On the Road Again: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Memoir, Finished At Last

One of the greatest travel books ever published, the late Patrick Leigh Fermor’s two-volumes of his walk across Europe in the 1930s, is finally finished.

11.10.13 10:45 AM ET

In 1933, at the age of 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, or Constantinople, as he always called it.  He reached his destination at the end of 1934, after many memorable adventures and encounters, but he did not write about the journey until nearly thirty years later.

By then, he was a war hero, celebrated for his part in the abduction of a German general in occupied Crete in 1944, and a writer whose books included two loving tributes to his adopted home of Greece.  He was supposed to be writing a 5, 000 word article for an American magazine, but within months, he had written 84, 000 words.  Most of the book, which he provisionally entitled A Youthful Journey, covered the last stage of his walk, between Bulgaria and Turkey but when he returned to the subject in the early 1970s, he started again at the beginning.  In the next twenty years, he wrote two celebrated books that covered the first two thirds of a journey that has been described as ‘the longest gap year in history’: A Time of Gifts, which was published in 1977, took him from his lodgings in London to the borders of Hungary, and Between the Woods and the Water, which appeared nine years later, when he was 71, took him as far as the Iron Gates, a gorge on the River Danube where A Youthful Journey began.

Between the Woods and the Water ended with the promise that the account was ‘To Be Concluded’.  Since Leigh Fermor had already written a draft of the third volume, he must have hoped that finishing it would be relatively easy. Yet his literary executors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper (who is also his biographer) say that the “commitment was to dog Paddy for the rest of his life.”

Vol III had not appeared when Leigh Fermor died in June 2011, at the age of 96.  Most people feared it never would, but recently, it transpired that he had been working on the manuscript of A Youthful Journey until weeks before his death, and it was published in the U.K. last month as The Broken Road. The title was not his—Cooper and Thubron chose it as a way of indicating that it is not “the polished and reworked book he would have most desired,” though Artemis Cooper insists that The Broken Road is nonetheless “vintage Leigh Fermor”: “The absolute tragedy was that he wasn’t able to bring it out and enjoy its reception,” she said, when I met her in London recently.

‘The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor. 398 p. NYRB Classics. $21.67.

Ironically, one of the things that prevented him completing ‘Vol III’ may have been a surplus of information. Leigh Fermor lost the first three diaries he kept as he made his way from London to Romania, but he rediscovered the one that covered the last section of the walk soon after he finished the draft of A Youthful Journey.  It was saved by his first love, Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian aristocrat he met in Athens in 1935, and lived with until the outbreak of the Second World War. She had taken it with her when she was evicted from her family estate, and she gave it back to him in 1965, when he went back to Romania and found her living in drastically reduced circumstances under Communist rule. Leigh Fermor used to say that the loss of his first three diaries “aches, like an old wound in cold weather,” and yet it allowed him to recreate the early stages of his walk from a mixture of memory and imagination. The re-discovery of the final diary was not the boon he might have hoped: “It brings him slap up against two things—what actually happened, and the young, callow, Anglo-centric, slightly Woosterish, touchingly vulnerable young man that he was. He wasn’t quite the poetic figure that his writing later turned him into,” says Artemis Cooper. “I think the diary really shook his confidence in the text of A Youthful Journey, and I think that’s why he put it aside.”

Cooper knew Paddy, as he was always known, long before she began working on his biography in 2004. Her grandfather, the diplomat Duff Cooper, her grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, and her father, the writer and historian John Julius Norwich, all knew him well and she met him in Greece for the first time when she was 17—a moment she refers to in passing in Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, her scrupulously balanced life, which came out in 2012. At first, she was worried that she would never be able to break through the “dazzling torrent” of conversation that was partly his way of disguising himself. She discovered that helping him tidy up his papers in his study in the house he and his wife built for themselves in the village of Kardamyli on the Mani peninsula in Greece was a good way of teasing out reminiscences, but she could never persuade him to let her see the manuscript of A Youthful Journey, which he kept in three black ring binders.

His struggle to write ‘Vol III’ produced moments of unintended comedy.  His wife Joan, thought he might have made the breakthrough in 1991 when he started “working feverishly in his study … and finally emerged clutching a sheaf of paper,” writes Cooper: “I knew it could be done!’ he told Joan, and just as she was about to congratulate him he added: “I knew P.G. Wodehouse would translate into Greek!” The polyglot Leigh Fermor, who relished literary games and challenges of all kinds, had just translated “The Great Sermon Handicap” from The Inimitable Jeeves.

It was Cooper herself who initiated the thawing of ‘the Ice Age’, as she refers to the block that prevented him writing Volume III: “In 2007, I’m fossicking around in the archive of Leigh Fermor’s publisher, John Murray, when I come across the typescript of A Youthful Journey, and I’m terribly excited, and I immediately make a copy and send it off to Paddy in Kardamyli. And I think by that time he must have forgotten that he had the manuscript, and he treats it as a work long lost and re-discovered.” By then, he was suffering from tunnel vision, but another friend printed out the ms in a typeface large enough for him to read it, two lines at a time, and he set to work revising it.

When he died in 2011, Cooper and Thubron found four amended typescripts, as well as the manuscript itself: “It was a pretty good mess,’ Cooper says. Thubron did most of the work establishing the final version: Cooper says he was “absolutely determined that not a single word of ours should infect the text,” and yet they had to make one significant editorial decision.  Leigh Fermor’s arrival in Constantinople in December 1934 seems to have been, at best, anti-climactic.  Cooper believes he was forced to acknowledge that the walk had not transformed his prospects after what he regarded as his failed education, or given him a new purpose in life, and he only spent ten days in the city, before moving on to the monastic community of Mount Athos, in northern Greece.  Recognizing that Greece was his true destination, Cooper and Thubron did not end The Broken Road with the cursory diary entries that are the only record of his time in Constantinople, but with his stay in Mount Athos, where “for the first time, his diary becomes fully written.” The passages anticipate the course his life would take, and offer glimpses of the flamboyant stylist he would become. They make a fitting conclusion to the great walk that Cooper and Thubron describe as the “dream odyssey of every footloose student.” The Broken Road “may not be precisely be the ‘third volume’ that so tormented him,” they write, “but it contains at least the shape and scent of the promised book, and here his journey must rest.”