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The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan

Features

January 2001

Philhellene's progress: Patrick Leigh Fermor

by Ben Downing

I have carried the soldier’s musket, the traveler’s stick, the pilgrim’s staff.
—Chateaubriand

The captive must have been exhausted and afraid, but when, on the fourth day of his grueling forced march across Crete, he saw dawn break behind Mount Ida, the sight was so beautiful that it brought to his lips the opening of Horace’s Ode I.ix: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/ Soracte,” [1] he murmured. Then, just as he trailed off, one of his captors came in to take the poem over, reciting the rest of its six stanzas. At this, the captive’s startled eyes slanted down from the peak to meet those of his enemy, and, after a long thoughtful silence, he pronounced, “Ach so, Herr Major.” For the captive was a German soldier—the commander of the island’s garrison, no less. General Karl Kreipe (to give him his name) had been abducted on April 26, 1944 by a band of Greek guerrillas led by two English commandos. Over the next three weeks, the kidnappers picked their way across Crete, eluding the thousands of Nazi troops who hunted them, until eventually they were met by a British boat and whisked to Cairo, where Kreipe was handed over and the two commandos promptly awarded the D.S.O. One of these men was W. Stanley Moss, who in 1950 published a riveting account of the escapade, Ill-Met by Moonlight, later filmed by Michael Powell. The other was a certain Patrick Leigh Fermor. Disguised as a shepherd and (like Zeus in his Cretan boyhood) living largely in caves, he had spent much of the previous two years on the island organizing the resistance. Leigh Fermor it was who finished the quotation.

But where had he, who’d never completed high school, learned Horace so well? Had Kreipe asked him this, Leigh Fermor could have answered, savoring the irony, that he’d committed the odes to memory during his teenage Wanderjahr a decade earlier, when, just after Hitler’s rise to power, he’d walked clear across Germany (among other countries) with a volume of Horace for his vade mecum, often reciting the poems to himself as he tramped. About that experience he’d not yet written a public word, and would not do so for many more years. Similarly he held off recounting his aubade with Kreipe. At last, however, in the 1970s, he broached the subjects of his continental traverse and, in an aside to that account, of his fleeting bond with Kreipe. Some things are best waited for: the book in which Leigh Fermor set these matters down, A Time of Gifts (1977), along with its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), represent not only the capstone of his career but, in my opinion, the finest travel books in the language and a pinnacle of modern English prose, resplendent as Soracte or Ida in deep snow.

The deplorable fact that most Americans, even well-read ones, have never even heard, as I also had not until recently, of a figure who in Britain (to say nothing of Greece, where he lives to this day) is revered and beloved as war hero, author, and bon vivant; who is, in Jan Morris’s words, “beyond cavil the greatest of living travel writers”; and who, in those of the historian John Julius Norwich, “writes English as well as anyone alive”—all this spurs me to correct our oversight of the sublime, the peerless Patrick Leigh Fermor.

His turbulent early life is recounted in the introduction to A Time of Gifts. Shortly after his birth in 1915, his mother and sister went to join his father in India, while he was left behind “so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine.” For four years he was billeted with a Northamptonshire farming family, an experience that proved “the opposite of the ordeal Kipling describes in Baa Baa Black Sheep.” A halcyon period, this, but the taste for boisterous freedom he acquired in the fields made for trouble later on: “Those marvelously lawless years, it seems, had unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint.” Especially intolerable to him were academic strictures of any kind, and there ensued a long series of dust-ups and expulsions, hilariously related. At ten he was sent to “a school for difficult children,” among which misfits he lists

the millionaire’s nephew who chased motor-cars along country lanes with a stick, the admiral’s pretty and slightly kleptomaniac daughter, the pursuivant’s son with nightmares and an infectious inherited passion for heraldry, the backward, the somnambulists . . . and, finally, the small bad hats like me who were merely very naughty.

As Leigh Fermor observes, “English schools, the moment they depart from the conventional track, are oases of strangeness and comedy.”

 

That “conventional track” was given one last stab when he, having narrowly passed his Common Entrance exams, entered King’s School, Canterbury. For a time all went smoothly, but soon he was back to raising adolescent hob. “‘You’re mad!,’ prefects and monitors would exclaim, brows knit in glaring scrum-half bewilderment, as new misdeeds came to light. . . . Frequent gatings joined the miles of Latin hexameters copied out as impositions.” (Today such a scapegrace would no doubt be diagnosed with A.D.D. and put on ritalin.) His housemaster, in a report, described him as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” The last straw was almost literally that, a vegetable transgression: he conceived a violent crush on a local greengrocer’s daughter—a townie, as it were— and while his affair with this “sonnet-begetting beauty” never progressed beyond hand-holding, it was, once found out, too much for the school authorities. He was promptly sacked.

At loose ends, he went through the motions of preparing for Sandhurst. Soon, however, he slid into a dissipated life of partying with “the remainder, more or less, of the Bright Young People, but ten years and twenty thousand double whiskies after their heyday.” He lodged with Beatrice Stewart, a friend and model to Sargent, Sickert, Augustus John, and others. “I had a vision of myself, as I moved in, settling down to writing with a single-minded and almost Trollopian diligence.” But the ceaseless on-site bacchanalia put paid to his ambitions for the moment. Frustration mounted and was capped by despair. What to do next?

Then, at a stroke, he hatched a fantastic plan to “set out across Europe like a tramp —or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth!” (Helen Waddell’s recently published The Wandering Scholars also must have fired his imagination.) On foot, he would follow a mostly riverine course, along the Rhine and then the Danube; and as for his final destination, it could only be Constantinople, as he persists in calling Istanbul. “These certainties sprang from reading the books of Robert Byron; dragon-green Byzantium loomed serpent-haunted and gong-tormented.” By luck, he even managed a link with Byron when his friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant bequeathed to him the rucksack he had carried while accompanying Byron around Mount Athos. Thus talismanically kitted, he set sail for the Hook of Holland in December 1933.

To the Netherlands, soon crossed, Leigh Fermor devotes only a few pages. Here he documents that peculiar déjà vu provoked by moving through an intimate world that hundreds of Dutch canvases have faithfully adumbrated—of being in a painting:

So compelling is the identity of picture and reality that all along my path numberless dawdling afternoons in museums were being summoned back to life and set in motion. Every pace confirmed them. Each scene conjured up its echo. The masts and quays and gables of a river port, the backyard with a besom leaning against a brick wall, the chequer-board floors of churches—there they all were, the entire range of Dutch themes, ending in taverns where I expected to find boors carousing, and found them.

 

Such reveries were brought up short by the sight of swastikas at the German border. Leigh Fermor’s treatment of Germany, whose capacity for barbarism he later felt at close quarters, is remarkably even-handed. He never lets subsequent events retroactively embitter his memories of that winter, and is quick to acknowledge the praiseworthy aspects of German life, in particular the “old tradition . . . of benevolence to the wandering young,” of which he gratefully took advantage. Still, there were hints of the catastrophe to come, as when, at some Bierstube, the talk would take a sudden, awkward turn:

In all these conversations there was one opening I particularly dreaded: I was English? Yes. A student? Yes. At Oxford, no? No. At this point I knew what I was in for.

The summer before, the Oxford Union had voted that “under no circumstances would they fight for King and Country.” The stir it had made in England was nothing, I gathered, to the sensation in Germany. I didn’t know much about it. In my explanation—for I was always pressed for one—I depicted the whole thing as merely another act of defiance against the older generation. The very phrasing of the motion—“fight for King and Country”—was an obsolete cliché from an old recruiting poster: no one, not even the fiercest patriot, would use it now to describe a deeply-felt sentiment. My interlocutors asked: “Why not?” “Für König und Vaterland” sounded different in German ears: it was a bugle-call that had lost none of its resonance. What exactly did I mean? The motion was probably “pour épater les bourgeois,” I floundered. Here someone speaking a little French would try to help. “Um die Bürger zu erstaunen? Ach, so!” A pause would follow. “A kind of joke, really,” I went on. “Ein Scherz?” they would ask. “Ein Spass? Ein Witz?” I was surrounded by glaring eyeballs and teeth. Someone would shrug and let out a staccato laugh like three notches on a watchman’s rattle. I could detect a kindling glint of scornful pity and triumph in the surrounding eyes which declared quite plainly their certainty that, were I right, England was too far gone in degeneracy and frivolity to present a problem. But the distress I could detect on the face of a silent opponent of the régime was still harder to bear: it hinted that the will or the capacity to save civilization was lacking where it might have been hoped for.

 

Not even these omens, though, could dampen his surging enthusiasm. By Ulm, he was in full aesthetic ferment. The town’s minster is remembered thus:

The clustered piers, which looked slender for so huge a place, divided the nave into five aisles and soared to a network of groins and ribs and liernes that a slight architectural shrug would have flicked into fan tracery. But it was the choir-stalls that halted one. A bold oaken outburst of three-dimensional humanism had wrought the finials . . . into the life-size torsos, in dark wood, of the sybils: ladies that is, dressed in coifs and wimples and slashed sleeves and hatted in pikehorn headdresses like the Duchess’s in Alice in Wonderland. They craned yearning across the chancel towards Plato and Aristotle and an answering academy of pagan philosophers accoutred like burgomasters and led by a burgravial Ptolemy wielding a wooden astrolabe.

 

Then, in Munich, he became close with a family of exiled Estonian aristocrats, through them gaining entry to a rarefied network of Central European country-houses. Letters on his behalf were fired off to schlosses all along the way, and these missives “unloosed cornucopias of warm and boundless hospitality when I caught up with them.” Hopping like a latter-day Rilke from castle to castle (and mildly reproaching himself for having abandoned his ideal of scroungy vagabondage), he glimpsed a whole genteel world teetering on the cusp of extinction. Here he is being regaled by a kindly old count in Austria:

As I listened, the white gloved hand of the Lincoln green footman poured out coffee and placed little silver vermeil-lined goblets beside the Count’s cup and mine. Then he filled them with what I thought was schnapps. I’d learnt what to do with that in recent weeks—or so I thought—and I was picking it up to tilt it into the coffee when the Count broke off his narrative with a quavering cry as though an arrow from some hidden archer had transfixed him. “NEIN! NEIN!,” he faltered. A pleading, ringed and almost transparent hand was stretched out and the stress of the moment drove him into English: “No! No! Nononono—!” I didn’t know what had happened. Nor did the others. There was a moment of perplexity. Then, following the Count’s troubled glance, all our eyes alighted simultaneously on the little poised silver goblet in my hand. . . . His anxiety had been for my sake, he said apologetically. The liquid wasn’t schnapps at all, but incomparable nectar—the last of a bottle of liqueur distilled from Tokay grapes and an elixir of fabulous rarity and age.

 

Further on, in Slovakia, he was hosted by the marvelously named Baron Pips, who put him on to Proust. In Budapest—we’ve now shifted, by the way, to Between the Woods and the Water—he caroused with the local jeunesse dorée; and when he set out across the Great Hungarian Plain, he found still more drawbridges lowering at his approach: “word of the hazard moving across the south-east Alföld [i.e., the Plain] must have got about and thank God I shall never know whether it loomed as a threat or a bit of a joke.” Crossing into Transylvania, he found himself swept up into a strange quaint universe of Magyar squires, all chafing under the Treaty of Trianon, which had left them marooned in Romania. [3] “The prevailing atmosphere surrounding these kastély-dwellers conjured up that of the tumbling demesnes of the Anglo-Irish in Waterford or Galway, with all their sadness and their magic. . . . They lived in a backward-looking, a genealogical, almost a Confucian dream and many sentences ended in a sigh.” His picture of this isolate elite, haunted by “phantoms of their lost ascendancy,” is unforgettable, as witness the following inventory:

All through the afternoon the hills had been growing in height and now they rolled into the distance behind a steep and solitary hemisphere clad to the summit with vineyard. We turned into the tall gates at the foot of it and a long sweep of grass brought us to a Palladian façade just as night was falling. Two herons rose as we approached; the shadows were full of the scent of lilac. Beyond the french windows, a coifed and barefoot maid with a spill was lighting lamps down a long room and, with each new pool of light, Biedermeier furniture took shape and chairs and sofas where only a few strands of the original fabric still lingered; there were faded plum-coloured curtains and a grand piano laden with framed photographs and old family albums with brass clasps; antlers branched, a stuffed lynx pricked its ears, ancestors with swords and furred tunics dimly postured. A white stove soared between bookcases, bear-skins spread underfoot, and . . . a sideboard carried an array of silver cigarette-cases with the arms and monograms of friends who had bestowed them for standing godfather or being best man at a wedding or second in a duel. There was a polished shellcase from some Silesian battle, a congeries of thimble-sized goblets, a scimitar with a turquoise-encrusted scabbard, folded newspapers—Az Ujság and Pesti Hírlap sent from Budapest, and the Wiener Salonblatt, an Austrian Tatler full of pictures of shooting parties, equestrian events and smart balls far away, posted from Vienna. Among the silver frames was a daguerreotype of the Empress Elizabeth—Queen, rather, in this lost province of the former Kingdom—another of the Regent dressed as admiral of a vanished fleet, and a third of Archduke Otto in the pelts and the plumes of a Hungarian magnate. Red, green and blue, the squat volumes of the Almanach de Gotha were ready to pounce.

 

Despite their dislocation, these gentlefolk never failed to exude, he found, “charm and douceur de vivre.” As spring ripened into summer, and as he pushed further into Romania, he joined in their gay round of parties and excursions. Also flings: this magic season culminated for him in a brief yet torrid affair with a married Hungarian woman, Angéla. Zipping around Transylvania in a touring car with Angéla and his friend István, his bliss was such that even the news of Dollfuss’s assassination, filtering in from Austria, cast but a momentary pall. Finally he tore himself loose from this idyll, reverting to his hobo ways as he headed up into the Carpathians, where he became the guest, successively, of backwoods Gypsies and Jews. (A rabbi’s bonhomie especially delighted him: “I had thought I could never get on friendly terms with such unassailable-looking men.”) Descending from the mountains to the spa town of Baile Herculane to seek out a friend of István, he indulged in one last gilded frolic before sailing down a gorge of the Danube known as the Iron Gates, which is where the second volume ends.

It is difficult, even quoting extensively as I have, to convey the almost preternatural copiousness of these two books. There are disquisitions on everything from the Landsknecht (a Renaissance infantryman) to the chibook (a Turkish pipe) and everyone from the Jazyges (“an Iranian speaking branch of the Sarmatians mentioned by Herodotus”) to the Uniats (a Greco-Catholic sect), from St. John Nepomuk to Vlad the Impaler; vivid evocations of Bavarian beerhalls, Slovak red-light districts, and countless other milieux; and razor-sharp, affectionate, often uproarious sketches of the oddballs Leigh Fermor met along the way. These include a Frisian Islander given to speaking garbled neo-Elizabethan—“Among good and luckless men,” he warned, “there is no lack of base ones, footpads and knaves who never shrink from purloining”—and a Romanian count, famous as an entomologist, whose Scottish nanny had left him muttering things like “I hae me doots.” Far from surfeit, the effect of so much muchness is a cumulative magnificence, building up in golden passage after golden passage.

Yet what of the more than forty-year gap between journey and tale? How can Leigh Fermor possibly remember all this? One answer is that he took extensive notes at the time, and has since retraced parts of his route. Another is that he’s added a lot: there are great reams of learning here that not even the most precocious teenager can have mastered. But still. Wisely, he negotiates this narrative dilemma by ignoring it; never does he wring his hands and fret, in effect, “Well, admittedly I didn’t know such and such back then.” That he often embellishes, that he credits to youth what properly belongs to riper age, hardly needs acknowledgment, and so commandingly articulated is his point of view that one doesn’t think to question it. In fact, this overlay of adult sensibility vastly enhances the account, investing it with a rich patina.

But it’s the boy who predominates. Few writers catch as well as Leigh Fermor the raw jubilation of youth, and fewer still render it so infectious. As he advances into a deepening enchantment, so goes the reader headlong with him. Schlosses and minsters, barons and counts, Gypsies and Jazyges, Tokay and chibook: all contribute to the spell, yet what matters more is how all these are felt, the way each fillips along the boy’s cultural education—his Bildung, if you will. Many books implicitly concern the windfall lessons of travel; these explicitly do. Their narrative treats, ultimately, of grace; it’s the story of how Leigh Fermor put juvenile ignominy behind him and gained, in its place, mature knowledge and confidence.

This whole ameliorative dimension of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, combined with the profusion and sweep of their prose, makes the books, by the end, overwhelmingly beautiful and satisfying. Small wonder they’ve inspired younger writers—such as Jason Goodwin, author of On Foot to the Golden Horn—and pilgrims to follow in Leigh Fermor’s tracks. When he finishes his trilogy, it will constitute one of the great sequences in modern literature. I gather that John Murray, Leigh Fermor’s publisher, fields, on average, one call per week from a fan desperate to know when the last volume is expected. [4]

Leigh Fermor’s activities over the next few years remain murky to me; he alludes to them here and there, but only vaguely. He took part, apparently, in an anti-royalist revolt in northern Greece, attaching himself to a cavalry regiment. According to his schoolday friend Alan Watts, the famous proponent of Zen, in this period he also “visited the monks at Mount Athos, which he discovered to be an elaborate homosexual organization, and then spent a year as the lover of a Rumanian princess.” I’m unsure about the princess part, but it does seem that Leigh Fermor lived for a while —two years, in fact—with a family in Moldavia, until the war forced his departure. Post-bellum he began roving again, this time in the Caribbean and Central America, before eventually settling in the Peloponnese, where he lives with his wife in a house he designed and built (architecture being one of his main preoccupations).

His remaining works can be neatly halved: there are three full-dress travelogues and three minor productions. Of these latter, the earliest is a suave novella, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), which concerns a Titanic-meets-Mount Pelée disaster: during Mardi Gras, a volcanic Caribbean island erupts, then sinks, leaving one survivor. Next came A Time to Keep Silence (1957), a short volume about monasteries and my favorite of this group. [5] A sample:

According to a rumour widespread in France, Trappist monks greet each other daily with the words: Frère, il faut mourir, and a mythical agendum in the duties of a monk is the digging of his own tomb, a few spadefuls a day. Another legend represents all Trappists as the authors of atrocious and undetected crimes, preferably the murder of their fathers and mothers, for which only the long penance of Trappist life can atone. Most sinister of all is the theory that the marshy country in which Cistercian monasteries are usually situated is chosen so that the vapours of the swamps may speed their inhabitants to an early grave. Even the name encourages such fables: the unwary traveller advances, the Trappe swings open, he drops into the dark, he is caught.

Last of the triad is Three Letters from the Andes (1991), a very slight affair indeed and not particularly recommended.

 

As for the major books, The Traveller’s Tree (1950) recounts Leigh Fermor’s jaunt in the Caribbean. Though often superb, it falls short of his best European work; his manner somehow suits the New World less than the Old. Then there are his two prodigious books about Greece, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), both of them stuffed to burst- ing with Hellenic arcana. Roumeli features some quintessentially Leigh Fermorian adventures, including visits to the Sarakatsáns, a mysterious nomadic people, and the Kravarites, a remote community of mendicants and hustlers who speak a private language (“the odd ethnological rock-pools of Europe” have always fascinated him), as well as an errand to Missolonghi to retrieve a pair of Lord Byron’s shoes. Still, the clear choice here is Mani, Leigh Fermor’s other flat-out masterpiece.

The Mani, a backward, hardscrabble region of the southern Peloponnese, would seem a tough row for a writer to hoe. But, like Norman Douglas in Old Calabria, Leigh Fermor turns up, in this unpromising place, a fine trove of history (“It is a little known fact, recorded in the Wars of Procopius, that Genseric, King of the Vandals, after he had conquered Carthage, purposed to invade the Mani”) and folklore:

Belief in the prophetic importance of dreams, a pan-Hellenic superstition, is even stronger here than in the rest of Greece. In Greece, one ‘sees’ a dream, but the exegesis of what one sees varies from region to region. In the Mani, in unconscious conformity with many modern theories, it goes by opposites. The dream-taste of sweetness or the sight of sweet things— cakes or a honeycomb, for instance—spell poison and bitterness; flowers mean sorrow foretell high words and a quarrel. . . . To have meaning, a dream must be short—a sort of illuminating flash. Long dreams are attributed to indigestion and discounted. . . . If a dream seems totally irrelevant it may be the case of a wrong address, as they are sometimes delivered by mistake to people with the same name as the true destinatory. The dreamer must try and find out the real addressee and hand the dream over.

 

Nancy Mitford, in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, once sniffed about Paddy (as he’s universally known) “wasting his excellent language on Greek peasants.” How dreadfully déclassé! True, he does sometimes wax rather misty over the manifold virtues of rural Greek character. But when sticking to custom he’s crystalline:

Often, from its inception, one is able to predict the whole course of a village conversation, what topic will unleash another, where the sighs and the laughter will come, the signs of the cross and the right hand displayed palm outwards and fingers extended in anathema; where heads will be shaken or the edge of the table struck in indignation with the index-finger doubled up. They unfold with the inevitability of ritual. . . . Many an hour of hilarity is really a long game of conkers and there is a strange pleasure for the experienced in observing the punctilio of stroke and counterstroke.

 

Along with this kind of hominess, there is, as ever, plenty of pyrotechnic display. One of Leigh Fermor’s key obsessions remains Byzantium, which he can scarcely mention without a sigh of Yeatsian nostalgia. Even in The Traveller’s Tree, he manages to stumble, in a Barbados churchyard, on the grave of Ferdinando Palaeologus, a seventeenth-century descendant of Constantine XI. The Mani provides far broader license for his Byzantine excurses:

Very often, wandering in the wilder parts of Greece, the traveller is astonished in semi-abandoned chapels . . . by the subtlety with which the painter has availed himself of the sparse elbow-room for private inspiration that the formulae of Byzantine iconography allow him: a convention so strict that it was finally codified by a sixteenth-century painter-monk called Dionysios of Phourna. He formalized the tradition of centuries into an iconographic dogma and deviation became, as it were, tantamount to schism. He it was who made the army of saints and martyrs and prophets identifiable at once by certain unvarying indices— the cut and growth of saints’ beards, their fall in waves or ringlets, their smooth flow or their shagginess. . . . He regulated—it was more the ratification of old custom than the launching of new fiats—the wings that anomalously spring from the shoulder blades of St. John Prodromos, and placed his head on a charger in his hands as well as on his neck. He stipulated the angle at which a timely sapling, springing from the ground, should redeem the nakedness of St. Onouphrios from scandal.

 

Yet another of Leigh Fermor’s hobbyhorses is costume, of whose history and lexicon he evinces a knowledge almost unseemly in a heterosexual male; clearly a fashion-plate himself, he can’t resist cataloging the dress of everyone he comes across. In Mani, we are treated to a spectacular digression on two kinds of hats, the gudjaman and the ishlik, both worn by Phanariot hospodars in the Danubian principalities of the Ottoman Empire. “What is the origin of these sartorial freaks?,” Leigh Fermor wonders aloud, then lets fly with conjectures that reach into Persia and Muscovy and that adduce, among others, Filarete, Piero della Francesca, and Pisanello —all by way of illustrating “the Byzantine passion for strange hats.” We also hear of the fustanella, a white skirt once worn by Greek men:

Under King Otto and Queen Amelia, the fustanella and all its attendant finery, with superbly Byronic costumes for ladies-in-waiting, was the official court dress. When he was Greek Minister in Paris the great Kolletis . . . would often wear it, and the Goncourt journals speak with admiration of his presiding fully-kilted over delicious banquets of agneau à la pallikare. . . . Wittelsbach eccentricity, and a touching loyalty to the country he adopted, impelled King Otto to affect the fustanella in Bavaria after his abdication. It is thus clad that we may think of him among the fir trees and neo-gothic pinnacles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.

 

Finally there are, as always, remembrances of drinks past:

The stone flags of the water’s edge, where [we] sat down to dinner, flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off. On a sudden, silent decision we stepped down fully dressed into the sea carrying the iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs. . . . The waiter, arriving a moment later, gazed with surprise at the empty space on the quay; then, observing us with a quickly-masked flicker of pleasure, he stepped unhesitatingly into the sea, advanced waist deep with a butler’s gravity, and, saying nothing more than “Dinner-time,” placed our meal before us. . . . Diverted by this spectacle, the diners on the quay sent us can upon can of retsina till the table was crowded. A dozen boats soon gathered there, the craft radiating from the table’s circumference like the petals of a marguerite. Leaning from their gently rocking boats, the fishermen helped us out with this sudden flux of wine.

Almost as much toping goes on in Leigh Fermor as in Hemingway, and his wassails sound like far more fun than Papa’s.

 

Of all the sweeping judgments one might pronounce on the literature of the century just departed, fewer can be ventured more confidently than that the British dominated travel writing. Admittedly, the term itself is baggy and unappealing; Leigh Fermor himself, as did his close friend Bruce Chatwin, [6] abominates it. But whatever one chooses to call the form, the British knack for it is undeniable. Consider first the many authors admired mostly for their peregrinations, even a short a list of whom surely must include (by order of birth) Norman Douglas, H. M. Tomlinson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Freya Stark, Robert Byron, Peter Fleming, Wilfred Thesiger, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, and Redmond O’Hanlon. And now add those known chiefly for other work, but who’ve produced travel writing of note: Belloc, Maugham, Forster, Lawrence, West, Huxley, Ackerley, Pritchett, Waugh, Greene, Isherwood, Auden, and Durrell, to name only a few. It seems almost obligatory, in fact, for British men and women of letters at least to dabble in the genre, which ranges in nature from perilous exploration of Antarctica (Cherry-Garrard) or Arabia (Thesiger) to setting up adorable house in Provence (you know who), and in length from the brisk metropolitan sketches of Morris to the hulking immensity of West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

As for what makes the British so adept, such speculations are beyond the scope of this essay. I would remark, however, that the signal feature of their travelogues is an emphatic, often prickly individualism. (This extends even to studiously ignoring each other when they meet in godforsaken places. Just so, A. W. Kinglake greets another Englishman in the Sinai with no more than a tip of his cap, “as if we had passed in Pall Mall.” In Brazilian Adventure, Peter Fleming shamefully confesses to having saluted a compatriot deep in the Amazon.) The impression of forceful and idiosyncratic personality is stronger with them, the attack more distinct. And of course the humor is matchless. Whether they purvey the imperious comedy of taking no guff from the natives or the gentler sort which derives from exposing their own blunders—Fleming, Newby, and O’Hanlon are self-skewering masters of ineptitude—British travelers can make the wretchedest, most hazardous trek seem an occasion for mirth.

Of these tendencies Leigh Fermor seems to me both the apotheosis and, in important ways, the opposite. Supremely independent and amusing he is, to be sure. But where the prevailing temper leans, by degrees, toward the skeptical, the tart, even the downright cantankerous—Douglas, Byron, and Raban (splendid writers all) are three very different examples of this—he is sanguine, cheerful, tolerant. At bottom he’s an incorrigible romantic in several senses of that overtaxed word. It shows in his passionate exuberance; his love of pageantry and heraldry; his “minnesinger disposition” (as Iain Moncreiffe dubbed it); the dashing, gallant quality to everything he does and writes; and, above all, the free rein he gives to fancy and imagination. But Leigh Fermor’s is a romanticism primarily of fact, which anchors his wildest fantasias and of which he possesses a stupefying store. Nor does there cling to his erudition the least stale whiff of pedantry or cant; his is the limber, rangy, magpie learning of the true autodidact, of a man who’s never come within a mile of a university.

And then there’s his prose. Unmistakable, without obvious antecedents, and fairly leaping off the page, the style of Patrick Leigh Fermor is a thing to make us mere hacks despair; for liveliness, momentum, and sheer, unfailing felicity of expression, there are few in the language to equal him. (Those of ascetic taste will find him purple. They are to be pitied.) At once relaxed and highly wrought, his prose moves to a cantering rhythm all its own and blithely flouts certain proprieties. No model for schoolboys, it is, to borrow Leigh Fermor’s epithet for Robert Byron, “uncircumspect”—a prolix, run-on, spendthrift style, rife with exclamation marks and polysyndeton. It points up a basic yet crucial obligation of style in general: that it convey personality and point of view. What makes Leigh Fermor’s style so remarkable isn’t its flourishes of rhetoric or niceties of phrasing, choice though these may be, but how fully it bears out his robust character, how perfectly suited an instrument it is to him, and him alone.

Not only other writers may find themselves humbled. Fellow ramblers too. Next to Leigh Fermor, who is able, at any point on the map, both to notice and to put into play so formidably much, one cannot help but feel somewhat lumpish and incurious, like a rank package tourist. Yet this soon wears off. At communicating pleasure he is nonpareil, and one quickly catches his fever. For me, he captures uniquely the excitement, meaning, and value of travel; one learns how to travel better by reading him.

Which isn’t to suggest that he has little to offer the sedentary. Even if you rarely quit your couch and opine, with Emerson, that travel is a fool’s paradise, you are bound to enjoy Leigh Fermor purely as a historian, albeit of eccentric stripe. His great subject, to the extent he can be said to have one, is, quite simply, Europe. Brought alive in his pages as in no others known to me are the continent’s heroes and villains, courtiers and peasants, wars and belles époques, faiths, tongues, buildings, garments, even tools: a whole ramified civilization of infinite nuance and cross-currents. Also the landscape in which all this unfolds—not just nature, though certainly that, but a sort of peopled, transhistorical topography.

Quite a mouthful! What I mean is better shown than told, so I’ll conclude by citing two last passages. Here’s Leigh Fermor in Mani, watching a cruise ship pass offshore:

The liner followed the same path as many a Phoenician galley and many a quinquereme; heading northward in the invisible groove of Harald Hardraada’s ships, sailing shield-hung and dragon-prowed from the Byzantine splendour of Mickelgaard for grey northern fjords.

And here he is in A Time of Gifts, gazing out across Slovakia but ruminating on landscape generally:

The shift of mountains and plains and rivers and the evidence of enormous movements of races gave me the feeling of travelling across a relief map where the initiative lay wholly with the mineral world. It evicted with drought and ice, beckoned with water and grazing, decoyed with mirages and tilted and shifted populations . . . steering languages, breaking them up into tribes and dialects, assembling and confronting kingdoms, grouping civilizations, channelling beliefs, guiding armies and blocking the way to philosophies and styles of art and finally giving them a relenting shove through the steeper passes.

The kind of mineral push, perhaps, that brings incongruously together, on a Greek mountainside, a German and an Englishman, communing at riflepoint over the verses of a long-dead Roman.

 

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

 

  1. In J. V. Cunningham’s translation, “See how resplendent in deep snow/ Soracte stands.” Go back to the text.
  2. For a magisterial account of Germano-Romanian life in the same period, see The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori (1989). Go back to the text.
  3. John Murray keeps strikingly handsome clothbound editions of most of Leigh Fermor’s books in print in England. Penguin does the same with paperbacks, but, inexplicably and unforgiveably, does not distribute them in the United States. Go back to the text.
  4. The book is back in print here from the Akadine Press as part of their notable A Common Reader series. The title can only be ordered direct (800-832-7323 or www.commonreader.com). Go back to the text.
  5. Chatwin’s latest biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, describes Leigh Fermor as Chatwin’s “last guru” and “a man of action and of knowledge to a degree that Bruce envied.” Chatwin’s ashes are buried near the Leigh Fermors’ house. Go back to the text.

 

Ben Downing's Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross was published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 January 2001, on page 9

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Philhellene-s-progress--Patrick-Leigh-Fermor-2268

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