A chronicler of a bygone age a rememberer of things past

An interesting background piece from Kathimerini which mentioned that Vol 3 was due in 2007! This is the first time I have come across a possible publication date. Obviously missed now, and who knows if that is due to editorial problems, being incomplete or perhaps this too will be delayed like his biography until after his death?

Patrick Leigh Fermor keeps alive in shimmering prose the spirit of the Greece he reveres

by Willard Manus, a freelance journalist who lives in the US and spends time in Greece

First published in Kathimerini 20 July 2006.

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor today is both an exhilarating and depressing experience. Exhilarating because of the depth and brilliance of his prose, depressing because the Greece he portrays so memorably has been hammered to dust by the march of time.

Fermor, who was knighted in 2003, is best known in Greece and in his native Britain, where he was born 92 years ago. «The Traveller’s Tree,» published in 1950, dealt with the journey he made around the Caribbean islands in 1947-48. It won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature, and established him as a writer of note.

His next two books were «A Time to Keep Silence» (1952), which described his stay in various European monasteries, and «The Violins of Saint-Jacque» (1956), a novel. A decade later, he published two books on Greece, «Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese» and «Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece,» which quickly earned him a reputation as the pre-eminent non-native writer on 20th century Greece.

Fermor’s attachment to Greece goes deep. His first experience of the country dated back to 1933, when, as a rebellious and untamed 19-year-old, he dropped out of Sandhurst and set out on a walking tour of Europe whose eventual destination was Constantinople. Envisioning himself as «a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots,» he embarked, in midwinter, on a journey that eventually spanned three years and took him through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and, eventually, Greece.

Remarkably, Fermor did not write about his picaresque adventures in pre-war Europe until many years later. «So when ‘A Time of Gifts’ appeared in 1977 and ‘Beneath the Winds and the Water’ in 1986, the life of the mid-30s that he described had been utterly destroyed,» his biographer Artemis Cooper has noted, «and much of the land he had walked over was in the grip of communism for years. Yet his memory recreated this world with an astonishing freshness and immediacy, and recaptured the young man he was then: full of curiosity, optimism and joy in the vibrant diversity of the world.»

The concluding volume of Fermor’s trilogy is scheduled for publication (by John Murray Ltd) in early 2007.

Fermor made it to Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935, and then crossed south into Greece. He spent time in a monastery on Mt Athos, got caught up later in a Royalist vs Republican battle in Macedonia, arriving finally in Athens, where he met the great love of his life, the Romanian Balasha Cantacuzene. They went to Poros and lived together in an old watermill, where he wrote and she painted. When the money ran out, they retreated to her decaying family home in Baldeni, Moldova.

Fermor described his life there in an essay published in «Words of Mercury»:

«Snow reached the windowsills and lasted till spring. There were cloudy rides under a sky full of rooks; otherwise, it was an indoors life of painting, writing, reading, talk and lamp-lit evenings with Mallarme, Apollinaire, Proust and Gide handy; there was Les Enfants Terribles and Le Grand Meaulnes and L’Aiglon read aloud; all these were early debarbarizing steps in beguiling and unknown territory.»

Fermor was not quite the barbarian he fancied himself. Despite having rejected higher education, he was already something of a self-taught polymath. He spoke five European languages and was knowledgeable about art, history, architecture, geography, sociology, religion, fashion, etymology, cartography, heraldry and many other subjects, all of which he had absorbed through voracious reading.

As he wrote for «The Pleasure of Reading» (ed. Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury, 1992): «When the miracle of literacy happened at last, it turned an unlettered brute into a book-ridden lunatic,» he confessed. «Till it was light enough to read, furious dawn-watches ushered in days flat on hearth rugs or grass, in ricks or up trees, which ended in stifling torchlit hours under bedclothes.

The kidnapping of the German chief of staff

When Britain declared war in 1939, Fermor immediately went home to join up, leaving Balasha in Romania. He enlisted in the Irish Guards, but because of his fluent command of Greek was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, serving as liaison officer to the Greek army fighting the Italians in Albania. After Greece fell, Fermor was sent to Crete, where he took part in the battle against the German airborne invasion. He remained on the island after the German victory. Disguised as a Cretan shepherd, with a handlebar moustache and a dagger in his belt, the tall, slim, Fermor cut a swashbuckling figure as he roamed the mountains helping to organize the resistance.

It was there that his “devotion to the Greek mountains and their population took root,” he recalled in “Words of Mercury.” “We lived in goat-folds and abandoned conical cheese-makers’ huts and above all, in the myriad caverns that mercilessly riddle the island’s stiff spine. Some were too shallow to keep out the snow, others could house a Cyclops and all his flocks. Here, at ibex- and eagle-height, we settled with our small retinues. Enemy searches kept us on the move and it was in a hundred of these eyries that we got to know an older Crete and an older Greece than anyone dreams of in the plains. Under the dripping stalactites we sprawled and sat cross-legged, our eyes red with smoke, on the branches that padded the cave’s floor and spooned our suppers out of a communal tin plate: beans, lentils, cooked snails and herbs, accompanied by that twice-baked herdsmen’s bread that must be soaked in water or goat’s milk before it is eaten. Toasting goat’s cheese sizzled on the points of long daggers and oil dewed our whiskers. These sessions were often cheered by flasks of raki, occasionally distilled from mulberries, sent by the guardian village below. On lucky nights, calabashes of powerful amber-colored wine loosened all our tongues. Over the shoulders of each figure was a bristly white cloak stiff as bark, with the sleeves hanging loose like penguins’ wings; the hoods raised against the wind gave the bearded and moustachioed faces a look of Cistercians turned bandit. Someone would be smashing shells with his pistol-butt and offering peeled walnuts in a horny palm; another sliced tobacco on the stock of a rifle; for hours we forgot the war with talk and singing and stories; laughter echoed along the minotaurish warrens.”

In 1944 Fermor took part in a bold and perilous mission which later became the subject of a best-selling book, “Ill Met by Moonlight” by W. Stanley Moss, a fellow intelligence officer. In the movie of the same name, Dirk Bogarde played Fermor.

The plan was to kidnap the German army’s chief of staff, General Heinrich Kreipe. The original target was General Muller, notorious for his brutal treatment of both partisans and civilians. But Muller was unexpectedly transferred off the island and replaced by Kreipe, a professional soldier arriving straight from service on the Russian front. The kidnappers smuggled the general off the island and delivered him by submarine to British army headquarters in Egypt. Fermor reported little in the way of reprisals, but another observer, Dr Michael E. Paradise, whose father and two brothers were members of the British intelligence group on Crete, disagrees. Though just in his teens, Michael himself was often used as a courier. In the April 10, 1997 edition of The Greek American (a now-defunct, New York-based newspaper), he described the ferocious destruction of villages and slaughter of the locals by the Germans after the kidnap.

Most Cretans, though, have not held a grudge against Fermor and his gung-ho confederates.

A lifelong love of Greece recalled

After the war, and his brief Caribbean sojourn, Fermor realized that his love of Greece had tied him forever to the country’s fortunes. He lived for a time on Evia, then Ithaca and Hydra. Soon afterward he began his travels in the far corners of the Greek mainland, which led to the publication of his two masterpieces: «Mani» and «Roumeli.» Accompanied by the photographer (and his wife-to-be) Joan Rayner, Fermor set off with this goal in mind: «To situate and describe present-day Greece of the mountains and islands in relationship to their habitat and history.»

Despite having been warned not to attempt to penetrate into the Deep Mani, Fermor and Rayner defiantly set out on foot and mule, bus and caique in search of an authentic Greek world.

The Mani was a strange, combative place, to be sure. Most people lived in pyrgi, stone towers that were more fortress than domicile, but it was fantastical at the same time, rich in history and bravery (no part of Greece played a more conspicuous and valuable role in the War of Independence). With its code of honor and hospitality, its love of freedom, the Mani was also pulsing with life, colorful in speech, custom, ritual and superstition.

The book that came out of this expedition into the heart and soul of the Mani became an instant classic. Similar praise was bestowed on «Roumeli,» Fermor and Rayner’s portrait of the northeast corner of Greece, including Mesolongi where Lord Byron (one of Fermor’s heroes) fought and died for Greece, when it was published eight years later. Whether writing about the sarakatsans, the nomadic shepherds, «self-appointed Ishmaels,» who inhabited the mountaintops, speaking in a secret tongue, or the origins of the local Karaghiozi puppet shows, or the Meteora monasteries, or the «stone-age banquet» (celebrating an arranged marriage) to which they were invited, Fermor’s prose shines and shimmers like beaten gold.

In November, 2004, the British Guild of Travel Writers concurred, bestowing on Fermor its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fermor won another important prize in 2004: a second Gennadius Trustees’ Award for his support of things Greek. At the ceremony in Athens, the previous recipient of the award, writer/translator Edmund Keeley, said, «I look upon Mr Fermor as one of my first mentors, a man of letters who taught me, perhaps more than any other Philhellene, the best way to write about the second country we have both come to love and to celebrate in our work.»

In a recent essay, Fermor admitted that much of what he first encountered and experienced in Greece has disappeared: «Progress has altered the face and character of the country,» he commented. And as for tourism, »it destroys the object of its love.»

That said, Fermor still continues to write about Greece. In his 90s, living alone in the pyrgos he built in the Outer Mani – Joan died in 2000, of injuries suffered in a fall – he toils away on the final book of his Hook of Holland to Constantinople trilogy, the one that deals with his first years in Greece, working from notebooks, maps and memory.

In a way Fermor is a chronicler of a bygone age, a rememberer of things past. The Greece he reveres may have died but he battles with the last strength in him to keep its spirit alive.

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