Newengland's Reviews > Between the Woods and the Water

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
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Aug 22, 11

bookshelves: finished-in-2011, nonfiction
Recommended to Newengland by: Patrick Leigh Fermor
Recommended for: Elizabeth, Kelly
Read from August 15 to 22, 2011

Like A TIME OF GIFTS (its predecessor), BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER has moments where the narrative slows down like turgid water eddying in the bend of a river, usually for architectural details or historical asides, but overall the muscular description of nature rules the day and makes the book sing. In fact, this sequel's setting (Hungary, Romania, Transylvania) lends itself to Fermor's strength even more than the first due to the vast swaths of dark forests splintered by sunlight, mist, songbirds, and streams. And that's not even touching on on the peasants in the fields, resting after berry-picking or cutting grains. It's all a lovely idyll that borders on storybook nostalgia as seen through the gauze of time.

Fermor does a lot less walking and a lot more loafing here. He hopscotches from castle to castle it seems, where the nobility-in-decline hold on to their crumbling splendor with fanciful meals, well-stocked libraries, exotic wines and foreign cigarettes. A 19-year-old man could get spoiled easily "roughing it" in this manner, but Fermor can only bring himself to gentle self-remonstration at best. The life he enjoyed was just too good to turn your back on in the name of discipline, he seems to be saying, and readers are more than willing to go along for the leisurely ride.

Here is an example of Fermor in full Thoreau mode:

"Just past its full, the moon laid a gleam of metal on the river and a line of silver wire along the tops of the woods. The July constellations and the Milky Way showed bright in a sky empty of vapour and as the moon waned, stars began to shoot, dropping in great arcs, sometimes several a minute, and we would break off our talk to watch them."

In addition to the beauty of woods and water, Fermor is more forthcoming about the beauties of the young women he meets. "There was something arresting and unforgettable about her ivory complexion and raven hair and wide sloe-black eyes. The house had remained uninhabited for some time and there was a touch of melancholy about it, and of magic, too. At least, so it seemed for the few days I was there as we walked under the Himalayan and Patagonian trees and looked down at the Maros, which the full moon turned to mercury. The woods and streams were full of nightingales."

Later, with a male companion, he was joined by a married woman whose husband was off on a distant trip. Fermor makes no secret of his fervor for this young lady. Later still, on a "boiling hot day," he and this 30-something nobleman skinny-dip in a river only to be discovered by two young women returning from gathering barley. "They stopped as we swam into their ken, and, when we drew level, burst out laughing. Apparently the river was less of a covering than we had thought. They were about nineteen or twenty, with sunburnt and rosy cheeks and thick dark plaits, and not at all shy. One of them shouted something, and we stopped and trod water in mid-Maros. Istvan interpreted, 'They say we ought to be ashamed of ourselves,' he said, 'and they threaten to find our clothes and run off with them.'"

The episode ends in healthy, Edenic "innocence" when the naked boys chase these laughing and squealing (the universal language!) girls to a hayrick where "all four collapsed in a turmoil of hay and barley and laughter." (Cut to commercial break.)

Reading Fermor, you learn things. For instance, did you know that Martin Luther (of all people) once said, "Who loves not wine, woman, and song remains a fool his whole life long"? Fermor doubts it, but later verifies it. There are also some reluctant prejudices at work: "A party of Gypsies, in their invariable way managing to turn a corner of the forest into a slum, had settled here with tents and dogs and hobbled horses; but their squalor was redeemed by the extravagant wildness of their looks."

Overall a rich and varied trip with ample rewards for readers fond of denser texts brightened by a humanistic flair. Hopefully the final episode will surface under the caring hands of Fermor's executors and editors now that he has died. After these first two efforts, I will gladly see him through to Constantinople.

As Robert Frost would say: You come, too.

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08/15/2011 page 21
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Newengland What's funny is how, in his hands, even "sex scenes" are good wholesome fun (and apparently consequence-free) as opposed to libidinous, or whatever the cue word might be for modern writers.


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