The last masterpiece from a great traveller
AND so it ends. Sort of. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated tramp across 1930s Europe first burst into print in The Time of Gifts (1977), which took us from the Hook of Holland, through the beauty and menace of a Germany in the thrall of the still young Nazi regime, and left us standing in the middle of a bridge over the Danube, Czechoslovakia behind us and Hungary ahead.
Nearly a decade passed before the j ourney continued in Between the Woods and the Water. By then, Fermor’s original plan to sleep in barns, hayricks and monasteries had been largely submerged as kindly aristocrats passed him from one to the other. Cue images of semi-remembered bacchanalias in Budapest, frolics with peasant girls in Romania, and a family of Tran- sylvania’s doomed Hungarian nobility pausing from a game of bicycle polo while a relative landed their biplane on the lawn.
Throughout it all was a wonder of scholarly and linguistic riches, conveyed with an infectious, insatiable sense of curiosity, affection and, above all, humanity. It was also a tale of youth — he was 18 when he set off — seen through the prism of a few extra decades of accumulated wisdom.
Then there was the writing itself. The books are a love affair with language in general, but English above all. Fermor’s lines burst with metaphor and imagery, and such an easy sense of history and all its ghosts and echoes, it surely counts as four-dimensional.
It was the odyssey that created Fermor, who as well as growing into one of the English language’s greatest craftsmen became a war hero the decade after his walk. His role in the kidnapping of a German general during the height of the war in Crete would go on to be immortalised in Ill Met By Moonlight.
So when Fermor — or Paddy, as he was generally known — brought Between the Woods and the Water to a close at the Danube’s Iron Gates, it left a desire to see that odyssey finished. He always promised he would get us to the road’s end in Constantinople (a name from which he never deviated).
But, in the poignant words of his publisher, a ‘‘glacial writer’s block descended’’ and the promise of the full trilogy was left hanging. Most of a lifetime now stood between him and that epic journey. There were occasional flickers of hope, not least when Fermor took the radical step late in life of upgrading to an electric typewriter.
But while the words came, they were never to his complete satisfaction; he was still working on the manuscript a few weeks before his death in 2011. The task of pulling it together was left in the admirable hands of Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. As they write in the introduction, ‘ ‘ There is something poignant and mysterious about incomplete masterpieces.’’
And so we have The Broken Road, a title that acknowledges the interrupted nature of the tale. As with the first two books, it is bathed in an elegiac glow, a tender glimpse of a Europe about to vanish in the charnel house of World War II and the calamity of communism that soon followed.
But as Fermor keeps reminding us, Europe is a long string of vanishings and upheavals.
It may not have the same polished precision as its predecessors, but as we leave behind the ghost of the Hapsburg empire and march into the ghost of the Ottoman, the voice is unmistakably Fermor’s: eloquent, poetic, sometimes hilarious. Perhaps, in a way, it’s fitting it was never really finished, and in our minds the young Paddy can still be tramping ever onwards towards the Bosphorus. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, $49.99).
Patrick Leigh Fermor