Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

As I have mentioned before, it was Susan Hill's Howards End Is On the Landing that introduced me to Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I had never heard of him, but her description of his books was enough to send me in search of them.  I found A Time of Gifts enchanting, in the spell-binding sense of the word, from his account of a very non-traditional education, to his sudden decision to set off an adventure like walking across Europe to Constantinople, with the descriptions of the people and places he encountered, the sidebar excursions into history and geography and ethnography and linguistics; all written in such lyrical, limpid prose.  It is one of the most beautifully-written books I have ever read.  When I finished it, leaving Leigh Fermor standing on the bridge between Slovakia and Hungary in April of 1934, I didn't immediately pick up the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water.  I needed time to digest the first book, and I didn't want to rush into the next one.

Far from rushing, as usually happens one book led to another, and it was more than a year later that I came back to this book.  I sat down with high expectations, remembering A Time of Gifts, but to my surprise and disappointment I struggled with this book, at least initially.  I think that is due in part to the lag between reading the two books, so that I have forgotten much of the detail of the first book.  Also, A Time of Gifts covered familiar territory, as Leigh Fermor journeyed from Holland through Germany and Austria to Slovakia.  I have read about these countries, and with the exception of the Czech Republic, I have traveled in them, giving me at least some context for his wide-ranging discussions of the history and the peoples of the different areas.  As Between the Woods and the Water opened, he entered Hungary, and the book covers the months he spent in Hungary and in Roumania, according to the subtitle from "the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates."  To my shame, I know very little about the history or even the geography of this region, so I lack the basic context that Leigh Fermor seemed to assume his readers would have; I was soon lost, not even sure what or where the Iron Gates were.  I ended up reading with an atlas open on my lap, allowing me to track at least his physical route.  My Penguin edition of A Time of Gifts has a basic map showing his route, but the NYRB edition of Between the Woods and the Water doesn't have one, an unfortunate omission to my mind.

Once I figured out the physical setting of the book, I stopped trying to keep all of the history and ethnography and linguistics straight.  I settled down to enjoy Leigh Fermor's beautiful prose, as he described his visits to Hungarian and Roumanian and Transylvanian manors, as well as his encounters with shepherds and Gypsies and woodsmen - and of course with animals and the natural world.  He frankly admitted that his frequent stays in the manor houses, with their libraries and games and dances, distracted him from the original purpose of his travels, and he was sometimes tempted just to settle in.  There is a shadow of melancholy to this book, because the author and the reader are very much aware that so much of what he wrote about in 1934, the people and the places, would vanish just a few years later.  Of course at the time his 19-year-old self had no idea of this, despite his recent tour through Hitler's Germany.

At the end of this book, Leigh Fermor decided to spend more time in Roumania rather than continuing east toward Constantinople, the original goal of his journey.  The last chapter ends with the words, "To be concluded."  At the time of his death in June of this year, the final volume remained uncompleted.  But at least there is a manuscript, and we can hope for a final volume that will indeed bring us to Constantinople.


  1. I've read a lot about Patrick Leigh Fermor around the blogosphere and have been intrigued. What a fascinating time period to have been traveling around Europe in! I'm going to try to get my hands on one of his books.

  2. I see his name popping up in blogs all over the place as well, Anbolyn. There is also a book of letters between him and Deborah Devonshire that is on my TBR list. They're both such fascinating characters.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!