The broken road



No one writes descriptions like Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. He did not describe places, weather, buildings and people so much as recreate them; savouring them in words, in liquid language of extraordinary beauty and vividness.

In 1933 an impoverished 18-year-old Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe to the city he always refers to as Constantinople. Subsequently he became a World War II hero.

Decades later, in 1977, he produced the first book about his journey, A Time of Gifts, about walking through Germany and Austria. This established him among the greatest of travel writers. In 1986 Between The Woods And The Water took him through Hungary, ending with "To Be Concluded". The third part never appeared. It was thought he had given up.

Behind the exquisite, fluid, style Leigh Fermor was given to endless self-critical revisions.

He was also often depressed about the whole enterprise, abandoning it for years at a time.

Then in 2008 his biographer, Artemis Cooper, discovered a Sixties manuscript of the final section, which Leigh Fermor revised yet again right up until his death in 2011.

This was to be the basis of The Broken Road. The title refers to the fact it was never finished and comes to an abrupt halt on the Bulgarian coast. The only references to the great goal of Constantinople are a few diary entries. They complete the book with an account of his first stay on the holy Mount Athos in Greece, in 1935, from a diary he recovered in the Sixties and then repeatedly rewrote in his usual way.

For readers of the other two books, to see the odyssey at last (almost) concluded, will naturally be irresistible. For everyone else there is the discovery of a unique writer.

Charm of many kinds is at the core of Leigh Fermor's appeal. There was no one he did not get on with: Bulgarian shepherds, Jewish grocers, eccentric aristocrats. The bedraggled young man was forever being adopted, and his encounters and friendships are the arteries of the book. In Bucharest one day he is staying at a brothel (having thought it was a cheap flophouse), the next chauffeured out to extravagant parties and country clubs. He responds to everyone with the same curiosity, sensitivity and affability.Among his great qualities is his ability to convey both the excitement felt at 19 and his reflections as an older man.

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