Patrick Leigh Fermor made a practice of bringing a gentle but serious touch to writing about a difficult life. As a child, effectively abandoned by his parents, who had been posted to India, he was hard to corral; brilliant, literary and multilingual, he preferred to spend as little time in the classroom as possible. Ever the wanderer, he set off at the age of 18 to walk from Holland to Istanbul, his destination the onetime capital of the eastern Mediterranean world that Leigh Fermor, who spoke Greek like a native, had decided he really belonged to.
So set out he did, in December of 1933, just in time to wander into Germany to witness the first moments of the Nazi regime in power. The sight of earnest young men in brown shirts and red and black armbands urged him to move a little faster, but everywhere in his path lay one nationalist furor after another: Italian irredentism, surging Hungarian fever, pan-Slavicism and everywhere, of course, a deep-seated fear of Jews and gypsies and a suspicion of the British, all of which would soon become manifest in murder.
Leigh Fermor—Paddy to his friends—never reached Istanbul. Having come without a few hundred kilometers of it on that long walk, though, he lived for decades in the Greek world, having first been improbably heroic in the fight against the Nazi invaders of Crete, then having taken up residence in the southern Peloponnese. More than 40 years after his trek, he wrote the first volume of his memoir about it, A Time of Gifts (1977). Between the Woods and the Water, taking him to the border of Bulgaria, followed nearly a decade later.
And what of the third volume, now published as The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos? Well, for complicated reasons, it sat in various forms of completeness and incompleteness in the London offices of Leigh Fermor’s publisher.
Artemis Cooper, the English biographer and historian who, with travel writer Colin Thubron, prepared The Broken Road for publication, suggests that Leigh Fermor had been wrestling with old memories for two decades by the time that second volume appeared. Naturally, his many admirers—and he had written many other books in the time since—peppered him with questions about when the third would come out. “I think part of him felt completely written out on the subject,” she says. Besides, he had changed: The diary that he had kept, covering the last of the trip, pointedly revealed the difference between the callow youth he had been and the now aging man he had become. It “had also revealed,” Cooper adds, “the clash between the 19-year-old Paddy as he then was—cocky, anglocentric, slightly Woosterish, sometimes touchingly vulnerable—and the more rounded, poetic figure that Paddy’s writing had turned him into.”
It did not help that his publisher had died and that no one was goading him to finish, or that in his last years Leigh Fermor himself had terrible troubles both with his eyesight and a strong desire to enjoy the sun and the lemon trees on his Greek patio rather than endure the loneliness of his desk. Still, he kept at the memoir, drafting bits here and bits there. He must have gotten caught up at points in remembering those long-ago days—he had, for one thing, a preternaturally fortunate habit of enlisting the help of beautiful young women, many of them rich and powerful, all quick to feed and house him.
Cooper notes that sometimes the manuscript gallops along at so breakneck a speed that the prose has trouble keeping up with the thinking. At such moments, her editorial work involved breaking up and slowing down the sentences. Leigh Fermor spoke many languages, but not all the ones he encountered, which didn’t keep him from pouring Romanian, Turkish, and Bulgarian words and expressions into the text, all of which Cooper had checked for accuracy, along with the abundant Greek, Latin, French and German. Yet, she notes, even though Leigh Fermor was no longer around to object, they were scrupulous in honoring his intentions. She tells Kirkus, “We cut certain repetitions, and there was one passage of several pages which he had wanted cut, and we cut that. But it’s all his words—no words of ours have been inserted.”
And why didn’t Leigh Fermor get all the way to his destination? For that, read the trilogy, one of the most thoughtful and vivid in the annals of travel writing in English. There are reasons for those qualities: For all his manly heroism, Cooper notes, he was perhaps our equivalent of a certain French writer who made a mental shrine of a delicate cookie. “The books are not just about a journey,” she says. “They are about memory and the act of remembering, over a long period of time. Paddy was a great reader and student of Proust, and he understood a lot about memory.”
He understood much about life, too, and we are fortunate to have now the closing pages of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s greatest literary achievement.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor of Kirkus Review.