This book and its predecessor, A Time of Giftsand its successor, The Broken Road, which I've yet to readare about a walking tour the author took at nineteen years of age along the Danube in late 1934 and 1935. In A Time of Gifts he travels on foot from Londonhe hops a steamer across the channelto the bridge over the Danube just before Esztergom, Hungary. It's very difficult for me not to read the book through that historical lens. Many of the authors' hosts and friends disappear after the war, never to be heard from again. The author has just passed over into Romania and joined his hosts: Tibor's sister and some friends arrived from Vienna and there was much festivity and dressing up and picnics and finally a midnight feast on the very summit of the vine-clad hill. It's a remarkable perspective, pulled from his journals of that lost time and written 40-50 years after the fact.
He carries into the marches of Transylvania a beautiful little seventeenth-century duodecimo Horace from Amsterdam, the gift of a Baltic grandee exiled to Germany: It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather; the text had long ss, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the givers bookplate and a skeleton-leaf from his Estonian woods. Closing out the decade of the 1930s as the lover of a Moldavian princess, and residing with her old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning family, Leigh Fermor was one of the rare Western Europeans appreciative of the Nabokovian political positionthat is, he had equal contempt for the frank murderousness of Fascism and for the humanitarian pretentions of the Soviet Union: From the end of these travels to the War, I lived, with a years interruption, in Eastern Europe, among friends I must call old-fashioned liberals. Hes 95 now, living in Greece, in a house he designed and built (that casual English omni-competence!
Still, there are some terrific moments when, looking back from older age, Fermor considers how lucky he was to have this adventure: Life seemed perfect: kind, uncensorious hosts; dashing, resplendent and beautiful new friends against the background of a captivating town; a stimulating new language, strong and startling drinks, food like a delicious bonfire and a prevailing atmosphere of sophistication and high spirits that it would have been impossible to resist even had I wanted.
A Time of Gifts was a steady progression through the major cities and vistas of central Europe; Between the Woods and the Water finds PLF stopping for periods as long as seasons in pleasant quarters, taking in cities and spires and country houses for weeks on end, getting to know their people more intimately, indeed even having an extended love affair with the spectral Angéla (The moon had triumphed over the mute fireworks to the east and the north and all the dimensions had been reshuffled. PLFs mind finds correspondences in all the nooks and crannies of history, and in each place he comes upon the walls of time seem to disintegrate, all the events of history come tumbling through the present and we find ourselves situated, with Paddy, at the crest of some monumental peak of human endeavor. An early description of Charlemagne seems unusually apt to Paddy himself, and seems a proper encomium: Fireside mutterings, legends, centuries of bards and the lays of minnesingers have set him afloat somewhere between Alexander and King Arthur, where he looms, mural-crowned, enormous, voluminously bearded, overgrown with ivy and mistletoe, announced by eagles and ravens, dogged by wolf-hounds, accompanied by angels and oriflammes and escorted by a host of prelates and monks and paladins; confused with Odin, and, like Adonis, akin to the seasons, he is ushered on his way by earthquakes and eclipses of the sun and the moon and celebrated by falling stars and lightning; horns and harps waft him across the plains; they carry him through canyons and forests and up to steep mountain-tops until his halo is caught up in the seven stars of his Wain.
In this part of his travels Patrick Leigh Fermor walks on foot, for the most part, from Budapest to the Iron Gates, a gorge on the Danube River beween Romania and Serbia. Fermor is nineteen when he makes this trip. What is best is Fermors description of nature and the world as it used to be, in Hungary and Romania, in Transylvania. Would I ever be able to live off the hospitality of others in the way Fermor does? Fermor has an amorous affair with a married woman along the way, but he IS only nineteen. There is a map in the paper book, but it is almost impossible to follow since the places mentioned are often not indicated on the map. The best parts of the book are those where Fermor is roughing it, walking, by himself, looking at the animals the land, the sky.
Herein Leigh Fermor continues to demonstrate his powers of observation, his historical awareness, and his magnificent prose. Let me share a couple of examples of Leigh Fermors writing. Referring to the writings of would-be explainers, Leigh Fermor observes: Let us assume turns in a few pages into We may assume, which, in a few more, is As we have shown; and, after a few more pages yet, the shy initial hypothesis has hardened into a brazen established landmark, all the time with not an atom of new evidence being adduced.
The travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor are rare examples of travel writing as literature. This book and A Time of Gifts were written from notes produced in the 1930s.
At the start PLF points out that Books about this part of Europe incline to be chiefly, sometimes exclusively, devoted to politics, and thus abundance lessens my guilt about how small a part they play in this one, where they only appear when they impinge directly on the journey." For me, it felt like this book outlined significant politics and history - and as I am the first to admit - my knowledge and understanding of this part of Europe is negligible - I was constantly baffled with who the many people were, and what was going on.
A good insight to the area and though the book was written at a much later date the author used his diaries, notes, and recollections to try to keep out the hindsight.
Patrick Leigh Fermor's book is not just a travelogue, it is a piece of art, a fresco evoking the world, the people and the customs long gone.