Finding yourself

In 1934 a young man set out from London to walk to Constantinople. The walk was to change his life. He was at a loose end, constantly in trouble at school, didn't really seem to fit in anywhere. The walk let him discover himself as he discovered the people and history of Europe, and at the conclusion of the walk he had fallen in love with Greece, which was to be an essential part of the rest of his life.

Patrick Leigh Fermor didn't write about his journey until 40 years after its conclusion. His first book (previously reviewed) which took him from Holland to Hungary meeting Nazis, gypsies and noblemen along the way, A time of gifts, was met with universal acclaim, as was the second volume Between the woods and the water, which took Fermor from Hungary to Bulgaria, moving extremely slowly as he moved from one aristocratic family to another, sleeping at the homes of princes and shepherds, and breathing in the history of Europe as he went.

Between the woods finished with the words TO BE CONTINUED, and every lover of Leigh Fermor's beautiful writing waited expectantly for the third and final volume. We all expected to wait a while. It had taken the author over 40 years to write volume 1, and volume 2 appeared 9 years later. But then.....just as I reviewed A time of gifts I was saddened to hear that Leigh Fermor had died, there was to be no end to his wonderful journey.

However....I happened to be in my local library the other day and spotted The broken road. 

He made it to Constantinople, and, even better, had written about much of the journey. In the 1960s Fermor had started to write about the end stage of the journey through Bulgaria to Constantinople. The volume finished rather abruptly for an unknown reason before getting to Constantinople, but it had already been partially edited by Fermor with a view to publication; and had been the inspiration for the trilogy. There was also a diary of the Constantinople part of the journey, and another diary of his subsequent journey to Mount Athos. Colin Thubron, Fermor's literary executor and his biographer, Artemis Cooper, got together and finally produced an ending to Fermor's travels across Europe combining his journals.

It's important to say that this doesn't feel as though it's been heavily edited posthumously. Broken Road lacks many of the long discursions on art and history familiar to readers from earlier volumes. It also tends to be more truthful about the young Fermor's sentiments and prejudices. I suspect that had Fermor lived longer, more would have been added to the volume, and much would have been taken out. The section on Constantinople is disappointingly short, whether he chose not to write much about it, whether sections were lost, or whether, for some reason, this section has been heavily edited, I don't know.

But the section on Mount Athos and the close of Fermor's time in Bulgaria are numinous moments. If A time of gifts was a middle-aged man's look back at his youth, and Between the woods and the water was an elderly man's yearning for a time when he had been completely happy, The broken road takes us right back to that youth. Careering across Europe, making mistakes, falling in love, getting in and out of scrapes (there is a wonderfully funny passage in which he accidentally spends a few days in a brothel in Bucharest), and then, he has a life changing moment. On his way out of Bulgaria he falls in with some Greek shepherds and falls in love. Not with the shepherds themselves, but with their "Greekness", you suddenly realise that this life, these people are going to be inextricably bound up with the author as long as he shall live. A feeling that is further enhanced during his journey around Mount Athos.

Earlier in the book, Fermor bemoans the fact that often when you meet someone or do something, you fail to realise that this is going to be the turning point of your life, perhaps there should be some sign that everything is going to change from now on? This meeting with the shepherds is his moment.

The broken road may not be a perfect book. I'm sure that if Fermor had lived longer and edited the third volume as he wished it would be phrased rather more beautifully, there would be more of Fermor's admirable and enjoyable erudition. But there is something wonderfully joyous about the volume as it stands - a young man falling into the life that was quite clearly meant for him. How appropriate that this trilogy of travel books should have come full circle following the author's death, back to a young man tramping across a Europe that would soon be forever changed. A joyful read, and some of the very best travel writing around.


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