3 February, 2014Issue 24.2AutobiographyLiteratureNon-fictionTravel

Email This Article Print This Article

Walking to Byzantium

Tom Sharrad

Broken Road
Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Broken Road
John Murray Books, 2013
£25.00
362 pages
ISBN 978-1848547520


How to edit Paddy? It’s a problem Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper must have felt acutely when they began work on the manuscript of the The Broken Road as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s literary executors. When Leigh Fermor (Paddy, to friends and fans) passed away in 2011 at the age of 96, he left among his possessions a manuscript—incomplete, but substantial—charting the final part of his journey from London to Constantinople, a journey which he began on foot, aged eighteen, in 1933. Paddy returned to this journey—but one event in an extraordinary life—time and again, and it was through its retelling in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) that he found literary fame. Both parts were born only with extreme difficulty; the third never arrived.

Researching her recent biography of the author (Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure), Artemis Cooper unearthed a letter written by Paddy to his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray. It concerned a 5,000 word travel article on ‘The Pleasures of Walking’, commissioned by Holiday magazine in 1962. The article, Paddy wrote, had “ripened out of all recognition” and now ran to some 84,000 words. “I wonder what Holiday will say…”, mused the author. “Whatever the editors said”, Cooper sardonically notes, “it was probably unprintable”. It is this manuscript, written long before the two published volumes and concerning the end of Paddy’s great journey, which forms the bulk of The Broken Road.

Paddy’s sentences can be things of rare complexity and extraordinary length. “In attempting to preserve his distinctive style”, note the editors in their introduction, “we have respected the structure of his often elaborate sentences, with their train of subordinate clauses.” For Thubron, admired for his elegant, economical prose, this must have been a challenging and at times, one imagines, an extremely frustrating editing job. What to do, for instance, with the three pages in the manuscript on the subject of Greek dance? Central to the narrative they are certainly not, but to omit them would seem like a tragedy, for here is Paddy the raconteur at the height of his powers, brimming with enthusiasm for an obscure subject and not a little showing off.

The sensitive editing of Thubron and Cooper has by no means resulted in a ‘tight’ book—under the circumstances, surely impossible—but it has certainly produced one that Paddy might conceivably have written: inventive, messy, brimming with life, scattered with amusing anecdote, and cacophonous with the many tongues of Europe.

As we might expect from the author, Paddy the older man doesn’t leave his younger self to go about his travels alone without a number of interruptions. Firstly, there are his enthusiastic forays into history. These are on the whole less successful than his core travel narrative, as they suffer from Paddy’s tendency, already discussed, to include numerous interesting anecdotes, whether central to the narrative or wholly irrelevant. In Paddy’s hands, a complex family tree can quickly become a bewildering thicket from which the reader is lucky to emerge. Incomprehensible as these diversions often are, Paddy’s zest and enthusiasm carry him through—but in some cases, it must be said, only just. At the point of an interjection such as “impossible to avoid a few words on Rumanian history to make it comprehensible”, the reader should brace him or herself for quite the opposite: many words and considerable obfuscation—but charming, witty, and stimulating nonetheless.

The bulk, by far, of Paddy’s narrative interruptions are on the subject of memory. This is not surprising. Paddy was attempting to assemble pieces of the jigsaw nearly 30 years after the event, a challenge compounded by a complete lack of source material—the vast majority of his diaries from the time having been lost. His frustration here is touching and palpable: “minutes passed”, he says, when desperately trying to account for a jump in the chronology of his journey, but “nothing surfaced”. While undoubtedly prodigious, the author’s memory was not capable of the level of recall required to piece together a day-by-day account of events of the kind he was attempting to write in the 1960s. But thankfully for Paddy, wherever memory failed, an equally prodigious imagination stepped boldly in.

After bemoaning his forgetfulness for the first time in the manuscript, Paddy proceeds to list the books on the shelves of an English woman living in the Bulgarian village of Gabrovo. “Black Beauty, Pears Encyclopaedia, Jock of the Bushveld, Chatterbox, Precious Bane, Angel Pavement and Rupert Brooke’s collected verse were all present”, he tells us. Later in the narrative, he describes the Baragan steppe in Romania and the storms that race across it. First, he says, there were “great globes of moving stuff, like giant thistledown”, which rolled across the plain gathering sticks and planks in their wake—this in itself is an impressive image, but one to which Paddy can’t help but add a little more detail. “These grew”, he continues, into “thick dust-devils, hundreds of feet high, dark with picked up rubbish and twirling in ever varying girths like irregular barley sugar till they frayed out at an enormous height.” Gaining momentum as fast as the storm itself, and obviously satisfied with the developing scene, Paddy goes for the full cinematic finish: “the plain”, he says was “still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet”.

In her biography of the author, Artemis Cooper addresses his creative process in detail. The ‘flexibility’ in his narrative—what Cooper and Colin Thubron in their introduction wryly call “vivid feats of reimagining”—and what we might equally call invention—means that The Broken Road is never quite the travel diary we might be forgiven for expecting. As with the previous volumes, this is a creation based on, but never limited by, fact.

We witness two journeys occurring simultaneously in The Broken Road: the boy’s youthful journey through Europe and the man’s pathway through the enveloping mists of his own memory. The latter journey seems in many ways to have been the more arduous for Paddy (his “own worst subeditor”) and is often the more fascinating of the two layers for precisely this reason.

As Paddy moves from place to place, his moods—recalled from the time—colour whole passages. In Bucharest, the sky is “cloudless”, the leaves “golden”, and each image of the city shimmers as if viewed through a crystal decanter. Meanwhile, a night-time trudge through inhospitable Bulgarian countryside is washed with grey—the whole experience coloured by a painful foot and an un-obliging peasant passerby who demonstrated “conduct unprecedented on any of the roads of Europe” for refusing to offer a lift without substantial payment.

Generally though, Paddy seems to have more than his fair share of luck on his journey, aided undoubtedly by his good looks and boundless charm. Arriving in a Bulgarian village, he immediately meets an attractive, polyglot philosophy student, Nadejda. They spend an afternoon gazing at “Thracian objects” in museums and visiting monasteries and Byzantine churches. Nadejda, it transpires, lives with a bedridden grandfather with whom Paddy is able to converse extensively in French. They, too, hit it off and Paddy stays at the family home for several days, spending a memorable morning with Nadejda dressing up in costumes from an old collection discovered in a trunk. “I introduced her to Baudelaire”, says Paddy, and one suspects rather more besides.

The Broken Road is full of such encounters. There were few, it seems, who were immune to the charms of the teenage vagabond: priests, diplomats, prostitutes, peasants, fisherman, maids: all seem to take pity on the traveller in his hobnail boots and washed-out, second-hand greatcoat—which, he confides, he kept meaning to have dyed but couldn’t decide what colour. Every encounter is accompanied by the slugging of slivo, a potent (often pretty rough) plum brandy, which, besides “vast smoking and lack of sleep” seems to have constituted Paddy’s primary source of fuel for the journey. Backstage at a brothel (which Paddy allegedly mistook for a hotel), a prostitute adjusts his tie “with an experienced twitch”. Behind the bawdy euphemism, we see instantly the maternal instinct he must have provoked on his travels—one that seems to have eased his passage, if not outright saved his skin on a number of occasions.

Curiously, Paddy wrote very little of Constantinople where he finally arrived on New Years Eve 1934. His contemporary diary entries are included, but they are brief, almost perfunctory. A journey of course needs a destination, and one can imagine keenly the sort of desultoriness liable to descend after such an adventure. The book would end mid-sentence, but the editors wisely include a section on Mount Athos, where Paddy proceeded directly from Turkey.

As Paddy entered the peninsula, the peasants and fishermen of earlier chapters step aside to make room for a new cast of holy men. Monks of all denominations and nationalities scuttle down from their hermitages, rosaries clicking in one pocket and wine bottles clinking in the other. Paddy befriends many of them and “puts in an appearance at vespers”, but he mostly seems to enjoy spending time clustered around a fire, inhaling the incense, “drinking deep of the Russian singing”, and often, it seems, of the raki too. A pattern quickly emerges; each entry begins with something approximating “I woke rather late” or “I sat up so late last night that I quite failed to rise in time for the Mass of the Three Saints” or “I slept very late and lay a long while in the sunlight in a rare and delicious state of semi-consciousness”. Taken as a whole, Paddy’s time on the Holy Mountain seems to have been characterised by a string of devastating hangovers. Although heavily reworked, the original diary entries from this period give us a rare insight into the youthful Paddy, his insecurities, and his boyishness (“aided by the wind, I ran most of the way back, feeling fleeter than Hermes, and waving my long peasant’s staff overhead…”), mostly absent from the previous volumes and the main text of The Broken Road.

“Goodbyes”, writes Paddy earlier in the text, “were the only sad aspect of this journey. The whole itinerary was a chain of minor valedictions, more or less painful ones, seldom indifferent, only occasionally a relief.” The Broken Road goes a considerable way toward easing the great loss which many of Paddy’s friends and fans felt at his own departure. Perhaps this is not quite the book he intended it to be, but he is here, on every page. For that, and to his editors, we should be grateful.

Tom Sharrad is reading for an MSt in Global and Imperial History at Lincoln College, Oxford.