Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor
NYRB Classics, 2005
(first published 1986)
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Mind you, it was a contented sigh. There is nothing quite like the quiet out-of-this-world travel descriptions of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Or at least, in my opinion. I am no expert in the genre of travel memoirs. I don’t think I will ever be. Sometimes I feel like I do not know enough about the countries the author describes and that the books would be more fun had I been there myself. Not so for this book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Which is incidentally the first one I read by him, so my claim that there is nothing like his writing is not very well founded. But it feels like it anyway.
Between the Woods and the Water is the second book in what was originally meant to be a trilogy of travel memoirs about Fermor’s youthful travels through Europe, from Hoek van Holland to Constantinople, on foot, sustained by the kindness of people he meets on his way. I should have started with the first book in the series, A Time of Gifts, but it was unavailable when I wanted to read it which is why I turned to this one. And it is not as problematic as it may sound. This second volume is about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travels through Eastern Europe. On the eve (or well, only a few years before) the start of the Second World War.
It is a completely different world you find here. Stories of castles and nobility, the rich of Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe itself, before the devastation of the Second World War and later communism. I know next to nothing about Eastern Europe, but that did not matter. It is so very different. So fairytale like, almost, that none of the problems of regular travel memoirs occur.
This book asked me to suspend my place in the here and now, it makes you let go of time and reality. While the book mentions names and sometimes even dates, you feel like you are wandering through the memories of Fermor as much as you are wandering through this forgotten world, even more so because this was written years after his actual travels. There is no map to complement his journey, something I lamented at times. But it also contributed to the otherworldly feel. To the feeling that reading this book was like meditation. A meditation on a world that is no more. But also a meditation on how it came to be. With many side trips to where the people he met came from, why the languages in the region are so alike and yet so different, stories of the many ‘tribes’ that fought for hegemony there, during the Middle Ages. Explanations about religions and the different strands of Christianity and later Islam that he came across on his travels. And sometimes, a small peak at what is to happen, at how things will never be the same in a few more years. But always glimpses, very short, before Patrick Leigh Fermor returns to the reality of back then.
The only small difficulty I had with the book is that, even if you meet people along the way, some of which apparently become life long friends, I never felt any personal connection to them. They were just figures you meet but never get to know. The landscape is a character the reader gets much more intimately acquainted with. I felt like I was often reaching, but rarely managed to grasp the persons he describes, even himself.
Between the Woods and the Water was a gem of a book. I am very grateful to Danielle for pointing it out to me many months ago. It may not be the kind of book every one enjoys. It is also one that needs a specific reading mood, but it was perfect right now. I cannot wait to start A Time of Gifts and I also have A Time to Keep Silence (focused solely on monasteries) on my TBR pile.
I read this book as part of the NYRB Classics Project.
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