Patrick Leigh Fermor and the monks of the west

An excellent article from the Catholic Herald by Michael Duggan; “religious references” in his work (and life). I hope that you enjoy this.

Seventy years ago, in September 1948, the English author Patrick Leigh Fermor decamped from the nightspots of Paris to the Benedictine monastery ‎of Saint Wandrille de Fontanelle near Rouen. His purpose was to work on a draft of what would become The Traveller’s Tree, an account of his voyages in the Caribbean. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the books recounting part of an epic pre-war walk across Europe as an eighteen-year-old that would secure Leigh Fermor’s lasting fame, were still decades away.

As his letters published last year show, ‘Paddy’ had a penchant for high living, forever drawn to the “soft hiss of the soda syphon”. His ingenious, entirely euphemistic descriptions of sex are a bawdy hoot. He once provoked a massive punch-up at the Kildare Hunt Ball and was only rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and, not long after the near-riot in Ireland, Paddy’s lover.

His publisher, Jock Murray, once half-jokingly suggested a boarding house in Aberdeen as the ideal place for Paddy to knuckle down and finish a much-delayed volume. Even so, a monastery steeped in the ascetic rigour of the Western tradition seems like an extreme measure for a man who had just been staying at the Hotel Louisiane, around the corner from the Café Flore and the Deux Magots. Moreover, Leigh Fermor wasn’t a Catholic (though it is somewhat more complicated than that, as we shall see).

After his death in 2011, the First Things website published a touching, fulsome appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor written by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart: touching because the news of the passing of a very elderly man whom he did not know seemed to have left Hart discombobulated and bereft; and fulsome because Hart believes (as do I) that here was a writer whose prose “has few credible rivals in modern English letters”.

Toward the middle of this article, Hart makes a brief reference to the place of religion in the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor. He mentions the twentieth birthday spent at the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon on Mount Athos and praises Leigh Fermor’s book Roumeli for “some of the most illuminating writing on Orthodox monasticism in English”. But he also notes that even close friends seemed uncertain whether Paddy actually had any particular religious convictions at all.

As it happens, the matter of Patrick Leigh Fermor and religion need not rest where David Bentley Hart leaves it. Artemis Cooper’s fine 2012 biography contains an intriguing clue to her subject’s religious feelings. Though he never actually converted from the Anglicanism of his childhood, it appears that Paddy identified himself as “R.C.” on official forms right up to the end of the Second World War, when he was thirty years old. After that, his religious feelings, which at times during his childhood took the form of what Paddy called a religious mania, seemed to subside.

However, while the mania may have lapsed, the historical allure of Christendom never seemed to fade for him. The famous trilogy about his trek across Europe (the final instalment, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2014) is studded with episodes and incidents redolent of the continent’s historic Christian culture. Disembarking in Rotterdam in the dead of night in December 1933, at the beginning of his epic adventure, the first person Leigh Fermor saw was Erasmus, in the form of a snow-covered statue outside the fifteenth-century Laurenskerk. Not long after, he spent a night discussing, among other things, the correct pronunciation of Erasmic Latin with a couple of German students in the house of the widow of a Classics professor in Cologne. His account of arriving in Hungary on Holy Saturday 1934, crossing the bridge at Esztergom just in time to be swept up into the ceremony at the great cathedral, is unforgettable.

Leigh Fermor’s literary heroes included the French Catholic novelist, J-K Huysmans, who sparked his interest in monasticism, and St Basil of Caesarea in whom Paddy seemed to find something he craved: a fusion of Christian and classical humanism, such that “the polished Greek sentences are sprinkled with classical allusions one would expect more readily in the writings of a fifteenth-century humanist than in those of a Doctor of the Church living in the reign of Julian”. In Basil’s letters, there was “a mood of humanity and simplicity, (…) an absence of bigotry that seems to blow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still.”

Religion was also, of course, an indissoluble part of the Greece he loved and celebrated. According to Artemis Cooper, Paddy liked to think that he could still detect a sort of eternal, cultural Europe, untouched behind the cities and factories, where life was dictated by the rounds of the seasons and the feasts of the Church. He liked to claim descent from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire who had originally journeyed to Austria from Ireland; and he lamented the desolation caused by the Reformation, seeing the ruined abbeys of England as “the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.”

Leigh Fermor did write one book on an overtly religious theme: a slim volume entitled A Time to Keep Silence, which records his sojourns in Saint Wandrille and two other French monasteries – Solesmes and La Grande Trappe – along with a trip to see the enigmatic, abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of this book, first published in 1957, is the depiction of an outsider, a self-proclaimed homme moyen sensuel, adapting to the austerity of life in a western monastery. The monks Leigh Fermor had known previously, in wartime Crete where he served as a British army intelligence officer fighting alongside the resistance, were holy men who were nonetheless prone to “pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols, cross-questioning me interminably about Churchill, and snoring under olive trees while the sun’s beams fell perpendicularly on the Libyan Sea”.

And he did also have some brief encounters with the monks of western Europe when walking his way across Europe. As recounted in A Time of Gifts, when he made his way to the workhouse in Düsseldorf in search of a place to stay, a bearded Franciscan in clogs led him to the dormitory. There he had a night disturbed by the snores, groans, sighs and shouts of the other inmates. (“Lying in wait in the rafters all the nightmares of the Rhineland descended on the sleepers.”) The next day, the monks on duty supplied him and his companions, who were set to work on cutting logs, with axes and saws, coffee and black bread.

Later, at the great abbey of Melk in Austria, a young, learned, amusing Benedictine, speaking beautiful French, showed him around, proving to be the “ideal cicerone” for the splendours beyond the gatehouse. Further up the Danube, at the Abbey of Göttweig, he is introduced to an Irish monk “of immense age and great charm”, who “could have sat for a picture of St Jerome”.

Come 1948, his encounter with monasticism was defined, at first, by an initial descent into “unspeakable ‎loneliness”, “overwhelming gloom and acidie”, a sensation of “circumabient and impending death”. But then comes his re-emergence, still within the monastic walls, into a life of “light, dreamless and perfect sleep”, lasting five hours and coming to an end “with no harder shock than that of a boat’s keel grounding on a lake shore”; of awakenings “full of energy and limpid freshness”; and of days of “absolute vitality and god-like freedom”. (Later on, leaving the monastery, and returning to the kind of world announced by Cinzano advertisements seen from a train window, would induce a painful process of adaptation in reverse.)

Leigh Fermor was full of admiration and respect for the role that the monks of the West had played in history, for the centuries in which they were the only guardians of things he loved: literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities. He also found that the company of the small number of living monks‎ he was permitted to speak with was like the company of any civilised, well-educated Frenchmen “with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness which is common to the whole community”.

More profoundly, he also came to appreciate the role of monasteries in what is sometimes called the economy of salvation. It was their belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer – “a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought” – that explains the sacrifices these men made. Vows embracing poverty, chastity and obedience were destined to smite “all fetters that chained them to the world, to free them for action, for the worship of God and the practice of prayer; for the pursuit, in short, of sanctity.”

Leigh Fermor smiled at the fact that the monastic habitat should prove “favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed”: his ambition, on the one hand, to get a book finished and his publisher off his back, and, on the other hand, the ambitions of the monks. These men, he found, could still embark on those “hazardous mystical journeys of the soul” which culminate in “blinding moments of union with the Godhead”, the very inkling of which, “since Donne, Quarley, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne wrote their poems, has drained away from life in England”.

In the Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence, Paddy grappled briefly with the question of what his experiences inside the monastery walls might ultimately signify. He wrote that he was profoundly affected by the places he described. Though unsure about what his feelings amounted to, he was convinced that they were “deeper than mere interest and curiosity, and more important than the pleasure an historian or an aesthete finds in ancient buildings and liturgy”. In monasteries, he found “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”. Describing himself as no stranger to “recalcitrance or scepticism or plain incapacity for belief”, he implies nevertheless that he had been the beneficiary of a “supernatural windfall”.

In the end, Paddy never fully cashed in this windfall. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, but there were to be no more books on an exclusively religious theme. His life (a quite extraordinary one, in ways I have barely touched on here) was filled with many different interests, pleasures and friendships, some of which would have thrown up serious obstacles to any burgeoning Catholicism.

He had an open relationship with his wife, Joan Rayner, who was also a committed atheist. While he stayed on in Rome to witness (and “swoon” at) the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958, his primary reason for being in the Eternal City in the first place was to conduct an affair with a young divorcee. Three pages of A Time to Keep Silence are devoted to the conflicts and mysteries of chastity.

I am speculating, of course, but perhaps Leigh Fermor’s temperament – that old, latent religious mania – sometimes led him back towards the threshold of belief, only for his appetites to lead him away again, down the path of least resistance, garlanded with pleasures, adored by friends and lovers, and adoring them in return.

Many of us know some version of this dilemma. We need a strong motive to turn our backs on the worldly delights which converged on Patrick Leigh Fermor like iron filings on a magnet, in favour of the less certain rewards that emanate from spiritual dread and spiritual joy. As Artemis Cooper has pointed out to me, Paddy (unlike, say, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene) “could live without answers to the big questions: what am I doing here, why is there evil in the world, what has God got to do with it. These big themes didn’t preoccupy him much.”

To those who’ve read the books and letters, this observation has the ring of truth. But could it be that Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to live a life seemingly unpreoccupied by God because of the knowledge that he had acquired at first-hand in places like Saint Wandrille and La Grande Trappe?

This was the knowledge that, all the while, in those monasteries scattered across the West, which he called “silent factories of prayer”, there were other civilized, well-educated gentlemen just like him who had succeeded in abandoning everything. And that they had done so in order to help their fellow-men, and themselves, to meet something he had intuited himself during those brief pockets of time spent in monastic cells, woods and cloisters, something which he and most of us push to the back of our minds for most of the time, and to which he gave a name: “the terrifying problem of eternity”.

Advertisements

The romance of the past: that’s what drives the traveller’s impossible quest

‘Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Writing in 1958 about the little Greek town that was eventually to become his home, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was satisfied to note that the Guide Bleu gave it only half a line. “It is better so,” Leigh Fermor wrote. “It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”

By Ian Jack

First published in the Guardian

His next paragraph describes the town in early evening when, waiting for a freshly caught fish to cook on a grill, he and a few fishermen sit under a mulberry tree outside a taverna and watch the sun sink over the mountains. Caiques – the wooden working boats of the Mediterranean – rock gently “with each sigh of the green transparent water … tethered a few yards above their shadows on the pebbly bottom”. One of Leigh Fermor’s typically exact (and perhaps exacting) images follows when he describes the sea lapping over a flat rock “with just enough impetus to net the surface with a frail white reticulation of foam which slid softly away and dissolved while a new one formed”.

Some of these things still exist. The Mediterranean is clear and green and blue, and on a calm day it will rise and fall against the rocks as Leigh Fermor describes. The sun goes down as he depicts it. There is even a caique or two; and, of course, tavernas – more tavernas than ever. But in most other ways the township of Kardamyli in the Peloponnese is utterly changed. Charter flights land at the little airport in the regional capital, Kalamata, and from there a twisting, expensively engineered road takes taxis, hire cars and air-conditioned coaches over the mountains to a resort that has nice hotels, trinket shops and olive-oil boutiques, as well as pretty restaurants with tea-lights on their tables that look down on the sea. The usual story: Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be, and the writer himself is partly to blame.

The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew. First, he published an account of his travels in the southern Peloponnese, the peninsula known as the Mani, which was then not much visited, and invested it with the beauty and mystery of a place and people that the 20th century had passed by. Then, six years later, in 1964, he bought a plot of land there – in a bay to the south of Kardamyli – and built a beautiful villa that he lived in almost to the last day of his life, in June 2011. Today his books are available in at least three languages in the local bookshop. People go there because of him – to experience similar sights and sensations to those he saw and felt, even though they understand this can never be completely accomplished, the world having moved on.

But was it ever quite as he described it in the first place? Leigh Fermor’s view of the Mani was essentially romantic: there are few better describers of landscape, but it’s a landscape with omissions. His first sight of Kardamyli is of an enchanting, castellated hamlet at the sea’s edge, where towers, turrets and cupolas rise above houses built of golden stone. “It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece,” Leigh Fermor writes in a page-long depiction that somehow ignores the village’s tallest manmade attribute: the factory chimney of the old olive-oil works. This is difficult to miss. Look down on Kardamyli from almost any vantage point and there it stands, its bricks pale against a background of blue sea and rather more noticeable than the towers and the turrets lying further inland among the cypresses and the olive groves.

The towers date from the age of banditry, feuding clans and resistance to the Ottoman empire. The chimney has cleaner and more peaceable origins. This month I lived next door to it for 10 days in a fine little hotel, and swam morning and afternoon from a ladder bolted to the rocks. The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore behind, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew and rusting pipes sprang from the wall at odd angles. A high fence surrounded it, with warnings to keep out.

Olive oil had once been made here – not virgin, cold-pressed or estate bottled, but the roughest kind, which goes into soap. Some accounts online suggest it was owned by the Palmolive company (and when I read this I understood, for the first time, how that familiar name had come about); others say a local family were the proprietors. It used olives – and the residues left from edible oil production – from as far away as Crete, shipped to a concrete pier nearby whose size was inexplicable unless you knew its original purpose. It was said to have employed 150 workers, with steam machinery that, as well as operating its crushers, had the spare capacity to supply the village with its first electricity. Opened in 1932, it closed in either 1958 or 1975 – local memories differed – when new techniques of oil production made it redundant. Since then, a dispute among the site’s three or four owners had prevented demolition or development.

I liked the chimney; three stepped rings of brick, progressively larger in diameter, gave its top a decorative flourish. But then, I’ve always been fascinated by factory chimneys of all kinds, for reasons that I’ve never really examined, the most important probably being that I spent some of my childhood among them: the great smoking verticals of the Lancashire plain, formerly beloved of geography textbooks as the illustrations to the chapter on the textile industry. To find them situated outside what might be considered their natural homelands – the old industrial towns of northern Europe and North America – is always a surprise. They look solitary, like isolated monuments to a faraway and not properly understood revolution. One still standing on the coast of Argyll marks the site of a Victorian factory that made acetic acid from the oak and birch wood. Another on the Ionian island of Paxos served the same kind of mill as Kardamyli’s.

Smoke was most probably still drifting from the Kardamyli chimney when Leigh Fermor reached here in the mid-1950s, but he can hardly be blamed for omitting it from his picture. Like many travellers in our age, he had a distaste for modernity. (He hated radios, for instance, and was relieved that the Mani had so few of them. “Rabid wirelesses should be hunted out and muzzled or shot down like mad dogs.”) He travelled to reach some agreeable form of the past, which has been a motive for the holidaymaker since the days of the Grand Tour.

On an afternoon last week in Kardamyli, I climbed up the ladder from the sea to find three or four men inside the factory fence inspecting the ruins. One wore a pith helmet and carried a theodolite. Another unpacked a drone from its box and directed its flight to the chimney, which it hovered above rather threateningly. It looked as though change was in the offing. I’d known of the chimney for less than a week – and, really, what was it to me? But already I felt a slight alarm that it too might pass, just like the fishermen who watched the sunset with Leigh Fermor from underneath a mulberry tree.

Sir David Attenborough – A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete

Dorset County Museum’s art exhibition A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete was officially opened by Sir David Attenborough and Hilary Spurling OBE on the 27th March 2015. Many of us were able to see this either at the museum or when it moved to Salisbury.

This video includes an explanation by Sir David Attenborough on why he loves the work of John Craxton. Sir David has been a lifelong fan of Craxton’s work.

John Craxton (1922-2009) was one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. His life story, starting with wanderings on Cranborne Chase, was as colourful as his later pictures of the light, life and landscapes of Greece, and illustrations for Paddy’s books..

This exhibition at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester charted Craxton’s journey from Cranborne to Crete, from early paintings of dark and menaced war-time landscapes to joyful scenes painted under bright Cretan skies.

Event 3 October 2018: More Dashing – Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adam Sisman will be speaking about his new book on Wednesday 3rd October at 7.15pm at The Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington Street, London W1U 5AS.

If you would like to attend, please email info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Admission is free but non-members are asked to make a £10 contribution towards the expenses of the evening or to join the Society, which entitles members to free attendance at all events. The new book will be for sale at a special launch price.

More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is the follow-up of Dashing for the Post: Selected Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2016) which received terrific reviews including:

‘Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor…. Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters’ The Spectator

‘Adam Sisman has done an excellent job of selecting and editing these letters, almost any one of which would have been a joy to receive’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Oh joy! … No other contemporary writer could have given us so much to relish and we’re fortunate that Adam Sisman has distilled such a treat from so much rich material…. The wit, the humour, and the dazzling intelligence make this, for me, the most unputdownable book of the year’ Country Life

A Review of Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

From the July 2018 edition of the Hungarian Review. Gordon McKecknie reviews the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan. “… he has (…) also given us, through personal and often tragic histories, poignant insights into the enormous social changes that Hungary underwent in the middle years of the twentieth century.”

In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, then 18, set out from Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. It was the first year of Nazi power in Germany, and the last days of the old romantic era there and in the former Habsburg realms of Mitteleuropa, an era that had not quite been swept away by the First World War. Of course, the Second World War – and, for many of the countries that Paddy travelled through, the subsequent dark years of Communism – did sweep the old order away. Since then the landscapes that Paddy tramped through, and the populations he met, have undergone the further, and not-always benign, influence of the ubiquitous automobile, instant global communications, hordes of tourists, a camera in every pocket, the spread of English as the modern lingua franca, and cheap clothing made in distant sweatshops. The old aristocratic way of life that Patrick Leigh Fermor, also known PLF to his numerous friends, saw in its dying days, and nowhere more clearly than in Hungary and Transylvania, vanished not long after his “Great Trudge”.

PLF’s first volume describing his journey – A Time of Gifts – was published in 1977. It became an instant classic among travel books. In painterly and sometimes almost absurdly lyrical language, A Time of Gifts told of his travels through the winter landscapes of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and took him as far as the bridge across the Danube at Esztergom on Holy Saturday 1934, at the beginning of a magical spring and summer spent in Hungary and Transylvania. We had to wait until 1986 for Between the Woods and the Water recounting those Hungarian days. The third volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, was pulled together from Paddy’s notes by Artemis Cooper (his biographer) and Colin Thubron (a fellow travel writer) after PLF’s death in 2011 at the age of 96. It appeared in 2013.

As PLF wrote in his introduction to Between the Woods and the Water, he had set out “meaning to mix only with chance acquaintances, but almost imperceptibly by the time I got to Hungary and Transylvania I found myself having a much easier time of it than I had expected or planned: ambling along on borrowed horses, drifting from one country house to another, often staying for weeks under patient and perhaps long-suffering but always hospitable roofs”.

Sometimes in his books, PLF tells us what became of the people he met on his 1930s walk across Europe. Fritz Spengel, son of the proprietors of the almost medieval Red Ox in Heidelberg “was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met”. The Jewish, Proust-reading Baron Fülöp (Pips) von Schey de Koromla left his country house in Slovakia “when things began to go wrong in Austria and Czechoslovakia”, settled at Ascona on Lake Maggiore, and died in 1957 in Normandy at the home of his daughter, Alix, who had married into the French branch of the Rothschild family. But now, for a more comprehensive view, we have Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.

In his very enjoyable book, Michael O’Sullivan follows PLF from the moment he was standing on that Danube bridge, with a letter of introduction to the mayor of Esztergom in his pocket, to Budapest, across the Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the Bánát region, and into Transylvania. On this part of his journey PLF was the guest of the aristocracy of the land. Continue reading

Anna Sándor de Kénos – BBC’s Last Word

Anna Sándor de Kénos

BBC Radio 4’s Last Word, obituary programme, speaks to Dr Michael O’Sullivan, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, about the life of the late Anna Sándor de Kenos.

Go to position 22 minutes 10 seconds here for the start of the piece (may not be available outside of UK – sorry!).

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Robert Macfarlane reads Petronius

One of the first things Patrick Leigh Fermor is given in A Time of Gifts is a book: the first volume of the Loeb edition of Horace. His mother (‘she was an enormous reader’) bought it for him as a farewell present, and on its flyleaf she wrote the prose translation of an exquisite short poem by Petronius, which could hardly have been more appropriate as a valediction to her son, or indeed to anyone setting out on a voyage into adulthood:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting

The journey of A Time of Gifts is set going by the gift of a book—and it is a book that has in turn set going many journeys. The edition of A Time of Gifts that Don gave me that day in Cambridge had as its cover a beautiful painting by John Craxton, commissioned specially for the book, and clearly alluding to Petronius’s poem. It shows a young man standing on snowy high ground, puttees on his ankles and a walking stick in his right hand, looking eastwards to where the sun is rising orange over icy mountains, from which runs a mighty river. Black crows fly stark against white trees: there is a sense of huge possibility to the day ahead and to the land beyond.

Extract from The Gifts of Reading , Robert Macfarlane. First published in Slightly Foxed Quarterly. Continue reading