What would you do if you were a bright and sensitive 18-year-old Englishman, a boy really, whose parents just had a very messy separation and, though very intelligent, you had not done very well at any of your schools? And life seemed pointless and depressing? Why, walk across Europe to Constantinople naturally, and write three marvelous best-sellers about the journey while you were about it. And, oh yes, let’s say the year is 1933 and all Europe is convulsed politically by a life-or-death struggle between communism and fascism, and the Nazis are just coming into ruthless and total power in Germany. That would make it much more interesting. You would want to put a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse and Horace’s Odes in your rucksack for company, of course, and you would want your parents to give you one pound a week for spending money, that would be more than enough.
And that is what these three amazing books are about. Fermor is an unusually keen observer, and his vivaciousness and immensely likeable personality combine with his brilliant observational power to create this compelling personal odyssey. The first volume carries Fermor from the Hook of Holland through fascist Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia; the second takes him through Hungary and Transylvania; and the third winds through Rumania and Bulgaria and ends up with him being deposited in Greece, where the hair-raising wartime adventures he later became famous for were to occur. He sleeps rough in the country sometimes, sometimes in the fantastic castles of middle Europe, sometimes in barns with bucolic peasants. But everywhere he is observing, and writing everything down compulsively in battered notebooks.
The detailed notebooks from this amazing journey became the wellspring of the three beloved classics, but how this voyage became the three books is a great story in itself. His first notebook was stolen and lost forever in Munich in the first volume, a minor disaster. But then a major disaster happened in the third volume: his rucksack was stolen in Rustchuk, a Bulgarian town on the Danube, and ten months of notes were lost. Miraculously, however, the rucksack and the notes were recovered and they were ultimately put away for safe-keeping during the war at Harrod’s where they were later destroyed, unclaimed. And that was the end of the notebooks. Then life intervened: World War II and a brilliant literary career that carried Fermor into the first rank of English writers of the 20th Century.
Then, late in a long and well-lived life, the accomplished author returned to his memories, without the benefit of contemporary notes, to see if he could make something of his unaided recollections. The books themselves were written when the wandering boy had become an old man, a great writer at the height of his powers. The first volume came out in 1977 when I was at Oxford, but somehow I completely missed them until now, to my great loss. The second volume appeared in 1986. Both attracted universal critical acclaim, and the world waited patiently for the concluding volume. But Fermor died in 2011 with the trilogy incomplete. In 2013, it was finished and lightly edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper and, although the third volume is not quite as brilliant as the first two, it is extremely well done and eminently readable. It beautifully completes this remarkable saga.
Undertaking this journey today would be most unwise. To do it in 1933 at the age of 18 seems positively insane. What Fermor saw is now a completely vanished world, of course. Imagine walking across Europe at that young age and in that time, walking across Germany just as the Nazi terror was coming to power, strolling observantly through a wonderful world that was about to vanish forever, in flame and death. The elderly author sees sensitively through the eyes of the young traveler, and the reader is keenly aware of having the benefit of both perspectives. The young Fermor observes the charming folk traditions of the gypsies of Bulgaria, and the reader knows they will all surely be liquidated in the coming fascist occupation. There is a bitterly poignant air that hangs over this trilogy -- of aching beauty, doom and death, love and loss, an irrepressible zest for living overshadowed by the reader’s knowledge of what was about to befall these beautiful countries and these lovely people.
I am enchanted by the reveries he invokes and how in these books you can hear both voices, see both points of view, read the one writer enthusing about a wonderful experience while understanding it is being told by another writer who knows all of that world vanished forever in an evil conflagration. So you get both points of view, one feelingly perceived by an adventurous boy and the other well crafted by a gifted older man, both writing about a beautiful and bucolic world the boy perceived and from the perspective of the older man who knew it was a doomed world. Enthralling.
- Buy a selected textbook and get free expedited shipping. Offered by Amazon AU. Here's how (terms and conditions apply)