At the tender age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood and having been expelled from his last school, young Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to go on a w...moreAt the tender age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood and having been expelled from his last school, young Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to go on a walkabout through the pre-war Mitteleuropa wonderland, all the way to the distant minarets of Constantinople. These are some of the people and things that he encountered along the way:
1. Goose-stepping Brownshirts and beer-swilling S.S. officers
“The song that kept time to their tread, “Volk, ans Gewehr!” ---often within earshot during the following weeks was succeeded by the truculent beat of the Horst Wessel Lied: once heard, never forgotten…”
2. Village stores stocked to the gills with Nazi paraphernalia
“…swastika armbands, daggers for the Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.A. men; swastika button-holes were arranged in a pattern which read Heil Hitler and an androgynous wax-dummy with a pearly smile was dressed up in the full uniform of a Sturmabteilungsmann.”
3. Brueghelian winter idylls
“A minute later, it was a faraway speck, and the silent landscape, with its Brueghelish skaters circling as slowly as flies along the canals and the polders, seemed tamer after its passing. Snow had covered the landscape with a sparkling layer and the slatey hue of the ice was only becoming visible as the looping arabesques of the skaters laid it bare. Following the white parallelograms the lines of the willow dwindled as insubstantially as trails of vapour. The breeze that impelled those hastening clouds had met no hindrance for a thousand miles and a traveler moving at a footpace along the hog’s back of a dyke above the cloud-shadows and the level champaign was filled with intimations of limitless space.”
4. Friendly peasants in clogs and lots of cows
“In the barn on the other side, harrows, ploughshares and scythes and sieves loomed for a moment, and beyond, tethered to a manger that ran the length of the barn, horns and tousled brows and liquid eyes gleamed in the lantern’s beams.”
5. Gemutliche gasthauses with kind proprietors
“…for in the end someone woke me and led me upstairs like a sleep-walker and showed me into a bedroom with a low and slanting ceiling and an eiderdown like a giant meringue.”
6. Party-loving, pretty Frauleins
“When I woke up on the sofa---rather late; we had sat up talking and drinking Annie’s father’s wine before going to bed---I had no idea where I was; it was a frequent phenomenon on this journey.”
7. Kooky aristocrats and fascinating pedants with a yen for the glorious days of the Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian Empire
“The Count was old and frail. He resembled, a little, Max Beerbohm in later life, with a touch of Franz Joseph minus the white side-whiskers.”
8. A Shakespeare quoting, enterprising tramp
””Ah, dear young!” he said, “I am of ripe years already! I would always be frightening them! You, so tender, will always melt hearts.””
9. Balkan Ghettoes full of living Hasidic Jews
”…Talmudic students of about my age…their cheeks were as pale as the wax that lit the page while the dense black lettering swallowed up their youths and their lives.”
10. Grunewald’s horrific crucifixion
“…the special law of gravity, tearing the nail-holes wider, dislocates the fingers and expands them like spider’s legs. Wounds fester, bones break through the flesh and the grey lips, wrinkling concentrically round a tooth-set hole, gape in a cringing spasm of pain. The body, mangled, dishonoured and lynched, twists in rigor mortis.”
And most importantly:
11. Grand architecture --- to wax poetic about in a sensory-overloaded, vertigo-inducing manner.
The painted ceiling at the Melk Abbey
“...rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery. A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient-seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the forests and quarries. A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of artificial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on journeys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxes...”
Fermor’s writing is as marvelous as the brooding castles and baroque palaces that he encountered along his journey, but at times so dizzyingly rich and dazzlingly erudite that it is best taken in measured doses at a time. European culture and history is an open book in his hands and what a wonderful and profoundly strange place it is!
Prepares sturdy boots for the remaining trek to Constantinople.
A Quiz Who Says What: Writers on Travel and Travel Writing
1. “Any country which displays more than one statue of the same living politician...moreA Quiz Who Says What: Writers on Travel and Travel Writing
1. “Any country which displays more than one statue of the same living politician is a country which is headed for trouble.”
2. A country’s pornography is a glimpse into its subconscious mind.
3. A nation’s shitting habits are the key to all its citizens’ attitudes.
4. “Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail simply because of the monotonous good luck of their authors”.
5. “The subject matter of the best travel books is the conflict between writer and place. It is not important which of them carries the day, so long as the struggle is faithfully recorded. It takes a writer with a gift for describing a situation to do this well, which is perhaps the reason why so many travel books that remain in the memory have been produced by writers expert at the fashioning of novels”.
6. Americans are overfamiliar slobs and hypocrites who did nothing but spit.
7. “I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset, the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into the grey pastel sky. Nothing I have seen in Art of Nature was quite so revolting”.
8. “Men who go looking for the source of a river are merely looking for the source of something missing in themselves, and never finding it”.
9. “Let’s say that Albert Speer; while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overdose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minelli. But that doesn’t give you an idea. Let’s say Arcimboldi builds the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Paton. Or: Carmen Miranda designs a Tiffany locale for the Jolly Hotel chain. Or D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale imagined by Bob Cratchitt, Calvino’s Invisible Cities described by Judith Krantz and executed by Leonor Fini for the plush-doll industry. Chopin Sonata in B flat minor sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace and accompanied by the Marine Band. No, that still isn’t right.”
10. “Implicit in the unspoken contract between a travel writer and his audience is the assumption that the writer is for the most part sincere in truthfully recounting his experiences: that he does not fabricate incidents that never happened, or invent characters that never existed in the interest of adding a much needed piquancy to his narrative. But given the human propensity for embroidery, self aggrandizement and even mythomania, how easy it is for this trust to be breached with impunity!”
The List of Suspects
Paul Theroux --- Sir Richard Francis Burton --- Paul Bowles --- V.S. Naipaul --- V.S. Pritchett --- Evelyn Waugh --- Fanny Trollope --- Umberto Eco
1. Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules.
2. “It seemed incontestable to me that a country’s pornography was a glimpse into its subconscious mind, revealing its inner life, its fantasy, its guilts, its passions, even its child–rearing, not to say its marriages and courtship rituals. It was not the whole truth, but it contained many clues and even more warnings, especially of its men”. Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules.
3. “I wonder, I wonder if the shitting habits of Indians are not the key to all their attitudes”. V.S. Naipaul, quoted in The World is What It Is.
4. V.S. Pritchett, Complete Essays (1991).
5. Paul Bowles, The Challenge to Identity (1958).
6. “I do not like them. I do not like their principles. I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions”. Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony, The Domestic Manners of Americans (1832).
7. Evelyn Waugh, Labels (1930).
8. Sir Richard Francis Burton.
9. Umberto Eco, trying to describe the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Travels in Hyperreality (1995).
10. Sandybanks, in her review of The Tao of Travel (2011). (less)
This book is a well-illustrated, very readable introduction to the Silk Road and the various countries that it traverses. Wood's brisk narration is li...moreThis book is a well-illustrated, very readable introduction to the Silk Road and the various countries that it traverses. Wood's brisk narration is lively, and she has a knack for selecting interesting passages from various travelers’ reports on the area, from Marco Polo (who Wood believes to have never traveled to China at all) to Aurel Stein, whose controversial excavations at Dunhuang shed light on esoteric documents that had been sealed up in a cave for a thousand years. Besides Western travelers, we also hear from Asian sources such as Faxian and Xuantang, the famous Tang-dynasty monk who brought Buddhist scriptures to China. For those enamored of the romance and mystery of the Silk Road, this book does not disappoint in its generous depiction of lost cities, buried treasures, exotic goods and ancient legends. (less)
I'd give it 2 stars if not for the funny moments that Gilbert managed to slip in between harrowing accounts of her depression and rather boastful repo...moreI'd give it 2 stars if not for the funny moments that Gilbert managed to slip in between harrowing accounts of her depression and rather boastful reports of her older boyfriend's sexual prowess. Do we really need to know how she got that bladder infection? Yikes.
The writing is fluid and the book was a fast read. Some of the insights that she learned during her time in the ashram are quite interesting, although she did not break any new grounds with them. I wonder why she needed to travel to India to stay in that ashram while the same experience (so she told us) was available in California under the guidance of the same guru. Some of the characters that she met were rather too cutesy to be wholly believable, like Richard from Texas, who nicknamed her 'groceries' and acted as her personal guardian angel in that ashram.
If you are interested in books about westerners travelling in Asia in search of spirituality, you'll be better off with Tiziano Terzani's A Fortune Teller Told Me.
A word or two about 'running amok'.
Gilbert told us that the word 'amok' came from the Balinese language and that it specifically refers to a 'battle technique of suddenly going insanely wild against one's enemies in suicidal and bloody hand-to-hand combat'. In fact, the word 'amok' came from the Malay language (nowadays more commonly spelled 'amuk' in Bahasa Indonesia), although the Javanese and Balinese languages also have their own version of the word. It does not refer to a specific battle technique; 'amok' simply means being violently angry. Maybe Gilbert was thinking of another word, 'puputan', which is a Balinese word which means 'fighting to the death'.(less)