Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Reading (and not reading) Fermor

Christmas 2010: My dear daughter-in-law, the granddaughter of a Nobelist on the Berkeley faculty, brought up unconventionally in Berkeley (as was conventional in Berkeley), the owner of a feedstore in Mendocino county, gives me a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

I read it the following spring, and by May 15 had also read its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water.

Then last month, July 7 to be exact, I read the final book in the trilogy, The Broken Road. I know these dates because I have the habit of writing the dates I begin (usually) and finish (nearly always) a book on the first and last page (respectively). I also tend to tick margins and write notes or at least page numbers down on the end-paper, though these days I’ll sometimes just photograph a relevant paragraph, either for posting here as a Commonplace, or for filing in a folder of Reading Notes someplace.

(Technical note: I convert the photo on my iPhone using an app called Pixter, and usually file the result in Evernote.)

A search of this blog finds Fermor mentioned only twice so far:
December 30 2011: So many books read this last year, so few of them commented on here. End-of-year reflections will haunt me for the next seven weeks, I'm sure — I'll be too busily distracted for them after that — so I won't anguish over my failure to share notes on Frederic Tuten, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Carolyn Brown, or Patti Smith, to cite only the most impressive of the authors I've learned from recently.

November 21 2012 (written in Australia): The shop reminded me of those of fifty years ago, a series of small rooms with crowded shelves, well enough organized but better suited to browsing than go-and-get shopping (except that my age and size make the necessary floor-crouching difficult between close-set bookshelves). I looked for a copy of something by Patrick Leigh Fermor to give to my brother, who's done his share of global wandering, but found only the new biography, which I must hasten to obtain. (It was far too large to carry on the airplane). What I did find was [Laurens van der Post’s] Venture to the Interior, in a dog-eared Penguin paperbound that must be thirty years old.

P. Leigh Fermor has been recalcitrant, mysteriously so. He’s considered one of the great travel writers. He began traveling in December 1934, only sixteen, by setting out on foot, with five pounds sterling in his pocket and another five promised monthly at waypoints, heading from his rural English home for Istanbul. December, 1934, crossing Germany on Foot! What was his mother thinking of?

He kept a journal, but lost it, later found it, lost it again. He met rich men and paupers, royalty, diplomats, shepherds, thieves. He supported himself for a while painting portraits of strangers. He fell, memorably, in love. He struck up amazing friendships.

And he walked — which is what excited me, in 2011, when my own recent walk from Geneva to Nice was still in my mind (as it continues to be; will always be).

A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977; it was later reissued by the New York Review of Books; I don’t know what brought it to my daughter-in-law’s attention. I read it hungrily, excited by the walk, but also impressed by Leigh Fermor’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity (history, art, food, languages, high and vernacular culture) and his detailed, enthusiastic accounts. As soon as possible I went on to Between the Woods and the Water (1986; also reissued by NYRB). Since my grandson Henry, who’d accompanied me through the Alps, had already read the first book, I lent him the sequel as soon as I’d finished it.

Then I waited, impatiently, for the third and final volume. Trouble was, Leigh Fermor had not written it, and he was getting on, and it was likely it would never appear. But, of course, it has appeared, in a sense — posthumously, edited by Artemis Cooper. (It was Cooper's biography, Patick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, that I'd neglected to buy in Australia; it too is now available from NYRB.)

No one would claim the result would have satisfied the author, who’d put the project aside decades before, then was talked into revisiting it in his final years. I’m sure his mind was sound to the end; but I think he may have lost interest.* It had been a long time since he’d finished the second volume; a much longer time since the events themselves had unrolled.

Still, *The Broken Road* is a wonderful book, vivid, interesting, a bit nostalgic. It made me want to see Bucharest again, and explore Bulgaria. It certainly makes me want to hit the trail again soon — I’d hoped to get up to the Sierra this summer, but that looks increasingly unlikely.

But here’s the reason I’m posting this: Lindsey finally got around to A Time of Gifts, and was as impressed as I, and wanted to go on immediately to Between the Woods and the Water. Would I find it for her? Sure, I said, it’s around here somewhere. (FERE ALIQVVBI HIC ILLVD SCIO, says Bhishma’s handsomely calligraphed note, pinned next to the computer.)

Trouble was, it was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered loaning it. Never do that with a book you love. Finally I ordered another copy, reasoning the loan had turned into a gift in its turn, and why not?

Immediately, of course, the first copy materialized — on the dining table, in plain sight.

This surpasses all rational reality, I said to Lindsey, who was not so sure. I’ve been reading (and tremendously enjoying Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven these last few days, and the oddly erratic realities enveloping his characters may have begun to appear here…

*I may be projecting here. I've dropped more than one project after too many years of fussing…

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