Between the Woods and The Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor

Just got back from Virginia, where I alternated my time between reading many books and speedboating around a lake. I managed, somehow, to keep my general lack of skin pigmentation in place. Another triumph.

Patrick Leigh Fermor. If you ever want to feel like a massive underachiever or general failure at life, just go read about this guy. I mean, a BBC reporter once described him as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene. What else is there to aspire to?

Anyway, at the age of 18, he decided to walk–yes, walk— the length of Europe. And this book, Between the Woods and the Water, is part of the travelogue that resulted.

I initially had a hard time with this book. It’s just so lyrical and all scenery, little to no narrative. He’s journeying, yes, but his focus is often on the experience of the countryside rather than an actual narrative with some forward-thrusting idea tying it all together.

While I was reading this, I was also reading Bizup’s book, Style. Assuming you haven’t read it, it is a breakdown of sentence, paragraph, and overall structure from four different angles of attack. Really good, though sometimes trying.

I bring this up because I was examining Between from the critical eye of sentence structure, focusing on whatever that day’s chapter of Style had addressed. It added a certain delicacy, almost, to the reading, and a hyper-awareness of how Fermor would execute his work, sentence by sentence. Eventually I found myself relaxing into the near-narrativeless grace that Fermor’s story contained.

At the end of book, I realized I had yet to read anything like it. With him discarding so much of everything else for scenery’s sake, it became a floating, airy read. It didn’t have the constant undercurrent of a message tugging me along, proving a point or simply moving the story from one logical point to the next.

It was relaxing. An author sharing something he loved with a loose narrative structure around it, and doing so with stylistic elegance.

Of course, it’d never sell in today’s market.

Some quotes for your reading pleasure…

“But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alfold leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants… the less said the better.”

“Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by the war; indeed, except for the last stage before the Turkish frontier, all the countries traversed by this journey were fought over a few years later by two mercilessly destructive powers; and when war broken out, all these friends vanished into sudden darkness. Afterwards the uprooting and destruction were on so tremendous a scale that it was sometimes years after the end of it all that the cloud became less dense and I could pick up a clue here and there and piece together what had happened in the interim. Nearly all of them had been dragged into the conflict in the teeth of their feelings and disaster overtook them all. But in this charming and cheerful household, the tragedy that smote in the middle of that grim time had nothing to do with conflict: a fire sprang up in the night and the whole family and the combustible manor house that contained it were turned to ashes.”

“The reader may think I am lingering too long over these pages. I think so too, and I know why: when we reached our destination in an hour or two, we would have come full cycle. It wasn’t only an architectural world, but the whole sequence of these enchanted Transylvanian months that would come to a stop. I was about to turn south, away from all my friends, and the dactylic ring of Magyar would die away. Then there was Istvan; I would miss him bitterly; and the loss of Angela–who is little more than a darting luminous phantom in these pages–would be a freak I could hardly bear to think of; and I can’t help putting off the moment for a paragraph or two.”

“These great forest chambers, bounded by mingled stretches of hardwood and underbrush, slanted uphill and out of sight in a confusion of roots. Freshets channeled the penumbra, falling from rocky overhangs into pools that could be heard from afar, or welled up through husks and dead leaves and turned into streams. There had been two hoopoes in the lower woods and bee-eats, with an eye to the hives perhaps, perched on twigs near the harvesters’ clearing; golden orioles, given away by their black and yellow plumage and the insistent shrill curl of their song, darted among the branches. But every so often invisible flocks of woodpigeons plunged everything under a spell so drowsy, it was hard, sitting down for a smoke, to keep awake; then a footfall would loose off a hundred flurried wings and set them circling in the speckled light of one of the forest ballrooms like Crystal Palace multitudes calling for Wellingtonian hawks.