Monday, April 21, 2014


paper airplanes

I did take to my bed, and I did take books with me.  Two of them were superb, for different reasons.  I loved them both, again for different reasons.  I bought them at the same time on a recent visit to a local new-book store, one because I was searching for it, the other because I stumbled over it and had to bring it home.  The latter:

Adam Van Doren's An Artist in Venice (David R. Godine 2013).  A near-perfect book for the dilettante in need of more repose than usual.  Beautifully made, a pleasure to hold and read, with color illustrations throughout of the author's charming watercolors depicting Venetian architecture, and reminiscences of the author's visits to Venice, from his childhood to the present day.  A pleasant combination of art, history, and memoir.

Each chapter opens with a pertinent quotation.  One such, early on, is this, from Fran Lebowitz (p.21):

"If you read a lot, nothing is as great as
 you've imagined.  Venice is -
 Venice is better."   

Since I happen to have The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Vintage 1994) keeping company with The Family Mark Twain omnibus on my bedside table at this very minute, the presence of this unexpected quotation made me smile.  Overall, a lovely book for the house-bound and sad-at-heart, dealing as it does with the patron saint of melancholy, if one can call a city such a thing.  Watery, gorgeous, doomed, ruinous, romantic - I've never been there but I hope to see it someday.  And when I do, I'd like to make some paintings of my own.

The former - remember, there were two books? - is something I've waited to read, hoped I'd be able to read, but honestly never expected to.  When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011, I thought, Well, that's it then.  The third volume in his magnificent travel trilogy is unfinished and now it will be so forever.   But he did leave an unfinished manuscript and a related diary, and his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer and editor Colin Thubron worked together to "tidy it up" (as The New York Times review puts it).  The result:

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (New York Review Books 2014).  I finished reading it last night, with thanks in my heart.  The book takes up where Leigh Fermor's earlier books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water left off, chronicles his travels on foot throughout Bulgaria and Romania in 1934, and finishes up with his Mount Athos travel diary from early in 1935.  He has just turned 20 years of age.  Part of me is consumed with envy over the mere fact of his trip - as one of the blurbs on the back of the book jacket says, "The descriptions of waking in unfamiliar places are so seductive that even the most home-hugging reader will long to wake somewhere unknown." (Anthony Sattin, The Guardian.)  That's me, home-hugging.  Here on this rural acre.  Not walking to the Black Sea and around the edges of the Aegean.  Then I thought, Wait, when I was 20 years old, where was I...?  I was in Russia - Russia! - the only time I've ever been overseas - walking around Moscow and Leningrad and many other places between the two - looking at art both religious and secular, from candle-lit gold-edged icons to the carriages and ballgowns of Catherine the Great.  Maybe someday I'll tell you all about it, but for now the upshot is that I can't say I haven't traveled, and lived.  It's just that Leigh Fermor's books awaken that usually dormant desire with his spellbinding descriptive prose, and throughout this book the reader is aware that the world he describes is, for the most part, gone, and cannot ever be experienced this way again.  So the aforementioned desire becomes that for which there is no conclusion.  More melancholia - he is well aware of it and mentions the Romanian word dor, "...meaning a vague, anxious, unfocussed unhappiness and longing..." describing a mood of "...irretrievable gloom."   

He calls his book "private archaeology" (pp. 153-154) and that term is fitting.  The first two volumes of his trilogy are so polished and gleaming, like old silver, and this third unfinished one so broken and imperfect.  Though some of his sentences are perfect:

"Quietness dropped from the sky."  (p.99)

"The cold air was afloat with the smell of herbs."  (p.230)

I kept stopping to write them down, as I read along.  I also took note of the fact that Leigh Fermor was reading Byron's poetry for much of the tail end of this trip.  He tells us, "I bought Byron's verse yesterday, very cheap in a little bookshop." (p.270)  He bought the collection in Salonika (Thessaloniki) before departing for Mount Athos, and his journal tells us again and again of nights spent reading Byron by the fire in various monastery guest rooms.  He reads Don Juan, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, The Bride of Abydos, Lara, and to bring us back around full circle somehow, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice.  He says (p.326), "I am growing fonder and fonder of Byron; I can't see why our odd nation sets no store by him, to the amazement of Europe."

In many places he has been greeted, in fact, with enthusiasm and kindness, only because he shares his nationality with Byron.  I loved the strange contrast of his reading of worldly Don Juan and all the rest in such a devout setting, and it also brought back my own reading of Byron from over a year ago.  Leigh Fermor also speaks of another favorite Byron of mine (and many others), Robert Byron, and borrows his book about Mount Athos, The Station, to read while there (p.319).  Little did he know at the time that he himself would, alongside Robert Byron, go on to be considered one of the greatest travel (a limiting word, for what he does, but there it is) writers of the 20th century.

One of my favorite pieces in the whole book is a paragraph written on Mount Athos, describing a small part of his stay at the vertiginous Simonopetra (p.313):

"Yielding to a childish impulse, I got a piece of paper from my pack, folded it into a dart, and threw it from the balcony; it soon got into a tailspin, and corkscrewed into the treetops.  The second, however, floated out slowly, and began to descend in wide circles, trembling on the breeze, and sometimes seeming to stop in mid-air altogether.  It was wonderful to watch it, descending the void so leisurely, down, down, down, till at last, tiny with distance, it vanished among the leaves."

It is a childish gesture, but he wasn't that far from childhood, then, and that irreverent act becomes a portent.  Because our lives, and the books we make about them, are very much like little paper airplanes.  Put together somehow, launched out into the void.  Often falling from sight too quickly.  Often soaring first.  These two books, the first about Venice and the second about a long journey, remind me of the first and second of Leigh Fermor's paper darts.  One so quick and to the point, and the other - his own - the long, beautiful descent.                     

Leigh Fermor's paper airplanes remind me of Robert Louis Stevenson's boats in "Where Go the Boats", little messages sent out to be taken up, or not, by others and by future generations further down the river.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

A beautiful post.
Thanks so much, Dan.

Lesley, I just love that - it gives me chills, in a good way. Stevenson is so wonderful.
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