Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Broken Road

The latest New York Review of Books carries a piece by Daniel Mendelsohn on Patrick Leigh Fermor and the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.  Apparently Lawrence Durrell once referred to the 'truffled style and dense plumage' of Leigh Fermor’s prose and Mendelsohn suggests that 'what you think of his writing, and indeed what you make of the final instalment of his most beloved work, depends on your taste for truffles and feathers.'  Well I'm certainly not averse to them now and again, and I found myself as entranced by this volume as I had been by the earlier two (which have been mentioned here before).  Some feathers feature in this landscape description, which comes towards the end of the book, in December 1934, when PLF is just days away from his final destination and has reached the wooded slopes on the edge of the Black Sea.
'Downhill at the end of plunging tunnels of trunks and branches and over the foliage of the ledges, the lowest stems of which seemed almost rooted in the sea, the European continent fell to fragments in spikes and small tufted islets far below, standing in translucent, pale green water, which darkened as it receded from the rocks to bottle green and the blue of peacock's neck feathers and fled away to the skyline.  The almost still water was stirred by incoming creases as slight as a breath on silk, just enough to hem the join of rock and water with a thin bracelet of white, but too little to interfere with the symmetry of the semi- and three-quarter circles that the rocks sent spinning slowly out to sea again.  Only the ghost of their sigh floated up through the mews and the wheeling sunlit wings of the seagulls.'
As he continues through these woods, the late afternoon sun strikes them at an angle parallel to their slope, 'filling the clearings and striking the tree-boles and the foliage with layers of wintry gold, hanging rafts of light in the leaves, falling through the wood in long spokes and breaking up the loops of shadow over the surface of the water with horizontal windows of radiance.'  This perfect moment of solitude and peace in the 'celestial light' is full of the promise of what he imagines he will soon experience in the islands of the Aegean.  Later that day however, after the sun has set, he becomes lost among the rocky headlands, slips into a freezing pool, drops his torch and almost gives up hope before stumbling upon a cave where a group of shepherds and seamen revive him with fish, lentils and raki.  As Neil Ascherson points out in his LRB review, the description of what follows - a 'night of mighty bardic song, feasting and ancient dances' - may not be literally true to what happened on the journey, but it constitutes one of the book's most memorable set pieces. The evening finally ends with firelight ebbing on the walls and the stalactites while this extraordinary young traveller, unable to sleep, lies looking up at a high gap in the cave's wall where the stars of Orion are visible, blazing 'like a slanting lozenge of ice-crystals.'

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