The Broken Road

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

The trilogy has finally been completed.

With the publication of THE BROKEN ROAD--FROM THE IRON GATES TO MOUNT ATHOS (New York Review Books), Patrick Leigh Fermor's epic series of books detailing his 1933 walking tour from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople has reached its conclusion.

It's been a long, arduous literary journey. The British-born Fermor had become famous in the 1960s for his two books on Greece, Mani and Roumeli. He published the first book of his trilogy, A Time of Gifts, back in 1977. It dealt with his wanderings in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. That book was followed nine years later by Beneath the Woods and the Water, whose focus was on Hungary and Transylvania. Now, with THE BROKEN ROAD, Fermor's narrative not only reaches its finish line (Constantinople) but keeps pressing on, concluding with a long, pungently written chapter on Mount Athos: "a huge, ghostly white peak, as pale and wraithlike as the skeleton moon in the blue sunlit sky."
Actually, the Mount Athos section was lifted by THE BROKEN ROAD'S editors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, from Fermor's diary. The inclusion was necessary because Fermor never did solve some of the problems he encountered during the writing of his last book.

"The reasons for this are uncertain," the editors confess. "Fermor never completed the book as he would have wished. Perhaps he succumbed to writer's block. Or perhaps he was frozen by the task of equaling his own tremendous style."

Most of THE BROKEN ROAD, though, has been drawn from Fermor's original manuscript, which he called A Youthful Journey. "Written back in 1963-64 on stiff cardboard sheets, it languished half-forgotten on a shelf in his study, enclosed in three black ring binders."

With the help of a devoted friend who digitized the manuscript, the 90-year-old, near-blind Fermor was then able to begin revising his first draft. He was still at the painfully slow, courageous task until a few months before his death in 2011.

"We have sought, above all, to bring lucidity to the text, while minimizing our own words," the editors emphasize. "There is scarcely a phrase here, let alone a sentence, that is not his...We recognize that the present volume is not the polished and reworked book that he would have most desired: only the furthest, in the end, that we could go."

But even a slightly sub-par Fermor is still worth reading. The author's descriptions of his footloose pilgrimage from Bulgaria and Romania to the coast of the Black Sea are vivid and evocative. Here, for example, is how he recalls being caught in an "apocalyptic" thunderstorm while visiting a hilltop monastery in Bulgaria:

"Each flash of lightning brought us a shuddering vision of the town, the valleys and the mountains in a strangely focused close-up that defied distance and dimension. We felt isolated and marooned among the ruins of this hilltop, as though the rest of the world were drowned; or rather, we decided finishing our picnic, passing the wine bottle to and fro and lighting our cigarettes as we peered into the untimely twilight of falling water, as though we were deepsea divers exploring a submerged cathedral or a cave of coral on a pinnacle of the ocean's floor--or did the domes and cupolas compose a diving bell?--while fleets above our heads were smashing each other to bits at point blank range."

Fermor's human portraits are just as sharply etched. Even at nineteen, when he first set out to walk the length of Europe, he was conversant in five languages, an accomplishment that enabled him to communicate with just about everyone he met. He was also the kind of gregarious young man who could make friends easily and was comfortable with rich and poor alike, nobles and shepherds, merchants and fishermen. The recipient of many an act of hospitality--he once stayed free of charge with an aristocratic family in Moldavia for more than a year--he also sang for his supper. His recitations from Shakespeare, Kipling and Baudelaire charmed and entertained his hosts, especially the females among them. He loved to dance as well and swap jokes and limericks, mostly on the bawdy side.
As Artemis Cooper put it in her biography of "Paddy" Fermor, he was "a young man full of curiosity, optimism and joy in the vibrant diversity of the world." All of those qualities are on show in THE BROKEN ROAD, a masterful book that will cement the late author's reputation as one of the finest prose writers of our time.