A Review of Artemis Cooper’s “Words of Mercury” by William Dalrymple published in the Guardian.
First published in the Guardian 13 December 2003
William Dalrymple relishes Words of Mercury, a selection from the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Britain’s greatest living travel writer.
Skill with the sword usually precludes much competence with the pen. For all that Sir Philip Sidney could write sequences of Petrarchan sonnets as well as lead buccaneering raids on the Spanish Netherlands, or Siegfried Sassoon write his anti-war memoirs while also winning the Military Cross, bookishness and military machismo are rarely found roosting together (after all, it’s no secret, as the old joke goes, that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms).
The great exception to this rule in our own time is Patrick Leigh Fermor. For though he is one of our finest prose stylists and – since the death this summer of his only possible rival, Norman Lewis – without question our greatest living travel writer, he was also responsible for one of the most audacious special operations coups of the second world war.
Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander of the Nazi occupation forces in Crete, is published for the first time in Artemis Cooper’s wonderful new anthology of Leigh Fermor’s work, Words of Mercury. The story is a famous one, and in the film version, entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, Paddy was played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde. But in Leigh Fermor’s own account, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE party dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the Cretan highlands and thence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida”: “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said: ‘ Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Socrate’. It was the opening lines of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off … The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: beautifully written, fabulously romantic and just a little showy. For Leigh Fermor’s greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild, scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Paddy has been responsible for some of the most highly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.
For as well as being a war hero, one of the world’s great long-distance walkers, and as tough a traveller as you could find, Leigh Fermor has always been a writer of great intelligence, sensitivity and profundity. Here he is, for example, describing a French Cistercian monastery, where he says he discovered “the capacity for solitude and the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life. For in the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”
Words of Mercury is a cornucopia, full of the rarest gems, but it is also a rather odd book: part collected journalism, part greatest hits anthology, with a few other surprising odds and ends thrown in, such as a memoir about the eccentric Scottish genealogist Sir Ian Moncrieffe of that Ilk. This tells of Moncrieffe’s huge pleasure in discovering that he was directly descended from “The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, Monster of Csejthe [who] was convicted in 1610 of the slow murder – in order that their blood might magically preserve her beauty – of more than six hundred girls.” In a similar mood, there is also a letter from Paddy to the editor’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, and a footnote directing the reader towards the “strongly recommended” work of the military historian Antony Beevor, who just happens to be the editor’s husband (though in fairness, it appears that this warm endorsement comes from Leigh Fermor rather than Cooper).
The book also contains a short but perceptive biographical introduction that raises the curtain on the full-scale biography of Leigh Fermor that Cooper is currently researching. In this there is a nice interplay between the revelations of the biographer and the prewar reticence of her subject. In the introduction, for example, Cooper reveals that at the beginning of the war Paddy was living with Balasha Cantacuzene, “the first great love of his life”, on a rambling Moldavian estate. This echoes intriguingly with Leigh Fermor’s own moving but far more tight-lipped account, a little later in the book, of revisiting Romania to find his old friend as soon as the country was opened up to foreign travel in 1965 – for Paddy himself makes no hint that the two had once been lovers, beyond saying that both she and her sister were “good, beautiful, courageous, gifted, imaginative, immersed in literature and the arts, kind, funny, unconventional; everybody loved them and so did I”.
It is the most tragic of tales. For after being separated from his beloved, first by the war and then by the drawing of the iron curtain, Leigh Fermor finally managed to track down Balasha, a quarter of a century later, living in poverty in a Bucharest garret, surviving by teaching English, French and painting. Her lands had been confiscated. The day Ceausescu’s commissar turned up, she and her sister had been given a quarter of an hour to pack. The house had subsequently been turned into a lunatic asylum: “We found them in their attic. In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of twenty-six years … [But] early thoughts of leaving Rumania lapsed in the end, and they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; secretly, perhaps they also shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away. They wrote many and brilliant letters. For some people under alien regimes, life is lived vicariously, pen in hand.”
The profound sadness of these passages is complemented by the warmth of Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of one of the other great loves of his life: Greece. Here Leigh Fermor wandered on foot before the war; here he spent his war; and here he returned to live afterwards, near the remote fishing village of Kardamyli. His love for Greece is open-eyed, and he is well aware of the flaws of his beloved: he talks at one stage about the Greeks as those “ambulant cauldrons of flair, inferiority complex, megalomania, courage, energy, folly and improvisation”.
Nevertheless, the passages about Greece, especially those from his two Greek travelogues, Mani and Roumeli , are some of the most heartfelt and beautiful extracts in the book, and they whet one’s appetite for more to come. For nearly 30 years Leigh Fermor has been working on a trilogy, an account of his journey aged 18 in the early 30s, travelling on foot “like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar” from Holland to Constantinople. The first volume, A Time of Gifts – which many would say is his masterpiece – was published in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, followed nine years later. Since then, 17 years have passed with no sign of volume three, the book that should take us to the gates of Byzantium.
Paddy is now 88, and his fans are getting anxious. But travel writers have longer professional life expectancies than most – Lewis, for example, produced four books between his 88th birthday and his death aged 93 – so perhaps we should not give up hope yet. If it comes – as this fabulous meze of Leigh Fermor delicacies shows – it will certainly have been well worth the wait.