JOURNEYS OF INSPIRATION
PATRICK Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water opened my eyes to a Hungary and Transylvania even richer than the ones my Magyar mother described to me during her regular and all-consuming bouts of homesickness.
As the second part of an as yet unfinished trilogy about his 1930s odyssey across a Europe sliding inexorably toward war, it bursts with storks and gypsies and wistful aristocrats in a world about to be snuffed out forever.
In Leigh Fermor’s hands, the lands he is crossing are also thickly populated with faded empires and the ghosts of vanished races — Avars and Pechenegs among them— while hints of the horrors about to be unleashed by Hitler are dropped in sparingly, but devastatingly.
And yet no travel book ever left me with a glow like this one. Leigh Fermor combines the scholarly and the elegiac with a joy for travel, language and life. I’ve carried it with me on my explorations of Transylvania’s shadowy valleys and during my reacquaintance with the ‘‘ nearly mythical country of Hungary’’.
Leigh Fermor is at last working on the trilogy’s final instalment. Aged 92 and finding his own handwriting indecipherable, the great man has taken the plunge and is teaching himself to type on a 1951 Olivetti. ‘‘ I wouldn’t get a computer,’’ he says. Published by John Murray (1986). KNOWING how to quit a job in style was just one of the many skills in Bruce Chatwin’s armoury. After a few years in the employ of London’s TheSundayTimes , Chatwin withdrew his services with a telegram that read, ‘‘ Gone to Patagonia for six months.’’
His journey to the bottom of South America — supposedly inspired by a fragment of giant sloth skin in his grandmother’s dining room— resulted in the publication 30 years ago of In Patagonia. Paul Theroux, who knows a thing or two about travel writing, said Chatwin had ‘‘ fulfilled the desire of all real travellers, of having found a place that is far and seldom visited, like the Land where the Jumblies live’’. Some declared this magical, enigmatic and odd beast of a book had redefined travel writing, while others said it was more a work of fiction masquerading as a travel book. Sometimes it’s better to blur the lines of distinction and just read. Jonathan Cape (1977). Available from Vintage Classics. TRYING to understand what used to be Yugoslavia is not a task to undertake lightly but, for English speakers, the place to begin is Rebecca West’s hefty opus Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. First published in 1942, it laid open the extraordinary mosaic of passion and poison that is the Balkans with a rare richness and was rightly described as a masterpiece. Clocking in at nearly 1200 pages, it makes for a cumbersome paperback, but some things are better when a little suffering is involved. Macmillan (1942). Available from Canongate: www.canongate.net. James Jeffrey James Jeffrey’s travel narrative PaprikaParadise will be published by Hachette in August.
Gone to Patagonia’: Bruce Chatwin