Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor’

Peter Whitfield: Travel – A Literary History

January 18, 2018

51qmqSUU-+L._AC_US218_This was a well-produced book, from the Bodleian Library press (it’s nice to be able to say such a thing nowadays) and Peter Whitfield writes well as he surveys the territory of travel writing over the centuries. It does take a particular skill to know the range and scope of the territory, and then to select and summarise, to compare and comment, keeping everything under control. And there has to be an excellent bibliography – which there is. I have some gripes, which I’ll get on to later. But the book is a must for any serious reader of travel literature as a pointer to where to look next, what one may have missed and so on.

As I have often noticed, Whitfield also sees a progression over time in what has been done and then written about; heroism initially, then exploration; more recently travel and finally, in our day when there are no real unknowns, tourism and mass tourism. Similarly, written accounts have developed in scope, but also moved closer to being guidebooks.

I was pleased to encounter mentions of many writers I’d already read and enjoyed, as well as a few that I shall now be looking out for; a certain amount of downloading of historical texts from Project Gutenberg as well as the Internet Archive took place as I was reading. I also find travel writing eminently listenable-to as I’m driving, hearing about others’ travels as I’m on my own, far more modest trips.

One of the main things Whitfield notices and illustrates is the gradual relinquishing over time – though not probably fully until the last century – of the Westerner’s sense of superiority to the people he meets and the places he visits (for most of the travellers cited are male) and the realisation that the traveller is the foreigner in the lands he visits, rather than the inhabitants. Perhaps this may now seem rather obvious to us, but so much historical, religious and cultural baggage had to be abandoned before the penny dropped, as it were.

From the eighteenth century onwards, travel became more clearly the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Many of the least satisfactory accounts come from the nineteenth century, where the colonialist outlook is so much in the foreground, but once that era fades, in the twentieth century we are back with the learning traveller again.

However, curiously, as he approaches modern times, Whitfield’s vision seems to narrow rather, and he often focuses more on novelists and writers of fiction than travellers themselves, a side-track which, though occasionally enlightening, I found got in the way and led to gaps, and omissions of travellers I expected to encounter; his travellers became rather more exclusively British, too. I know one has to set boundaries somewhere, but again I found some choices more than a little curious. Things improved as we moved further into the twentieth century and writers such as Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris received their due.

In sum: not an easy task by any means; a very useful survey and helpful bibliography, and I’d have liked a few more non-British travellers included.


Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Broken Road

August 17, 2015

9781848547544The final volume of the trilogy is rather a mish-mash compared with the first two; it was incomplete at the time of Leigh Fermor‘s death, and peters out before he reaches Constantinople, which we never hear about. What there was seems to have been tidied up by his editors, who have appended a sizeable section of his diary extracts from his visits to the monasteries of Mount Athos… and these I found the most interesting part of the book.

The production of the book is clearly a tribute and a labour of love by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron; the map they include needed Leigh Fermor’s route and all the towns he visited marked on it, as in the previous volumes.

The descriptions of Bulgaria were interesting, although there was too much history; since I knew almost nothing about the country, I learnt a good deal. In the 1930s ‘yaourt’, as he calls it, was a foodstuff confined to that country…and I enjoyed its description as an utter novelty. One gets the sense of Romania and Greece casting their spell over him, and there are clues, in his portrayals of the local Jewish communities and relations between them and the locals, of how the exterminations ten years in the future would unfold. Writing as he did forty years after his travels, his comments on homosexuality among Bulgars and Romanians were enlightened, but in the unedited Athos diaries from the 1930s, it’s called an ‘abnormality…’

This is a more personal volume than the previous two: there is detail about his parents, family and childhood background, which helps enlighten some of his life and some aspects of his personality.

In the end, although I really enjoyed the three books, I felt the author too highly rated: he writes well, though his prose is rather overblown in places, and the raw material of the Athos diary at the end of this volume was actually far more convincing a travelogue; certainly to describe him as probably the greatest travel writer during his lifetime, as the wikipedia entry does, is to overstate the case: Robert Byron does Mount Athos better, and one could make a more convincing case for the greatness of, say, Wilfred Thesiger or Ella Maillart. However, I think I shall come back to these books in the future.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Between the Woods and the Water

August 9, 2015

9780719566967It’s good to read an educated and intelligent traveller reflecting on his journey, experiences and encounters. Patrick Leigh Fermor continues his journey towards Constantinople, passing through Hungary and Rumania (the pre-WW2 versions of these countries). I particularly enjoyed his fascination with the Hungarian language, and its differences from other European ones, only having affinities with Estonian and Finnish. I learned more about the pronunciation from him than I have from other sources; again, it seems to have little in common with the rules of other central European languages.

In this second volume, Leigh Fermor seems more detailed and more focused than in the first book; we get a detailed picture of a totally vanished world. He spends a good deal of time as the guest of a whole raft of minor aristocrats and ex-aristocrats of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire who, in the sociable and helpful ways of the area, are often happy to recommend him to someone further on the way… and so it goes. Only a decade or so after the dismantling and refashioning of Europe after the Great War, many traces of the old order still linger.

And, even though the next catastrophe is only six years off, there are very few real hints or inklings of what is to come, although, as he wrote many years after the experiences and travels, he can and sometimes does recall the consequences for those he met on his way. The Jewish communities of Hungary and Rumania, soon to be wiped out, are portrayed with both fascination and poignancy.

Sometimes Leigh Fermor comes across as over-fascinated with the details and complexities of central European history – there are too many obscure names even for me, with my interest in it all, to deal with – and he seems to have lost sight of his original intent (to walk to Constantinople) at times in this book. However, the redeeming feature is his genuine affection for the places, the peoples and their lives, which he always manages to convey effectively.

I’m planning on reading the final volume pretty soon…

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts

July 31, 2015

9780719566950I’ve been aware of his trilogy for a number of years and have finally got round to reading it: he walked from England to Constantinople in the 1930s and tells of his journey and encountered along the way…and yet the account itself was not written until more than forty years after the journey he describes.

He kept a detailed journal as he went, but the early stages of his account felt rather vague in terms of detail (later we learn that his possessions, including his first journal, were stolen from a hostel in Munich, which might go some way to explaining this) and his descriptions of places along the Meuse and the Rhine somewhat romanticised; but then we know that memory is kind to us, and tends to erase less pleasant events.

He writes very well, though, fluently and in the upbeat way that one would expect of someone not yet nineteen years old – optimistic, and the flow of his prose carries one along impressionistically, though at times feeling just a little overdone.

Walking, he meets all sorts of people, normally friendly, helpful, sociable and often offering rest and repose in their homes (it reminds me of my hitch-hiking experiences as a student); in this first volume he reaches Hungary. We learn of his background: clearly from a very comfortable social background, he nevertheless had a rebellious and unsuccessful school career and made a spontaneous decision to throw everything to the winds and set out on his travels. It’s a very interesting, ominous time in Europe: he crosses Germany at the end of 1933, so towards the end of Hitler’s first year in power…

At times I yearned for a bit more reflection on what he was seeing and experiencing and the people he was encountering, feeling him rather superficial – then realised I was being most unreasonable; I’m sixty and I would not have offered such analysis in my teens! A range of adventures is recounted, particularly from his stays in Vienna and Prague. He is clearly a well-educated person; he tries to describe the wonderful buildings and architecture he sees, but the prose becomes purple, overblown in places; it reminded me of Robert Byron’s descriptions at times, but Byron, though lyrical, seemed to have his feet much more firmly on the ground than Leigh Fermor

In the end I enjoyed this wander through times and places that have vanished forever; I shall move on to the second and third volumes in due course.

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