Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Those who’ve read my blog or who’ve been around me, know of my enthusiasm for the writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, especially his most famous work, A Time of Gifts. After learning about this author and his work at JLF (Jaipur Literature Festival), I read A Time of Gifts. After our second visit to JLF, where I heard his biographer, Artemis Cooper and her husband, Antony Beevor, both speak about Fermor, I bought the remaining two books of this trilogy for my Kindle.

But I didn’t read them. Why not?

          For some time, if you’d have asked me I would have attributed this to my fickle reading habits—so many books, so little time—I’m like a kid in a candy shop. Plus, one enthusiasm gives way to another with changing circumstances and then I’m off down another path. All of this is true, but I don’t think it quite captures the deeper motive for my procrastination. After all, am I not too old to suffer the comparison to a kid in a candy shop? (Well, not really.) But after further reflection, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I was savoring the anticipation of the next installment, Between the Woods and the Water. I needed the right occasion, as one does for the enjoyment of a fine wine kept for years in the cellar. (Or, as our modest circumstances dictate, a pretty good wine for a couple of months in the cupboard.) I needed the right occasion to partake once again of Fermor’s enchanting—and may I say? —intoxicating prose. And this summer the right occasion arrived.

          The occasion arrived because we were moving t0 Bucharest, Romania. Not long after arriving in Bucharest, we traveled to Budapest, Hungary, returning to Bucharest by train through Transylvania, an itinerary that roughly matched that of Fermor (although he doesn’t visit Bucharest until the third and final volume of his account). The perfect occasion presented itself, and I once again could savor the superb vintage of Fermor’s prose. 

Passport photo of the dashing young vagabond
          For those that don’t know the backstory, young Patrick Leigh Fermor—Paddy to his friends—set off at age 18 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as he insisted on calling Istanbul). In 1977 he published the first installment of his account of that adventure, A Time of Gifts, and in 1986 he published this, the second installment, Between the Woods and the Water. (The third and final volume stalled and was published posthumously through the efforts of Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.) In each volume he recounts his walk, taking his time along his and the reader’s way to elucidate about the countryside, the history, and the people with whom he inevitably makes an easy but lasting bond. Paddy sleeps in elegant Budapest homes, in gypsy camps, and in old Transylvanian estate houses; in other words, with those at the pinnacle of society and those at the bottom. Paddy’s fabled charm and easygoing manner allow him to bond at every level.

The man of memory & imagination
          For us to have just recently visited the grand environs of Budapest and the dark forests and sunny valleys of Transylvania adds a unique—but not necessary—vividness to his tales. With Fermor’s graceful and vivid prose, transports the reader to his remote and enchanted world via the written word. Between the Woods and the Water is not a diary—although he kept diaries and drew upon what he had available to him so many years later—and so we have the perspective of both the young Fermor and the mature, reflective Fermor in these pages. A double treat, a two-for-the-price-of-one.

          Fermor can describe nature scenes as few others can; for instance, watching an eagle preen itself takes the better part of a page. He also details the history and architecture of the regions, cities, villages, and estates that he visits. And not least among his skills are his descriptions of the gypsies, shepherds, aristocrats, bon vivants, and beautiful women that he befriends, and his adventures with them. His powers of observation, imagination, and memory are astonishing. Perhaps his power of invention is most impressive of the three, as one doubt that anyone’s memory could be so fine as his, but no matter—the beauty of his prose patches all into one seamless cloth of beauty that disarms any quibbling about the veracity of memory.

          Except for riding horseback across the Hungarian plain and motoring around Transylvania as a part of a clandestine threesome, Paddy walked the full journey.

          Fermor also delights in language, picking up bits of Hungarian and some Romanian along his way after having earlier mastered some German. (I believe he came pre-loaded with French and Latin. The Latin, by the way, came in handy in a later adventure.) He delights in the local languages as he does the local architecture and history.

          Fermor’s book is a joy to read, even more so given my recent acquaintance with some of the lands he traverses in this installment. He ends Between the Woods and the Water with “to be concluded” similar to the “to be continued” that ended A Time of Gifts, but as you’ll learn, it almost didn’t come to pass.  

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