Life-writing has always fascinated me because it connects lives and narratives in such creative ways. Fact and fiction are often blurred, and it always reminds me how anything we read is the product of some biased brain, to be absorbed by our own biased brains. This is not to condemn it; merely I find it useful to remind myself that all narratives and texts are subject to these same pressures. These post looks at a group of texts which very consciously explore those two realms, taking the same point of inspiration in three different directions of life-writing.
A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s almost uncompleted trilogy of travelogues detailing his walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul is one of my favourite-ever autobiographical series. If you have never come across them, I insist that you do so right away. Completed years later, it details the fantastic pilgrimage he made as a man in his late teens and early twenties. Overflowing with charisma, energy and great charm, PLF’s narratives have the glossy sheen of the experienced writer with none of the depressing nostalgia for youth which so often overshadows memoir. PLF’s infamous ‘embroidery’ technique is so skilful that it serves merely to add glamour and beauty to the rich fabric of his narrative, and one is only occasionally aware of feeling a snag of annoyance at realising it would be impossible for a 20 year old to have the historical knowledge and linguistic skill which PLF claims to have displayed.
Telling, too, is the fact that they were written and published many years after the event they describe: 1977, 1986 and 2013 respectively, all referring to events which took place between 1933 and 1935. Even the author was aware of this and felt he should make reference to it, however obliquely: PLF suggested calling the first book Parallax, a word meaning ‘the difference in the appearance of an object seen from two different angles’ (Artemis Cooper, p.325). The result is a tantalising trilogy possessed of a narrative which is impossible to resist, either as a reader, biographer or traveller.
As with any purported autobiography, there is always the desire to know the ‘reality’ behind it. In 2012 Artemis Cooper, who collaborated with Colin Thubron on midwiving PLF’s final manuscript into the posthumous The Broken Road and who knew PLF from girlhood, produced Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, a biography which attempts (in part) to answer those almost unknowable questions. She obviously adored PLF – as did almost everyone, particularly women, with whom he came into contact. Her father and grandfather were part of his vast social circle, and her biography feels very much like a welcoming voice from ‘inside’, calling us into his world and checking everyone’s names at the gate. Peppered with beautiful little anecdotes (gathered in ways devious and wise – you can read about it here) the book is almost as riproaring a read as PLF’s own narratives, but very much aware of constraints of biographic form, waggishly disregarded by those original texts.
Another response to the books is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water (2014): an attempt to recreate the magic of that journey by physically retracing PLF’s every footstep. Well, almost – 78 years, one world war and the Romanian Ceauşescu-led genocide separate these two pilgrims; the changes wrought on the landscape ache with inevitability. Hunt describes a ‘cultural amnesia’ he finds in the former Soviet countries, where people will not talk about recent history which has wrought huge changes to their lives and landscapes. One poignant passage described Hunt’s search for the castle where PLf played bicycle polo and smoked an elaborate chibook alongside counts and archdukes – now it is ‘as broken as a building can be, smashed to smithereens’ (Hunt, p.170). This felt eerily familiar to me too – a few years ago I had spent a fortnight in Slovakia on a cultural exchange looking at museum interpretation (the adventures of which you can read about here), and I was very aware of the silence which surrounded Slovakia’s 20th century history, combined with the pride evident in the history of centuries and millennia before: ‘the gruesome nature of the distant past was much easier to represent than the horrors of more recent times’.
PLF’s narrative is, I think the greatest: not only because it provides the basis for the existence of the other two, and is thereby the more original, but because it actively benefits from the parallaxing between the young man and the old. Hunt’s journey is derivative by nature, and although he captures moments of Fermorian joy and beauty, it is overshadowed by the awareness that much of what PLF delighted in is gone, and therefore a sense of nostalgic loss permeates the narrative. Cooper has the Herculean task of trying to condense this immensely varied and complex life into a few hundred pages, whilst keeping up the brio associated with PLF. Both do, though, have something of the magician about them: Cooper in her ability to weasel stories from PLF’s omissions (as well as his admissions); and Hunt in being able to summon the great-granddaughter of Count Teleki, one of PLF’s genial hosts, to join him on his journey. From this point onwards, and the further East he walks from here, the more that nuns, farmers, shepherds and Roma remerge from the shadows of memory into full-bodied reality.
However, Walking the Woods and the Water, whilst ostensibly talking about the romanticisation of European history, does neatly sum up the allure of PLD’s writing:
‘…accuracy wasn’t the point. This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.’ (p.184-5)
Those yearnings and freedoms and buried cultural rivers – those are the things which PLF’s own particular brand of life-writing so vividly captures. Accuracy, whilst useful and taxonomically satisfying, is not the only goal of any writing, not even biography. Narratives drawn us closer to freedom, the hidden mysteries of other places and peoples, and it is through that we can find ‘Gemütlichkeit’ – ‘snugness, warmth, the feeling that you are accepted’. It is remarkable that our yearning for travelling and apparent freedom seems to stem from this need for acceptance, this desire to find your own kith or kin or kind and know: ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’