Between the Woods and the Water takes up exactly where Patrick Leigh Fermor left off at the end of A Time of Gifts; the first sentence reads “Perhaps I had made too long a halt on the bridge.” (A reminder that beneath the lovely rambling quality of these books lies artful structure.) The bridge crosses the Danube, and PLF is about to enter Hungary for the first time, on Easter Eve. With no further fuss, he sweeps us into a brilliant celebration of Easter in the old cathedral of Esztergom, complete with all the elaborate vestments, military uniforms, and glamor you could want. (Scimitars! Monocles! Egret feathers!)
Is it my imagination, or is this volume more poignant than the earlier one? And if I’m right, is that because Leigh Fermor is writing nine years after A Time of Gifts? Could the bittersweet edge be that of a man looking back thirty-odd years? Or could it be caused by the knowledge that nothing is left of the sweet, lazy culture of the Hungarian aristocracy that took him in as a youthful wanderer? As our narrator says of his hosts, “Homesick for the past, seeing nobody but their own congeners on the neighboring estates and the peasants who worked there, they lived a backward-looking, a genealogical, almost a Confucian dream and many sentences ended in a sigh.”
Summer is all around Leigh Fermor as he travels across the Great Hungarian Plain on foot paths or roads bad enough to be almost impassable in a car. (This is 1934, remember.) He is now a thousand miles from England and his mission — to reach Constantinople on foot — is still before him. He is still delighted by much of what he encounters: one host loans him a beautiful mount whom he rides across country for several days. He stops at a peasant’s cottage, the occupant brings him a drink, and, he writes “I sipped it slowly and thought: I’m drinking this glass of milk on a chestnut horse on the Great Hungarian Plain.”
I wonder if Leigh Fermor didn’t write this volume as a memorial of sorts. It’s not just about the aristocrats, but also about the topography, the language, the history, and the tremendous variety of people he meets. For instance, there’s the interlude with a family of Hasidic Jews from Szatmar, who study Torah by paraffin lamp in a remote logging camp. Everyone gets very excited when they read the Psalms together in a hodge-podge of German and Hebrew.
Patrick Leigh Fermor died last month. This book ends with the phrase “To Be Concluded” and I hope there are very complete notes somewhere, though only the most confident writer would dare to mess with PLF’s prose. Anyway, this is the kind of story that just doesn’t emerge organically from modern culture:
One [woman], extremely beautiful and with enormous grey-green eyes, was the daughter of a former Foreign Minister. (At the opera in Paris, where he was staying for the Peace Conference, a friend had asked him who someone — another Rumanian — had married; and he had answered, truthfully, ‘Une grue, hélas.’ ‘Alas, a harlot’ and a few moment later, a hand appeared from the next box, holding a visiting card from the husband in question; there was a duel with pistols and her father was shot through the stomach and spent the rest of his life in great pain.
I’m glad Patrick Leigh Fermor left us some trace of this world.