Saturday, May 31, 2014

Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road: "A Bird of Passage Like the Rest of Us"

I've said before on this blog that, for my money, Patrick Leigh Fermor is one of the great English-language prose stylists of the last century. Reading his The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, ed. Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper (NY: New York Review of Books, 2013), last week hasn't in the least disabused me of that opinion. 

Quite the contrary. Here's a beautiful excerpt:

Time for another slivo and a couple of roast paprika-pods. A shadow appeared on the awnings further up the land, gliding across each rectangle of canvas towards my table, sinking in the sag, rising again at the edge, and moving on to the next with a flicker of dislocation, then gliding onwards. As it crossed the stripe of sunlight between two awnings, it threaded the crimson beak of a stork through the air, a few inches above the gap; then came a long white neck, the swell of snowy breast feathers and the six-foot motionless span of its white wings and the tips of the black flight feathers upturned and separated as fingers in the lift of the air current. The white belly followed, tapering, and then, trailing behind, the fan of its tail and long parallel legs of crimson lacquer, the toes of each of them closed and streamlined, but the whole shape flattening, when the band of sunlight was crossed, into a two-dimensional shadow once more, enormously displayed across the rectangle of cloth, as distinct and nearly as immobile, so languid was its flight, as an emblematic bird on a sail; then sliding across it and along the nearly still corridor of air between the invisible eaves and the chimneys, dipping along the curl of the lane like a sigh of wonder, and, at last, a furlong away slowly pivoting, at a gradual tilt, out of sight. A bird of passage like the rest of us (p. 34).

The stork flight Leigh Fermor is describing was, as allusions in the text suggest, over an outdoor market-cum-café. The locale: Plovdiv in Bulgaria in the fall of 1934.  

A bird of passage like the rest of us: as with his preceding books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road is pure enchantment. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to discover how English prose should be written, but seldom is.

The photograph is from the Sorrow's Beauty website of Sheila Johnson.

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