Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

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“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

What have en english war hero, a Romantic wanderer and a heavy metal pioneer got in common?

Nothing much, except for they’ve all had books written about them and I’ve read them all. This post throws together three different books: two on Byronic literary adventurers, and one on that fierce heavy metal innovator Tony Iommi.

Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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Put your fag out and get on with it man! PLF at home in Greece, taking a break from writing.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the english travel writer since his death in 2011. Last year his biography was published to virtually universal acclaim, and now it’s out in paperback. To cap it all, the third and final instalment of Leigh Fermor’s travel memoir recalling his epic walk across Europe in the 1930’s, The Broken Road, is to appear in the UK in September of this year.

Like probably everyone else who has read it, I enjoyed Artemis Cooper’s biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. As his literary executor she is obviously a safe pair of hands to give us an overview of  his life. It helps if you have five star material to work with in the first place. To her credit Cooper takes no chances and produces a workmanlike narrative,  and in so doing avoids making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

I would recommend this book to anyone. However, I had reservations about it when I read it the first time around, and I still have them now. By the way, just to emphasise that I’m not having a dig at Cooper, these are similar to reservations I’ve had about other biographies in the past.

1) How do you avoid producing a lopsided biography, when your subject’s early life was so full of incident and the remainder was comparitively more sedate? By lopsided I mean devoting so much focus and so many pages to the incident filled first part, that the remainder of the book reads like a rushed afterthought the writer has been obliged to include. When I read the Leigh Fermor bio I was reminded of books I’d read about footballers and rock stars, where the life lived in their 20s and 30s was of such overwhelming interest, that the rest was quite obviously of less commercial value and was therefore whittled down to the bare minimum. The final few decades of Leigh Fermor’s life often felt like they were covered, to borrow a phrase of his, “in tearing haste”.

Perhaps the ending of a biography is best thought of like a plane journey: you want an orderly, well-paced descent to the end, not a crash landing.

2) Why rely mainly on printed sources if you can use other ones too? I was struck by one thing in this book: there was a relative lack of interview material. There’re probably acceptable reasons for this, such as most of the people who knew him being dead, but there are people who knew him who are still alive (a few of whom were spoken to), and I wonder why Leigh Fermor himself wasn’t interviewed at length for this book. Perhaps it wasn’t practical to do so, but either way it’s a shame. Samuel Beckett’s official biographer James Knowlson was unable to complete his interviews with the Irishman before he died, but what material Knowlson had he put in his book to great effect.

I have to be honest here and say that before I read the biography I’d read In Tearing Haste, the collection of letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire. That these sketch the broad outline of of PLF’s post-war life, and that Cooper quotes liberally from them, suggests this was one of her main sources of material. Cooper of all people was best placed to have gone further than this.

3) Unanswered questions. The book kept me interested because PLF’s life itself was a gripping affair and made for a good story, but what it seemed light on was much sustained attempt to interpret his behaviour.  Biographers don’t have to be  psychologists, but personally I think it makes for a better book if there’s some attempt to explore motives and motivations, to identify patterns of behaviour across the course of a life.  It’s something that a biographer is sometimes better placed to do than someone writing their own story (see Tony Iommi below). For me, the great unanswered question in this biography is why wasn’t PLF the writer more prolific? Why couldn’t he get volume three of his travel memoir finished? One of the parts I found funniest relates to the 1960s, where PLF was commissioned to write 2,000 words on the war in Crete for a compendium volume about battles of the Second World War. Deadlines came and went, attempts were made to write the piece. It then spiralled out of control into far more than 2,000 words. He tried to cut it. He failed. The piece eventually went unpublished and the publisher who made the original commission ended up bitterly regretting it.  I suspect similar games ensued when he tried to get Volume Three of the travel memoir down on paper.

Although Cooper makes some attempt to explain this, I never felt like I got a clear answer. I can infer all sorts of things for myself, but what if there’s a key to it all that we aren’t being told? I spy the opportunity for another biography a few years down the line here!

Edward John Trelawney

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The cover of David Crane’s biography, showing a portrait of Trelawney as he wished to be seen, the rakish Romantic hero.

After I’d finished Cooper’s book, it occurred to me it was like another biography I’d read years ago, Lord Byron’s Jackal by David Crane. Its subject is Edward john Trelawney, a complicated figure who became part of the Byron- Shelley circle in 1820’s Italy. After Shelley’s death Trelawney went to Greece with Byron to fight in the war of independence there. Trelawney proceeded to take an active part in the war and was almost killed. These were the crucial events of the first third of his life, but as is the way with biographies they take up a good three quarters of the the book.

What Crane does, however, is use all of the available sources to make sure that he gives fitting coverage to the second half of Trelawney’s life. You can forgive Crane for not dwelling too much on the time he spent as a farmer in rural Wales. But he is excellent in describing Trelawney’s move back to London as an older man, where he found fame among a new generation of writers and artists, milking his status as a friend of Byron and Shelley’s for all it was worth.

The constant thread of argument running through this book is also very interesting and convincing. Trelawney was essentially a nobody who desperately wanted to be a somebody. By the time he arrived in Italy and joined the poets’ circle he had invented an entire life story for himself, involving high adventure that he had never truly known. Irony of ironies, though, once in the orbit of true greats he found himself living a genuinely dramatic existence, and was able to match up to it. The result was his being forever woven into Romantic legend, and his becoming something of a legend in his own lifetime.

Tony Iommi

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After starting the first draft of his autobiography himself, Tony realised that he’d need a lot of speaker cones to cover his whole life story, so decided to hire a ghostwriter with a dictaphone.

Iommi’s book Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath is one of those show business books where the subject basically sits down and speaks into the ghost writer’s dictaphone. The saving grace here, though, is that the scribe has barely done anything to the prose, save for taking out the umms and ers. If you’ve ever heard Iommi interviewed you’ll know that not only is he the man of a thousand riffs, but he’s also got just as many good stories to tell, the fruits of a rock and roll life.  Told in a down-to-earth, deadpan style in best West Midlands tradition, this is one of the best rock books I have ever read. It literally is just one bloke telling his own story with no attempts at lengthy self analysis or justification. I mean how can you really explain setting fire to the drummer or even painting the poor bloke gold? These are just the stories, take them or leave them, make of them what you will.  Similarly his attempt to explain taking vast amounts of cocaine doesn’t get much past “it was there, we were bored between gigs, I liked it at first but then it took hold”. Is there much else to say? Unlike the big question mark over PLF’s writing  methods (see above) Iommi justifies the matter of fact approach.  

It’s to Iommi’s credit that he avoids the psychobabble that too many rock books get mired in.  He also pulls no punches about the darker years. It would have been easy to produce a ‘lopsided’ life, focussed mainly on the 70’s glory days and fast forwarding to the late 90’s revival and eventual elevation to rock legend status,  but instead the book is made stronger by giving equal coverage to all parts of his career.