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
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.