The acclaimed travel writer's youthful journey - as an 18-year-old - across 1930s Europe by foot began in A Time of Gifts, which covered the author's exacting journey from the Lowlands as far as Hungary. Picking up from the very spot on a bridge across the Danube where his readers last saw him, we travel on with him across the great Hungarian Plain on horseback, and over the Romanian border to Transylvania. The trip was an exploration of a continent which was already showing signs of the holocaust which was to come. Although frequently praised for his lyrical writing, Fermor's account also provides a coherent understanding of the dramatic events then unfolding in Middle Europe. But the delight remains in travelling with him in his picaresque journey past remote castles, mountain villages, monasteries and towering ranges.
In other circumstances we might be inclined to be rather disparaging about this endless procession of good luck and connections, but since we know that most of these wonderful characters are living on borrowed time, we can just sit back and enjoy it with him. And there is a lot to enjoy. We follow the author riding a borrowed horse over the Hungarian plain, dredging up forgotten fragments of Hindi and George Borrow to communicate with Gypsies in their own language, romping in cornfields with farmgirls, pursuing a clandestine liaison with a married woman during a Dornford Yates-style motor tour of the Carpathians and discovering common ground with an orthodox Rabbi in a remote logging camp.
There's an extra layer of irony when we read this book now - Leigh Fermor couldn't know when he was writing in 1986 that the map of Eastern Europe was about to be redrawn yet again. Possibly it was this that broke the flow — in any event, we're still waiting for the promised third part of the journey to Constantinople.
This book, the direct sequel to "A Time of Gifts", picks up exactly where the last book finished (on a bridge over the Danube outside Esztergom) and sees Leigh Fermor entering Hungary and then travelling through Transylvania before ending this volume at the Iron Gates, the spectacular gorge where the Danube cuts through the Transylvanian Alps in southern Romania. Entering these lands, he comes across the Roma people (then generally called Gypsies) and some of the earliest diversions concern young Patrick's explorations of the Roma language and its connections with other languages. In this, he references a writer he refers to just as "Borrow"; many modern readers may not know that he is referring to George Borrow, a Victorian philologist who also spent time living with the Roma in England and also undertook an extensive walk of his own (in his case, the length of Wales). His novels of Romany life, "Lavengro" and "The Romany Rye" were considerable best-sellers in their day, and his account of his Welsh travels, "Wild Wales", can still be found in some Welsh bookshops. He was one of the first people to popularise the linguistic connections between many European languages and the languages of northern India; the growth of academic studies of what is now commonly called "Indo-European" languages had been considerable during the 18th and early 19th centuries, but Borrow was one of the first writers to put these ideas before a wider public (though he looked more for a religious explanation for the commonality of tongues). Nonetheless, those interested in the Romany way of life would have absorbed some of their knowledge of the background to the language through Borrow, and Leigh Fermor certainly found it of use when travelling through Hungary and Romania.
Transylvania had been ceded to Romania as a part of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Treaty of Trianon which followed World War 1 in the south-east of Europe in 1919-20; Hungarian and Romanian were commonly spoken in Transylvania, but many of the gentry also spoke German because of their ancestry. Leigh Fermor comes across this much, especially as he continues his journey passing from manor house to Schloss to mansion, all arranged by the friends he made on the way. But his easy lodgings come to an end towards the end of this book as he moves further into the former Ottoman sphere of influence, and the family connections that stood him in good stead across Europe begin to peter out.
We see in this book the older Leigh Fermor getting more into his stride in relating the events of his youth to the future that was yet to be. News such as the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Dolfuss begins to impinge on his idyllic world, and at one point, he discusses the rise of Hitler in Germany with a Hassidic Jew and his sons in a cabin in a Romanian forest. No-one can comprehend the fate that awaits them; there have been pogroms before and this is just one more, says the older Jew; we shall weather this as we have done all the others. Leigh Fermor reports this without irony, but the pointedness of the encounter is plain for all to see. Elsewhere, he comments that his earlier self was experiencing a way of life that would be swept away within a few years; the older, more experienced Leigh Fermor puts this into the text rather more often in this book than in "A Time of Gifts". I think this reflects his increasing experience as an older man in writing his travel memoirs as much as reflecting his younger self's burgeoning awareness of changing times.
The younger Leigh Fermor also has other changes to contend with. In "A Time of Gifts", he mentions meeting various young women on his travels and even talks about flirting with some of them; but these are very much the jolly times of young people. In "Between the Woods and the Water", his relationships with women take a more serious turn, only partly due to the influence of one of his hosts in particular. There is an amorous encounter with some farm girls; and then there is a full-blown affair with a particular woman, simply identified as 'Angéla'. This bittersweet relationship - Angéla is unhappily married and only a few years his senior - presages a later episode in his life, when he lived with another woman in Romania for a number of years before the outbreak of war.
I related closely to "A Time of Gifts" because Leigh Fermor's journey of discovery through Europe reminded me so much of my own; we had similar experiences in seeing a land through new eyes. I was a bit worried that I would not relate so much to this book because I haven't travelled in Hungary or Romania. I needn't have worried; the echoes of the former Empire mean that there is an historical and cultural continuity between the books and the post-Communist opering up of these countries gives the modern reader a sense of catching up with a history and geography that remains little known in the UK.
My observations on George Borrow do make me think one thing; Leigh Fermor continues to wear his scholarship lightly, but we are in different times now and many readers will not have the same classical background to fall back on. Quite often there are Latin phrases dropped into the text without translation (or footnotes), and it is expected that the reader will know them. I'm fairly lucky; my own interest in history in general, and in Central and Eastern Europe history and culture in particular means that I've read Borrow, or (thinking back to "A Time of Gifts") Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Švejk". Others will not have this background; a reading list would have been an ideal addition to the book.
Otherwise, this is a remarkable continuation of Leigh Fermor's story. Its conclusion, the unfinished "The Broken Road", promises much, especially as Leigh Fermor changes his objective and heads south through Bulgaria and into Greece - very much terra incognito in those days.
The opening words of Between the Woods and the Water are ”Perhaps I had made too long a halt on the bridge …” and his readers might agree as we were left stranded on the edge of Bulgaria, thirsting for the third and final volume of his charming and charmed trip from England to the Black Sea. Paddy died in 2011 without publishing an end to this fascinating walk.
Now his long-time publisher John Murray announces – to a collective sigh of relief - it will publish the final volume of Paddy Leigh Fermor's journey to Constantinople in 2013, drawing from his diary at the time and an early draft he wrote in the 1960s.
All of his work is eminently readable of course and even the denser works can be re-read with enjoyment, but the two volumes of his youthful walk are so beautifully written and are so full of the peoples he met that his readers need this closure.
In this he carries on in the same manner as before, walking and meeting people, sharing wine and food, and laughter. In the background there is the spectre that is the Nazi party, and he mentions
He spends a few months in Rumania / Transylvania and has an affair with a married woman. And meets those peoples in this complex landscape, who come from protestant catholic, orthodox and Romany backgrounds. It is an intense time as Europe slides towards war, and this comes across in the book.
His descriptive prose is beautiful to read, he has a way of capturing what he saw in such a beautiful way. There is an awful lot of history in here too, and whilst some of it is fascinating, you can loose yourself with the all the noble families of Europe. This was written a long time after the events, and whilst he has captured the time with his masterful use of the language, I think that it lacks a little something that it may have had if it was written soon after the journey.
the emphasis on the homes, architecture, books, and intricacies in the lives of the semi-rich doesn't measure up to peasants and sleeping in haystacks.
...and refusal to acknowledge the horror of Hitler felt contrived or incomprehensible...
...also hard to tell how he actually felt about "gypsies" and Jewish people.