The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, John Murray, RRP£25, 384 pages
Patrick Leigh Fermor was just 18 when he set off on a Dutch steamer from Tower Bridge, a feckless youth who had been thrown out of several schools. Later a war hero, he didn’t write up his famous 1930s journey “on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople” until middle age, and moreover had lost all but one of his original notebooks. Yet A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) would be hailed as some of the finest travel writing of the 20th century. This was prose embroidered with gold thread, heavy with clauses and jewelled with erudition, dazzling as any Byzantine cope.
Although Leigh Fermor ended Between the Woods and the Water with the confident words “To be Concluded”, the projected trilogy was still incomplete when he died in June 2011, at the age of 96. Since then, however, his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer Colin Thubron have edited Leigh Fermor’s work-in-progress into The Broken Road, which takes up his epic journey at the Bulgarian border and documents a later stay on Mount Athos. It is not the final volume that Leigh Fermor would have liked to bring out but, as the editors write in their foreword, there were signs that towards the end of his life he wished to relinquish the task to other hands.
The Broken Road has been woven together from two unpublished sources, both of which predate A Time of Gifts. Most of the new book is based on “A Youthful Journey”, which began as a 5,000-word magazine article commissioned in 1962 but swiftly grew to be 70 pages long (Leigh Fermor was every commissioning editor’s worst nightmare). A final chapter is drawn from the only extant contemporaneous record of his exploits, the “Green Diary”.
Given this long and complex history, it’s a surprise to find that the book is so readable, and so nearly complete. Perhaps it was never finished because the strain of being known as one of the finest prose stylists of his generation proved too much for Leigh Fermor’s perfectionism; or perhaps the gulf between the youthful “Paddy” and the now elderly writer was simply too wide to bridge.
The Broken Road begins with the hobo Paddy tramping along the Danube to Sofia, where, typically for him, he is swept up by the British consul for a few days of hot baths and good meals. At a monastery he meets up with a young student called Nadejda and spends an idyllic few days with her in Plovdiv. She is merely the first in a sequence of unforgettable characters that he meets on the road.
Leigh Fermor was known to have conflated people and places, to have played a little fast and loose with detail in the interests of a good story. One of the most stunning setpieces in this book is the account of a groping journey across rocks by the Black Sea at night. He stumbles and drops his torch, seeing it glimmer, 25 feet down in the icy water. In danger of freezing to death before dawn, he stumbles upon a cave, where fishermen and goatherds warm him by their fire, tend his wounds, feed him and finally begin to sing and play, one of them donning a cheesecloth like a yashmak and performing a coquettish dance: “a mixture of virago, houri and the Widow Twankey”.
It’s a magnificent passage but, as Cooper points out in her 2012 biography of Leigh Fermor, it can’t have happened exactly as written because he was not alone on this part of the walk; the story was conflated with a later episode on Mount Athos when it was written up as a travel piece for Holiday magazine. Years later, the two had fused to become a dearly held memory.
The first section, then, has all the complications of the Leigh Fermor approach. But if there’s any suspicion that he made himself into a more impressive figure in the rewriting, the Mount Athos diary – untampered with by his older self – reminds us what an extraordinary young man he was. He bounces from monastery to monastery with his three weeks’ knowledge of Greek (at this stage he was more familiar with Bulgarian) and cherished copy of Byron. The sheer zest with which he delineates each monastery, its history, setting and eccentric monks, is infectious. This early style is more immediate, more youthful; a pleasure to read in a wholly different way from the later magnificence.
Istanbul (or Constantinople, as Leigh Fermor preferred to call it) was something of a let-down after his picaresque adventures. The editors print his diary entries, which are brief and merely social. “Phoned up Djherat Pasha, for whom Count Teleki gave me an introduction at Budapest, he invited me to visit him that day, so I took boat from under Galata bridge … ”
If his destination was a disappointment, perhaps the best answer comes from the Alexandrian poet CP Cavafy, whose work Leigh Fermor would surely have known: “Ithaka gave you the beautiful voyage; / Without her you would never have started your journey. / She has nothing else to give you.” The long journey of Patrick Leigh Fermor has at last reached its close.