Book Review: Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Magical Tale of a 1934 Trip Down the Danube as Remembered Through the Eyes of Old Age

Travel Through Time

In 1934, a young Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor –thrown out of several schools for disciplinary problems – decided on a journey that, seventy years later, would give the digital generation a remarkable literary portrait of the landscape and culture of Europe between the two World Wars. Between the Woods and the Water is the account of Fermor’s travels down the Danube, starting in the Netherlands and arriving at the dramatic river narrows called the Iron Gate dividing Serbia and Romania, and the final journey to modern-day Istanbul.

Of special charm for a central European reader is the second part of his journey, at the border between Slovakia and Hungary, where Fermor explores with a youthful enthusiasm for everything and everyone met and seen. The accounts of the Hungarian and Romanian villages and cities are rich with detail, insightful pictures of the untouched landscapes of a world that has had no means to, and perhaps little interest in, catching up with industrialised Europe.

There are authors who like to grant themselves omniscience, in a defiant attempt at prominence in the literary world. Unfortunately, their works often have an artificial air about them. Wanting to write sensational accounts when none were had, digressing into ideological discrepancies between the cultural environment they find themselves in and their own, and then filling the space between the lines of intellectual banter, end up producing a book in which every page is so loaded with the necessity to be, in itself, a literary masterpiece that it eventually overshoots the mark.

Fermor’s honesty, as well as the light traces of naivete and a tendency towards mischief avoids all this, and in the end lends even more authenticity to these accounts taken from his travel diary. Coupled with the insights that come with age, in a work completed fifty years after his odyssey give him the best of both worlds.

In the foreword to Between the Woods and the Water Fermor writes that he “was haunted by the thought that maybe some of details were not in the correct order as they had happened at the time, and surrounded these passages with a cloud of warnings and apologies.

“Then I said to myself that I was not writing a travel guide and that these things don’t matter, and from then on I let the tale unfold.”

Almost imperceptively, Fermor’s writing transcends the picturesque landscape and people he meets to a descriptive history of the region and its ethnic cultures, often reaching back more than two thousand years. The wide array of individuals he meets, coming from the extremes of the class and culture – in the early twentieth century, wider than it is today – only reinforce the Romanticist notion his descriptive ability invokes in the reader.

From nameless gypsies who loll around beneath the stars, to the rural and urban nobility of Eastern Europe, the pages endow the reader with such painstaking detail, that it is impossible not to feel regret, and even pity, towards the scenery and its people, at the time oblivious to the fate that would mark its irreversible destruction just a handful of years beyond the time of Fermor’s travels.

The last part of the journey, to Constantinople as it was commonly called in the early 20th century, has so far not been published. Patrick Leigh Fermor, now 92, has been reviewing his notes and “bringing things in order” to complete the final volume of his mesmerising travels. Advancing tunnel vision has made writing increasingly difficult. All readers can do is hope that the ravages of time will be slow and gentle, allowing Fermor to complete his extraordinary trilogy of rediscovery of a magical Europe lost.

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