Wednesday, 30 April 2014

'The Broken Road', Patrick Leigh Fermor

Last week I finished reading 'The Broken Road - from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos' by Patrick Leigh Fermor, or rather to be accurate, written by Patrick Leigh Fermor and assembled and edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.  It is the third and final book describing the journey the eighteen year old Leigh Fermor made on foot in the year 1933 from London to Constantinople - one imperial capital to another.  The first two books - 'A Time for gifts' and 'Between the Woods and the Water' were published in 1977 and 1986 respectively.   The third installment never appeared in Leigh Fermor's life time, finding it difficult and then, as age over took him, impossible to complete.  I have to confess I read this sort of trilogy in a funny order starting with the second book (bought at the superb 'Byzantium' exhibition at the R.A.) before reading the first book - alas unfinished, lost him somewhere in Austria.  Another reason for this post is to show you some work by John Craxton - the book covers for those first two books.  I presume the two men must have known each other living in Greece, certainly they shared a love for the place.

The cover for 'The Broken Road' has been designed by Ed Kluz, who just so happens to be one of my favourite contemporary artists.  The publishers, Murray, couldn't have chosen better.

The three books are a outstanding literary achievement, evoking a world that has almost vanished, a world to be destroyed by totalitarianism, war and Modernity.  A sense of loss, a poignancy, unsurprisingly, pervades the books, and I detect the influence of Chateaubriand's 'Memoires d'outre-tombe'.  That remarkable journey also marks a change in Leigh Fermor's life, from a directionless teenager, expelled from several schools, to living a life that we mere mortals can only dream off - an interesting War, and then a life living on the Greek isles writing travel books.
'The Broken Road' starts with Leigh Fermor crossing the Danube into Bulgaria and follows him as he explores the lansdscapes - he has a keen eye for the natural world - and culture.  He travels south into the valley of the Maritza before heading north back over the Danube to Bucharest - the cosmopolitan life there is much to his liking, so much so he would return there later to live for four years with Princess Balasha Cantacuzino, a member of an ancient Byzantine noble family who had one member ascend the Imperial throne.  With the onset of Autumn he resumes his journey returning to Bulgaria and the Black Sea Coast. He visits Mesembria, and is nearly drown on his journey south from there. The continuous narrative finishes abruptly at Burgas.
As he traveled Leigh Fermor kept a notebook/diary and the editors use that to complete the journey to the Imperial City.  However, as the they themselves readily admit, the notes Leigh Fermor took of his time in the city are scanty; there is no record, for instance of the impressions made on him by the  architecture.  The narrative does not however end there.  With a letter of admittance from the Ecumenical Patriarch he travelled into northern Greece and the great monastic republic of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, one of the most important centres of Orthodox spirituality. I think it is telling that the most complete section of the diary covers the time he spent on the Holy Mountain.  It is tempting to see his journey as one of faith a sort of pilgrimage, perhaps one not conventionally religious (I'm not sure whether Leigh Fermor converted to Orthodoxy, but I would like to think he did) but a search for the Pre-Modern

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