identical vowels and dimly reminiscent of Magyar … immovably lodged in its ancient mould, like a long-marooned English community still talking the language of Chaucer.” This little settlement outside of time and space symbolizes the destiny of the Ottoman Empire: “They had conquered most of Asi, and North Africa to the Pillars of Hercules, enslaved half Christendom and battered on the gates of Vienna; victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground.” At the beginning of “The Broken Road,” crossing into Bulgaria, Fermor truly feels that he has reached the Orient, where “clues to the recent centuries under the Ottoman Turks lay thick and plentiful on every side.” In Karlovo, he sees another group of Turks, whose “wild and uncouth look” prompts further historical reflections echoing those he had in Vienna: “It seems, at moments, something of a fluke that St. Peter’s and Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey are not today three celebrated mosques, kindred fanes to Haghia Sophia in Constantinople.”

Nonetheless, he recognizes “charm and grace” in Turkish architecture: “The Ottoman Empire has joined the eastern Roman Empire which it destroyed; but a posthumous and perhaps deceptive glow of charm and elegance pervades its mementoes.” The most evocative of these mementoes may be the abandoned mosque he discovers on a moonlit night in the Bulgarian mountains (illustrated on the cover of the British edition of “The Broken Road.”) Fermor’s trilogy, which has been translated into a number of European languages, deserves a readership in Turkish as well, for its poetic language and cultural insights. Although he held Orientalist views typical in some ways for an Englishman of his generation, and his lifelong love of Greek culture influenced his indifference to that of the Turks, his imaginary “Constantinople” was shaped not just by his classical education, but by the local people he met on his journey, as well as books by authors like Mor Jokai and Panait Istrati (both of whom describe the Ottoman influence in the Balkans.) Through these experiences, he absorbed the Central and Eastern European image of the Turks, a mix of fact and fiction, history and myth, tied not to colonial conquest, but to local folklore and its traditions of suffering and survival.

Traveller’s Century – Benedict Allen seeking Patrick Leigh Fermor

Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen

Many will be aware of Benedict Allen’s 2008 BBC documentary where he follows Paddy’s journey and eventually gets to meet with Paddy at Kardamyli. It is rarely shown and unavailable on iPlayer. However, there will be a chance for some to watch the programme at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 9th October at 6.30pm.

As part of their “Traveller’s Film Club” series of events, Benedict will introduce the programme after which there will be a screening. Further details of how to book are on this web page.

The Traveller’s Film Club are also showing films on Norman Lewis (September 16) and Wilfred Thesiger (November 13). See the same list.

Thank you to Mark Granelli for pointing this out to me. See some of you there!