Quick Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron.

Thubron’s short 2011 book is an account of a trek from Nepal, through mountain passes heading north east and into Tibet. His ultimate destination is Mount Kailas, a mountain which is (according to the blurb of this book) “holy to one fifth of humanity”. The goal for pilgrims there (mainly Hindu and Bhuddist) is to circle the mountain.

I don’t think Thubron is either a Hindu or a Bhuddist, so why is he on this journey? “I am doing on account of the dead”, he writes early on. Following the death of his mother, he finds himself the last one living of his immediate family, and feels the need to go on a journey, which seems part of his way of trying to overcome (or at least come to an accommodation with) the sense of grief. Why Mount Kailas? “In the end,” he continues later in the same passage, “you come to rest at a mountain that is holy to others. The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.”

The book is all the better for being realtively short, I think. I found it to be at its best when he is describing the journey itself and touching on his recollections of his family. There are no very lengthy passages of autobiography in this book, however, and I think that this is something of a shame, since it is at these points that Thubron’s writing is at its most poignant and resonant. For instance, one memorable passage sees him describing going through his mother’s possessions after her death, particularly old letters. There is also a very brief passage alluding to his sister’s early death at the age of 21 which is very affecting and raw.

I would have liked more of these personal reflections threaded all the way through the book. However, I got the feeling that they petered out somewhat from about halfway in, as he neared Mount Kailas. I think that this makes the book is slightly uneven,since the personal angle gradually gives way to the more familiar travel writing template of quoting choice bits of conversation from people met along the way, as well as descriptions of the journey, picking a particular thing seen or told about, and then going into wider contextual detail that may touch on religion, folklore, politics, history and the like.

This is all very well, and have no doubt that Thubron is a master of this style of travel writing. However, it is (dare I say) a tad dry and journalistic compared to the more personal (and hence engaging) aspects of the book where he writes about his personal history and the complex inter-relationship this has with this particular flight into the unknown. Normally his precise descriptions and lightly-worn erudition would be more than enough on their own (see his book In Siberia for instance for a masterclass of this style of travel writing). It is just that in the case of To a Mountain in Tibet he gets onto a different level of insight altogether for my money, ironically by writing about personal matters closer to home, and juxtaposing these with the foreign physical and spiritual climes in which he finds himself.

However, this remains a very worthwhile book and one I would highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

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Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

plf

“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.