By Armistice Day, 1918, the British weren’t just happy for war’s end, they were desperate to move as they pleased. Surviving soldiers had of course endured the continent’s trenches, but civilians, too, had lived for four years under an ever-expanding list of restrictions known as the Defense of the Realm Act, which rationed food, travel, and foreign communication back home.
The worst of those restrictions ended upon German surrender, inaugurating two decades of joyously far-flung travel for those Britons whose relief or claustrophobia compelled them to escape. All those infantrymen and officers who had dreamed of tropical respite from the freezing, bloody front; all those writers like D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas who had grown disgusted with repressive, xenophobic England—they set off for the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles, the Middle East, the Balkans, anywhere a ship could take them. And since this interwar period was, in historian Paul Fussell’s terms, the last era of “genuine” travel, when trip-taking was still “conceived to be like study, and its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind,” Britain produced a shelf’s worth of brilliant journey books by the time the Nazis invaded France. In these idiosyncratically written, unclassifiable narratives, foreign wandering is an invitation to explore deeper realms. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia is a record of Italian eccentricities and the author’s own dyspepsia; Robert Byron’s Persian tour The Road to Oxiana is a catalog of traveler’s follies and ancient architecture; and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a thousand-page treatise on gender relations disguised as a deep reading of Slavic history.
Born in 1915, Patrick Leigh Fermor was much younger than these adventurers (he was, in fact, a primary schoolmate of Rebecca West’s son), but he managed one of the period’s greatest excursions. From late 1933 to New Year’s Day 1935, Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul with little more than Army surplus clothes, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and some empty notebooks in his rucksack. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, after he’d earned multiple military decorations for service in Greece and Crete during World War II and established himself as an author, that Fermor finally began writing the record of what he called his “Great Trudge.” An infamous perfectionist, he didn’t publish the first volume, A Time of Gifts, until 1977; the second, Between the Woods and the Water, appeared in 1986 and took young Paddy as far as the Yugoslavia–Bulgaria border. When Fermor died in 2011, he left behind an unfinished manuscript that has been lightly edited by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, and the travel writer Colin Thubron and published as The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates To Mount Athos. While it’s a grand, moving book in its own right, covering the walk through southern Romania and Bulgaria into Turkey, this final installment also marks the end of an entire era of thinking and writing. We’ve seen the last of the imperial gentleman-scholar-soldier-aesthetes, and the belated final product of an ecstatic moment in British literary and intellectual history.
Early in The Broken Road, Fermor delights in the ethnic and architectural diversity of Plovdiv, a central Bulgarian city where, “rather momentously for me, as things were going to turn out in the following years,” he meets and befriends his first Grecian. After waking in the man’s house and setting out for the day, he takes note of the geological formations underneath the houses and cathedrals, admires the “blacksmiths, coppersmiths, tinkers, leather-workers, gunsmiths, harness-makers, mule-saddlers” in the market square, and pauses to watch the “fly-haunted rivulets of blood” pouring out of the butcher shop into the cobblestones. Then he sees the first Turks of his trip—indeed, of his life—and his walking partner (a beautiful young woman, clearly charmed) points out that they are Pomaks, from the southeast valleys, who occasionally sweep into town on camelback. From there, Fermor sets off on a dense pocket history of Turkish-Bulgarian cultural exchange down through the Ottoman Empire, then turns a corner into a souk-like labyrinth of shops and stalls, where a new language seems to appear with each block. For each, Fermor has an insight into just how that tongue came to that street, and how certain terms, like bougre and bugger, in fact originated in just such a melting pot.
This is the Fermor mode in brief. Relentlessly knowledgeable and personable, he most resembles his early twentieth-century travel-writing predecessors in his magisterial, sensuous prose style and guiding belief in travel as a means of self-expression. His books are alive to the world and nearly overwhelming in their depth of historical scholarship, personal flare, and descriptive creativity. While subsequently resting for a drink and “a couple of roast paprika-pods” in Plovdiv, he notices a shadow gliding over the canvas café awnings—a stork, flying momentarily in between two looming buildings. He observes its “crimson beak,” “long white neck,” and finally
[t]he white belly followed, tapering, and then, trailing beyond, the fan of its tail and long parallel legs of crimson lacquer, the toes of each of them closed and streamlined, but the whole shape flattening, when the band of sunlight was crossed, into a two-dimensional shadow once more, enormously displayed across the rectangle of cloth, as distinct and nearly as immobile, so languid was its flight, as an emblematic bird on a sail; then sliding across it and along the nearly still corridor of air between the invisible eaves and the chimneys, dipping along the curl of the lane like a sigh of wonder, and at last, a furlong away slowly pivoting, at a gradual tilt, out of sight. A bird of passage like the rest of us.
Fermor has earlier mentioned that Plovdiv’s buildings are so tall and slant that their roofs seem to touch, so this bird’s flight couldn’t possibly have lasted more than a few seconds. Yet he lavishes a byzantine, acrobatic sentence on its entire anatomy, all to make the point that the stork reminded him of life’s transience. It’s in moments like these, despite the Baroque register, that Fermor most resembles his actual travel-writing contemporaries, nomad-obsessed journeyers like Wilfred Thesiger or Bruce Chatwin, the latter of whom he briefly mentored in the 1980s. These men tended to write tersely, but they share, in books like Thesiger’s Arabian Sands or Chatwin’s In Patagonia, Fermor’s obsession with time and change. Like those, the walking trilogy is a record of civilization on the brink of disappearance, which lends a moral imperative to his lyrical and historical flights: They suspend the settings of his travels above the typical march of time, either by placing them in a vast context or by stopping the clock altogether to focus on minutiae of natural or cultural life.
Fermor was ever so: He opened his first travel book about Greece, Mani: Travels in the Southern Pelopennese, published in 1958, with the recognition that “a great deal has vanished since my own first visits… . Ancient and celebrated sites are carefully preserved, but, between the butt of a Coca-cola bottle and the Iron Curtain … many living mementoes of Greece’s past are being hammered to powder.” Yet the emotional and geopolitical distance between the trilogy’s journey and its eventual enshrinement in prose lends these books an even greater poignancy. Between Fermor’s triumphant arrival in Istanbul and the publication of A Time of Gifts, Nazism and Bolshevism had buried Old Europe as he knew it, and boyish Paddy had slipped into middle age, complete with treatment for tongue cancer as a result of smoking, by his estimation, eighty or more cigarettes a day for three decades. His first draft of the book was entitled “Parallax,” an astronomical term for viewing a star from two different vantage points.
For all the trilogy’s scenic sweep and laddish derring-do, its true subject is memory, “the fleetingness of everything,” as Fermor puts it in The Broken Road. This concluding book rings loudest with that theme. For one, it documents a particularly hard stretch of the journey, where the thrill of open voyaging had given way, if only occasionally, to loneliness and fatigue. Here, Fermor talks at length about his episodes of “nightmarish gloom … usually arriving without warning,” and laments the crudeness and squalor he sees among the borderland tribes.
For another, the book’s very creation embodied the notion of parallax, since it was actually begun before A Time of Gifts or Between the Woods and the Water. Commissioned by Holiday magazine to write an essay about “the pleasures of walking” in the early 1960s, Fermor attempted a draft of this last leg of the trudge, only to abandon it for a promised second book on Greece and to build his dream house in the Peloponnese. (This gorgeous home, located in Kardamyli, can be seen in the recent film Before Midnight.) In his dotage, under mounting pressure from readers and publishers to finally finish his opus, Fermor revisited this earlier text, revising yet never finishing. In her biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper says that the first book’s success “created the one thing he could never cope with: a sense of expectation,” while after writing the second he began to feel the whole walking-Europe idea was “stale, barren, written out, and he feared he no longer had the strength to bring it back to life.” Fermor was still at work when he died at age ninety-six, and The Broken Road ends mid-sentence, after a semicolon and a breathless clause—“and yet, in another sense, although”—as if Fermor expired in the midst of one of his characteristic literary-historical associative leaps.
The rest of the book is filled out with Fermor’s journals from the time of his arrival in Istanbul and first experience in Greece, offering the first unadorned view of the young man, without the wisdom and writerly brio of adulthood as a veil. These journal entries call attention to the book’s half-century gestation, making The Broken Road an even more vertiginous experience than the first two books—the story of a teenager, written in collaboration between his fifty- and ninety-year-old selves.
After losing his original notes amid his extraordinarily peripatetic life, Fermor wrote the earlier volumes entirely from memory, which has led to inevitable discoveries of his exaggeration or fictionalization of certain episodes, like a galloping horse ride across the Hungarian Plain in Between the Woods and the Water. (He in fact only occasionally rode.) But for this one, Fermor had access to the so-called “Green Diary” that forms its final section, and oddly enough, it stymied him. “While piecing together fragments which have lain undisturbed for two decades and more,” he writes at one point, “all at once a detail will surface which acts as potently as the taste of madeleine which made the whole of Proust’s childhood unfurl.” The difficulty of handling this “haul of irrelevant detail,” “echoes re-echoed and ricocheted,” contrasts with the buoyancy that this same quality made him feel as a young man. At the time he arrived on the continent, Fermor’s “boredom threshold had been so high that it scarcely existed at all… . [P]ractically 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.” This is only natural, of course. For a young man with nowhere to go but forward and no hurry to get there, “anti-boredom” is a gift. But for a graying icon with looming deadlines both professional and mortal, such sensory sensitivity is a hindrance. The glory of this book, and this trilogy, is its depiction of the best of both states. We get the lustful boy casting off the shackles of family and country, meeting lifelong friends and bidding adieu to entire ways of life with equal unknowing. Yet we also get the older man, ensconced in a palatial library but reeling from the loss of his beloved wife, Joan, who helped him design it. Fermor managed one of the all-time-great hikes all by himself while barely a legal adult, but his genius lay in his reinvention of that journey as a metaphor for life and maturity. It’s scarcely believable that we’ll see another physical and literary accomplishment of its kind.