I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful travel books about 30 years ago (when Penguin books were $5.95) and they’ve stayed on the at-hand shelves ever since. The recent publication of his last (and posthumous), The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos was reason enough to order from amazon.uk, and I’ve been enjoying its narrative and geographical/historical felicities since its arrival a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a wonderful self-reflective passage that goes right to the heart of problems of the aging mind:
…two main problems beset the very curious and enjoyable task of compiling this private [mental] archaeology. The first is a sudden blur, when exact memory conks out and a stretch of itinerary looms eventlessly ahead and no pencil mark on the map comes to my help. This has occurred on several occasions and will again, no doubt. At first these blackouts filled me with distress. I would gaze from page to map with growing misery as the minutes passed and nothing, absolutely nothing, surfaced. Not now. I interpret this blank as an indication that there was nothing, for my private purposes, memorable there. No reflection on the landscape, the villages, towns even –or their denizens. Often I must have wandered through, or just missed, or completely failed to remember, owing to some private defect, buildings of tremendous interest (that I would give perhaps a great deal to see now), whole mountain ranges teeming with history and with natural wonders, political trends and events of momentous importance. This last consideration prompts the thought that even after such a long time-lag, this must be one of the unscoopiest travel accounts ever to see the light. My private let-out here is that this is neither a cultural handbook, a guide, nor a political or military report. (It is impolitic to dwell any longer on these shortcomings.) The cheerful obverse of all these lacunae is that they save us both from drowning in the indiscriminate flood of total recall.
The second problem is the opposite of all this: while piecing together fragments which have lain undisturbed for two decades and more, all at once a detail will surface which acts as potently as the taste of madeleine which made the whole of Proust’s childhood unfurl. The haul of irrelevant detail, interlocking trains of thought and associations, and the echoes of echoes re-echoed and ricocheted, is overwhelming, and in the hopes of attaining some redeeming shadow of symmetry and balance, a lot of this irrelevant catch must be thrown away again to swim back to the dark pools where it has been lurking all this time… (pp 153-154)
Some other Patrick Leigh Fermor resources:
Anthony Lane’s 2006 New Yorker profile (full text available to subscribers, but see here for toothsome extracts)
Colin Thubron’s 2008 NYRB review of 5 books, which ends with this:
…It is a beguiling picture: a prelapsarian world sweetened by memory, perhaps, and by the author’s genial nature. For certainly that innocence did not belong to the continent Leigh Fermor was crossing, which had suffered an atrocious war only fifteen years before. It lay rather in the vision of the gifted youth who, ashplant in hand, went striding into his own Europe, and who would bring it back at last, still rich and vivid, after half a century.
Mary Beard’s 2005 London Review of Books review of Roumeli and Mani
I’m always pleased to turn a corner and discover something I’d known nothing about, another oddly-shaped puzzle piece that must fit in somewhere. Recent case-in-point: at my much-loved local indy bookstore I stumbled upon a book about books in Renaissance Venice, Alessandro Marzo Magno’s Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book and it begged to be taken home (visiting a good bookstore is for me akin to ‘going to look at a puppy’, about which my sister said “there’s no such thing as…”). Started reading it, and it’s delightful in several dimensions. For one thing, the translation from the Italian is spritely and you have the sense that the original must be especially well-written; and it’s stuffed with tempting asides. Here’s a description of the contents of a bookshop:
…prints, views of cities near and far, images of people that viewers would be unlikely ever to see first-hand; books in foreign or remote languages, but spoken by many visitors to the city, which as a melting pot is perhaps rivaled only by present-day New York. So here we have works in Armenian, a Bohemian bible, a text in the Glagolitic alphabet of medieval Croatia, another in Cyrillic, and, naturally, given that the Jewish ghetto in Venice, established in 1516, is the first in history, numerous volumes in Hebrew… (pg 17)
Well, ‘Glagolitic’ isn’t breakfast-table conversation out our way, or wasn’t until today. Good old Wikipedia is right there with everything I wanted to know and then some, and the facts are duly filed away against the day when the knowledge might come in handy in some as-yet-unforeseen way. And so it goes, day by day and book by book.
I found this via John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” from New York Times Magazine. I’ve known the tune “Last Kind Words” for a long time, and the legends accompanying its obscurity too. Kronos Quartet certainly does it justice. You might want to hear the 1930 original too:
I’ve been reading in Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, most recently “The Moslem Wife”, and no doubt that brought this lyric to mind first thing this morning –a song I know from a 1952 Dunster Dunces record that I wish I could find again:
We never mention Aunt Clara
Her picture is turned to the wall
For she lives on the French Riviera
Mother says she is dead to us all
She used to sing hymns in the old village choir
She used to teach Sunday School class
At playing the organ she never would tire
But those dear days are gone now and past
With presents he tempted and lured her to sin
Her innocent virtue to smirch
But Aunt Clara was strong and she never gave in
'Til he gave her the keys to the church
They said that Hell Fire would punish her sin
She'd burn for her carryings-on
But just at this moment she's toasting her skin
In a villa near Old Avignon
We never mention Aunt Clara
But I think that when I grow up tall
I shall go to the French Riviera
And let Mother turn me to the wall
A bit of Googly diligence turns up other versions, which it’s probably just as well I didn’t encounter as a precocious 10-year old. One such, well worth your time if you are so inclined, boasts this explanatory verse:
So then on the organ she'd practice and play;
The preacher would pump up and down.
His wife caught him pumping her organ one day
And that's why Aunt Clara left town.
Honeymonstercxix, channeling Hamish Imlach, bless him, knows that one:
…and there are others that may be of interest is Honeymonster’s oeuvre too.
And there’s more backstory, assigning the original to Ruth and Eugene Willis ca. 1936, further elaborated and perhaps inspired by Irene Adler, of Sherlock Holmes fame. Or not. Perhaps Library of Congress has the last word. Or not.