reading Patrick Leigh Fermor

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, 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

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