The World’s Greatest Travel Writer and His First Journey

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2014 12:15 PM

The Long Journey of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Eighty years after he walked across Europe, the great travel writer’s final volume is published.

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Often the older writer admits to recalling little or nothing about a particular time, and often he confesses to being “almost irresistibly tempted to slip in one or two balloons from a later date.” One such “balloon” intrudes during Fermor’s walk south along the Black Sea coast from Varna, Bulgaria. The unknown coastline had proved rockier and less passable than anticipated, the night was dark, and both he and his flashlight had just fallen into a pool, the latter irretrievably. Bleeding from his forehead, Fermor found himself, as he writes, “sliding, crawling on all fours, climbing up ledges draped with popping and slippery ribbons of bladderwrack,” and close to despair. Rounding a cliff, he stumbles at last into a cave, where he finds a group of shepherds and fisherman cozied up for the night with a campfire and a bunch of goats. What follows is one of the most exhilarating set pieces to be found in travel writing anywhere: Having been fed, dried, and liquored up, Fermor joins his hosts in a night of ribald fun, in which a fisherman performs a rebtiko, an ancient dance that’s like a history of the Balkans writ small: “All the artifice, the passion for complexity, the hair-splitting, the sophistication, the dejection, the sudden renaissances, the flaunting challenge, the resignation, the feeling of the enemy closing in, the abandonment by all who should have been friends, the ineluctability of the approaching doom and the determination to perish, when the time came, with style,” Fermor writes, is sublimated in movement, offering “consolation and an anodyne in individual calamity.” It’s a thrilling insight in a linguistic whirl of a scene.

It also, apparently, never happened. As Cooper reports, the scene is more or less a conflation of a night Fermor spent in a fisherman’s hut on the Black Sea and an evening lost along the coast of Mount Athos, in Greece, some weeks later. It’s reputedly not the only incidence of this sort of thing: According to Cooper, a vaunted trip on horseback across Hungary seems not to have happened either. Fermor told her he feared “the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along” and so put himself on a horse. Such fictional accents, Cooper gently suggests, were part of Fermor’s “making a novel of his life”: He didn’t invent, per se, but created “new memories” shaded by imagination. A more convincing explanation is that by the time Fermor sat down to write about the walk, not only was it 30 years in the past, but he had lost all of his journals from the time—the first stolen, the rest left unclaimed in storage after the war—and had just memories, real or not, for reference.

The distance between living and writing is responsible too for the shadow European history cast over Fermor as he sat down to write his Trudge books. Fermor was in Germany in December 1933: Hitler was in power, and the rise of nationalism was apparent in the streets, where heil-ing stormtroopers would “become performing seals for a second … as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts.” In Vienna, in February 1934, he arrived in the middle of the riots between the country’s anti-communist militia and Social Democrats, the beginning of a political shift that would culminate in the Anschluss some years on. But the young Fermor, having little interest in politics, didn’t notice at all. “I wasn’t a political observer,” he yells at a Bulgarian friend who’s rebuked him for wanting to visit the hated Romania. “Races, language, what people were like, that was what I was after: churches, songs, books, what they wore and ate and looked like, what the hell!” If the young Fermor, busy with parties, drinking, smoking, sex (only delicately implied of course—he’s British), failed to foresee the consequences of Nazism’s rise, the older one certainly does. “I am maddened,” he wrote in 1963, “by not having seen, written, looked, heard.”

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And so despite the author’s obvious attempts to preserve, somewhat, the innocence of his youthful self, the books are haunted by the knowledge of what was about to transpire—the fact that, as Fermor writes in The Broken Road, “Nearly all the people in this book, as it turned out, were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning, to explode during the next decade and a half, in unhappy endings.” His accounts of the colorful ways of gypsies and Jews in particular can’t help but have a foreboding, even elegiac tang, no matter how they are written, and the same is true, in The Broken Road, of the landscape itself. Returning to Bulgaria and Rumania in 1990, Cooper reports, Fermor was “utterly crushed,” refusing even to talk about what he had seen: not just poverty and hunger, but picturesque villages replaced by concrete farm-workers blocks, Bulgaria’s Turkish culture completely gone, hulking Soviet towers rising from what had once been pristine wilderness.

It is no surprise then that Fermor, toward the end of his life, despaired of recapturing the innocent joy with which he’d crossed this vanished landscape and eventually gave up trying. A Youthful Journey ends quite abruptly—in midsentence, in fact—a few days before the journey reached its ultimate goal. For whatever reason, Fermor failed to take many notes at all in Constantinople. The few he did make are included here, to represent, I guess, the “broken road” of the title: “Slept till six o’clock in the evening, then, waking up, thought it was only the dawn, having overslept twelve hours, so turned over and slept again till Jan 2nd morning,” he writes of the day he arrived. Eleven days later, he was in Greece, where The Broken Road concludes, with a coda of sorts to the official account: Fermor’s perambulation through the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos. (As a side note, this monastic peninsula, unlike most of the places Fermor visited, seems largely unchanged. It remains, among other things, forbidden to females of all species, with the notable exception of cats.)

The text of this part comes from Fermor’s so-called Green Diary, the sole survivor of the heap of near-talismanic journals he carted about on his walk. This one he left in Romania with his first great love, the Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, who, despite years under fascism and behind the Iron Curtain, took care of it, returning it to Fermor during a secret visit in 1965. It’s a useful document, if only for the purpose of comparing the unfiltered prose of Fermor’s teenage years with the polished, many-fretted sentences that he’d produce later on. The episode of walking along the cliffs and falling into the sea, recast so brilliantly some 150-pages back as a microcosm of Balkan life, appears here just another night really, drinking with some woodsmen in a hut. One gets the feeling that Fermor would have objected to the diary’s inclusion, but in a way it’s a perfectly appropriate end. Here, lonely, tired, and somewhat fed up with the “unilluminated literalness” of Balkan life, the boy first encounters a country that he would come to love above all. Two years later, after a charmed period of rest in Romania and Greece, he’d join the intelligence services and serve in Crete as a liaison to the native partisans, eventually masterminding a hussar-ish plan to kidnap the Nazi general in charge of the occupying forces and transporting him, by mule, over the mountains, and then to Cairo by boat. He would write two books on Greece and settle permanently there in 1964 with his wife Joan, in a small fishing village in the Peloponnese. There, as a mature perfectionist fighting a losing battle against his exuberantly prolix younger self, he’d try to write what would eventually become The Broken Road. In some ways, though, the 20-year-old Paddy we leave at Mount Athos would end up outliving him.

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The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York Review Books Classics.

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (New York Review Books Classics)

Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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