The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
Patrick Leigh Fermor
New York Review Books, $30
One is tempted to say that Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 at the age of ninety-six, was "The Last of the Great English Adventurers,” or rather, the "Last of the English Scholar Warriors." But both species are so endemic to the scepter'd isle that, as long as there is an England, there will be loyal subjects yearning for the trackless steppe and the limitless horizon. In the twentieth century alone, there were, to name but a few, John Cornford, who died in the Spanish Civil War; Robert Byron, the author of the travel classic The Road to Oxiana; Redmond O'Hanlon (who despite his sonorously Irish name is English through and through), author of Into the Heart of Borneo; James Morris, later Jan, author of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere; and scholar-adventurer Xan Fielding, a friend of Leigh Fermor's who, Leigh Fermor said, was "a gifted, many-sided, courageous and romantic figure, at the same time civilized and bohemian."
You could have no better description of Leigh Fermor himself. But for all his similarities to his compatriots, "Paddy," as he was universally known, was sui generis to a fault, an extraordinarily gifted and erudite man of letters who was also a man of the world, courageous soldier, and gifted writer. In the words of Jan Morris: "Like Venice, Château d'Yquem or a Rolls-Royce of the 1930s, he really was beyond competition."
In 1933, at eighteen, he decided to walk from Holland to Turkey. His personality united not only scholar and daredevil—following in the spiritual footsteps of Victorian explorers such as Livingstone, Speke, and Burton—but also different periods of British history. As the tough, courageous commando who led the Cretan resistance and spirited a German general from Crete to Egypt during World War II, he operated in gritty, twentieth-century T. E. Lawrence-Ian Fleming terrain. And as a lifelong lover and scholar of Greek culture and language he inherited the mantle of Lord Byron, the Greeks' favorite Brit, after whom it seems that every town square in Greece is named.
Paddy was the architect of his own learning; his higher education was life itself. His own formal education came to an abrupt end when he managed to get thrown out of The King's School in Canterbury for publicly displaying affection for a local merchant's daughter, as well as for generally exhibiting, in the words of his headmaster, “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness." This was an ideal formula for thriving in the high society of interwar London, evoked in the novels of writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Firbank. But Paddy, who had profound but vague ambitions, needed more than casual affairs and drunken orgies. He languished, a hungover and idle would-be writer, vaguely hoping to hit on something to write about, until inspiration struck: he would walk across Europe. It would be an adventure, a distraction, and useful research, all at once.
His parents financed the travels, mailing pound notes in envelopes to post offices and postes restantes across Central Europe from Holland to Bulgaria (not a single one was ever lost or missing). His walk became the stuff of legend. Paddy's gap year was the first year of the Nazis and the last of the gnarled, romantic old Germany whose spirit still lingered in the late middle ages. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1985) were instant classics, celebrated for their evocation of a Central European world that had utterly vanished and their baroque language, which rendered the ordinary German town a setting fit for the brothers Grimm.
It was dark by the time I climbed the main street and soon softly-lit panes of colored glass, under the hanging sign of a Red Ox, were beckoning me indoors. With freezing cheeks and hair caked with snow, I clumped into an entrancing haven of oak beams and carving and alcoves and changing floor levels. A jungle of impedimenta encrusted the interior—mugs and bottles and glasses and antlers—the innocent accumulation of years, not the stage props of forced conviviality—and the whole place glowed with a universal patina.
Now, more than fifty years after his historic trek, the third volume of the long-planned trilogy, The Broken Road, has been published. Though Leigh Fermor himself worked at it on and off for three decades, the book we have today is a composite, put together from Leigh Fermor's notes by two ardent admirers, the travel writer Colin Thubron (Shadow of the Silk Road) and Leigh Fermor's biographer Artemis Cooper (Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure). It exists because it had to, as the final volume of the great travel epic that he always intended.
Despite being an assemblage of parts, the book is a remarkable accomplishment, not least because it manages to be a cohesive whole. Most importantly, it is Leigh Fermor through and through. The immediacy of the memories he describes and the painstaking detail of his everyday descriptions are virtues of the diary entries and letters from which the book was made. Because of this, The Broken Roadis so vivid in parts that the events described might have happened yesterday. Here, for example, is Leigh Fermor's description of a rainstorm he witnessed in Bulgaria in 1934:
Below us, along the twisting course of the Yantra, the motionless trees began to swirl like shaken mops. Raging puffs of dust swelled to the height of elm trees, tiny figures far below scuttled for shelter and suddenly, with a roar, the wind smote us as though it would send us spinning backwards into the frescoes and tear to bits the ancient church in whose porch we were sheltering. With a hiss the dusty, ruin-cumbered hill all around was instantaneously leopard-spotted with giant black raindrops, a rash which in another second cohered in a universal moving glitter, then in a hundred dancing puddles and sudden rushing khaki rivers. In a few moments the raindrops turned to hail: the pellets as big as blackcurrants and gooseberries which bounded and ricocheted among the rocks and rattled on the Slavo-Byzantine tiles overhead with a din like machine-gun fire.
This is painterly (El Greco?), if not cinematic (David Lean?): the images leap from the page. Leigh Fermor was the master of a lush and vivid literary idiom that managed to be simultaneously poetic, learned, philosophical, and mundane, a unique writing style his friend, fellow expatriate, and fellow-philhellene Lawrence Durrell called a “truffled style and dense plumage.”
Vignettes are sketched with an artist's eye and loaded with eccentric erudition, a vast repository of minutiae from the archives of half of Europe.
Partly because so much of The Broken Road is taken directly from Patrick Leigh Fermor's contemporary diaries and notes, it may well be the most revealing volume of the trilogy, and perhaps the most personal. It is certainly the most introspective. The previous volumes are rollicking and detailed, and the pace hardly lets up. In The Broken Road Leigh Fermor slows down occasionally to reflect, and his meditations on himself are quite revealing, because they are honest and straightforward and unfiltered by expectations or excessive editing.
Ever since I could remember, my boredom threshold had been so high that it scarcely existed at all. With the exception of a minute handful of physical and mental types, surroundings and landscapes and atmospheres and orders of conversation, I was unboreable, like an unsinkable battleship . . . My trouble was that practically everything, not only the most disparate, contradictory and mutually exclusive things and people, but many others that everyone else found repellent, painful, unrewarding, and above all tedious, filled me with the same wild fascination.
The narrative takes up where Between the Woods and the Water leaves off, in the fall of 1934, and follows Leigh Fermor, then nineteen, through Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania as far as the coast of the Black Sea. Vignettes are sketched with an artist's eye and loaded with eccentric erudition, a vast repository of minutiae from the archives of half of Europe. Facts tumble over facts, until in his recitation of historical trivia he attains a kind of poetic splendor:
It all seemed very close. Odessa, the Crimea, the Sea of Azov—Krim Tartary and the whole sweep of the Scythian empire, the dark land of the Cimmerians–Novorossiysk, and . . . Colchis, where Jason stole the Golden Fleece: a long sail for the Argo from Mount Pelion.
Long treks along dusty or muddy roads, mostly alone but sometimes accompanied by goatherds or gypsies, lead though gorgeous landscapes and cities and yield romance and fleeting friendships and culminate in full-bore thirties decadence in the night clubs of Bucharest:
It was . . . a time of entertaining and parties and tremendous luncheons and dinners, unless it was always like this; anyway, as part of the 'taking up' process or as a sharing of the burden, I found myself at a vast number of these gatherings.
This is the tremulous, apprehensive pre-war Balkan world described by Olivia Manning in Fortunes of War. Along with dalliances in the homes of the rich, Leigh Fermor finds himself in a vast number of rural dwellings and shepherd's huts and all manner of other habitations across Central and Eastern Europe, for he was the quintessential traveler who knew instinctively how to connect with everybody, high, low, and in-between. He became a self-made anthropologist thanks to this temperamental cosmopolitanism, and a self-made writer through vast reading, self-tutelage, and hard work—as extraordinary, in his own way, as Byron himself.
A drop in the bare headlands revealed a score of conical huts gathered like dark beehives on the edge of a green slope crested with a spinney, and from the summit of each of these bulbous cones of skillfully woven reeds and osier, a feather of smoke rose into the rainy air. Up the hillside, tilted by the slope to offer a bird's-eye view inside, ran great zariba-like goat-folds of thorn and thatch. Dark figures moved about among the wigwams.
But his style took most of his life to germinate, partly because he was so busy being a world traveler, lover, soldier, spy, and scholar. His life was something out of a boy's adventure novel. During the war he joined the Irish Guards, partly out of sentimental fancy that he was of Irish descent (he was not, much) and ended up in the Special Operations Executive, in which, as a leader of the resistance in occupied Crete, he was instrumental in the abduction of a German general. (This event later led to a Michael Powell film, Ill Met by Moonlight (also called Night Ambush), in which Dirk Bogarde played Paddy.) In parallel, he was becoming a world-class scholar of modern and ancient Greek culture and a travel writer of transformative genius.
The Broken Road does not carry him all the way to Istanbul; hence the title. After hijinks in Bucharest and adventures elsewhere in Romania, a country he comes to love, he goes on to the Black Sea. The book ends, appropriately, with Leigh Fermor’s arrival in Greece, which he would adopt as his second homeland (although he never forsook England).
Admirers of great travel writing, and of learned and informed memoir, and devotees of Leigh Fermor in particular owe a debt of gratitude to Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, who have ensured that the final volume of Leigh Fermor's magisterial trilogy has now—finally—made its circuitous way into the wider world. No further volumes are needed; the rest of his extraordinary life is sequel enough, and may inspire other gifted adventurers for whom there is no satisfaction in the ordinary life. Like the heroes of the ancient Greeks, Leigh Fermor sought to measure himself against greater odds. As Christopher Hitchens wrote upon his death: "For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one."