Wandering scholar and war hero: the traveller’s tale

By Peter Terzian

November 27, 2005

On the telephone from his home in Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes what he does as “travel writing” but adds “I hate the phrase.” Indeed, calling him a travel writer is a little like calling Proust a gossip columnist. Rather, Leigh Fermor is a great writer whose subject is travel.

In “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), he narrated two-thirds of what he calls his “great journey” – an 18-month walk he took across Europe in the years before World War II. (New York Review Books has just reprinted both volumes.). Readers have been waiting for the concluding book ever since, and some interviewers write that he is “pained” when the subject arises. But in the first few minutes of our conversation, Leigh Fermor, now 90 (“Unbelievable!” he says; “I never thought I would attain this dignified age”), volunteers that he is currently working on the journey’s end. “At the moment, I’m going down the Black Sea coast, the Bulgarian coast, halfway down it.” He is, he says, “the opposite of a Deadline Dick,” and a rigorous self-editor. “I cut like anything, because I’m inclined to overwrite a bit.”

Leigh Fermor “got the sack from school early,” he says, “because I was sort of useless. I was rather undisciplined.” At “18 and 3/4,” he pulled on a pair of hobnailed boots, packed a rucksack with some clothes, an “Oxford Book of English Verse” and a volume of Horace (both soon lost), and crossed the English Channel by ship to the Hook of Holland.

From there, on foot, he followed the Rhine through Germany and into Austria, where he met the Danube. After a detour to Prague, he resumed the river’s course through Slovakia and Hungary. His youth and openness brought him into contact with peasants, students, rich country gentlefolk and fellow vagabonds.

Almost without exception, Leigh Fermor describes the men and women he encountered as hospitable and generous, amused at his adventure and happy to provide him with conversation, lodging and bundles of food for the road. In a cafe in Stuttgart, Germany, Lise and Annie, two flirtatious students, picked him up for a weekend of parties and dancing. In a town on the banks of the Danube, over bottles of  Langenlois wine, a polymath mapped for him, on the back of a newspaper, the tribal wanderings of Huns, Visigoths and Vandals. (“This was the way to be taught history!” Leigh Fermor writes.) In Slovakia, he stayed with Baron Pips Schey, who introduced him to Proust’s work. As they sat up late in armchairs and walked through the spring countryside, the older man unraveled “an entire mythology” of fin-de-siècle Central Europe.

Walking alone, the teenage Leigh Fermor passed the time by reciting poetry. In “A Time of Gifts,” he details his memorized “private anthology”: “a great deal of Shakespeare … most of Keats’ odes; the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge,” Kipling, “some improper stretches of Chaucer,” mastered chiefly for popularity purposes at school, Carroll and Lear and “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” The list continues, through French, Greek and Latin, for three pages. (When he exhausted his repertoire, he declaimed verse backwards.) “I think people are absolutely wrong not making children learn things by heart at school,” he says. “Because if they learn it at a very young age, it’s with them for life.”

In “Between the Woods and the Water,” Leigh Fermor tramps through Mitteleuropa. It was “a season of great delight,” he writes, in which he hopscotched, via a series of introductions, among the castles of learned aristocrats. He rode horseback through Hungary and hiked the mountains of Romania (where he met a family of shepherds, gold-panning Gypsies, a rabbi at a logging camp and a nest of enormous eagles). The book leaves the 19-year-old at the Iron Gates gorge, between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains.

Much of the books’ appeal lies in Leigh Fermor’s exuberant, witty voice. He shares his delight in every piece of historical knowledge uncovered, every medieval castle stumbled upon, every alien language heard. At one point, he reflects on 16th century German painting  (“The severe Bürgermeister’s features of the Holy Child have the ferocity, sometimes, of a snake-strangling infant Hercules”). Elsewhere, he attempts to locate “the coast of Bohemia,” a setting in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” long thought mythical.

During his trip, Leigh Fermor took plentiful, detailed notes and transcribed conversations. “I scribbled away like mad every night,” he tells me. Why did he wait 40 years before writing about his walking tour? “It’s a mystery,” he says; “I think it’s possibly I was putting it down for the right time, like putting down a wine to drink.” After the journey came a romance with a young painter – “a bit older than me, terribly nice” – and two idyllic years in Moldavia at her family’s “very tumbledown old country house, full of books. … I did a tremendous amount of reading there, more than writing.” When the war broke out, he says, “I didn’t realize it would take so long a time, and I left all my notes there like an idiot.” After the war, the Communist regime forced the family out of their home. Each member was allowed to bring one suitcase, and one of them thought to salvage Leigh Fermor’s diary. It took, in all, 26 years for him to be reunited with his notebook.

He visited Greece after his great walk, and his connection to the country deepened during World War II, when he was stationed on the island of Crete as a member of the British Special Operations Executive. The organization assisted the Cretan resistance after the Germans occupied the island, and Leigh Fermor spent much of his time hiding in remote caves dressed as a shepherd. In 1944, he led the kidnapping of the commanding German general, spiriting him off to Egypt by submarine. In “A Time of Gifts,” he recalls the moment when his captive began to recite a Horatian ode, and Leigh Fermor chimed in to complete it. “For a long moment, the war had ceased to exist.”

He feels so strongly about his time on the island that when asked whether he feels he’s achieved all he wants out of life, he replies quickly, “I should have written more about Crete.” His second in command, William Stanley Moss, published a book about the escapade, “Ill Met by Moonlight,” in 1950. (Dirk Bogarde played Leigh Fermor in the 1957 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressberger film based on the book.) “It would be rather old hat if I did it again,” Leigh Fermor says. “But there are lots of Cretans that I’d have liked to mention because they were so extraordinary.”

He wrote about other regions of Greece in “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966), to be reissued by New York Review Books in May. (He has published three other books about his travels: “The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands,” in 1950; “A Time to Keep Silence,” about his sojourns at two French monasteries, in 1957; and “Three Letters From the Andes,” in 1991.)

Leigh Fermor has spent the past four decades living in the southern Peloponnese, in the house that he designed with his wife, Joan, an architectural photographer, who died two years ago. They built their home using limestone blocks carved out of a nearby mountain range, hiring a local mason they met “purely by chance in the road. … He was a wonderfully inventive chap. He said to me, ‘For seven generations we’ve all been master masons, and we’ve all played the violin.'”

Together, Leigh Fermor and Joan had a life of “undiluted happiness,” he says. “We had the same ideas. She was highly literate, very charming and amusing, and a marvelous companion.” They traveled to the Far East and throughout Europe, “but mainly we lived here, and we’ve got thousands of books, so one’s got everything one needs here, and the sea handy to jump into.”

He takes great pleasure in describing the art-filled main room and the gardens, with “a descending staircase of olive groves with a lot of cypresses scattered among them” and “shady places where you can sit and write and read.” He is a consummate host to the many friends who come to Greece. “Do you know, we’ve been here for about 38 years. I went through the visitor’s book last week and counted up – spread over this period of time – 1,220 people have stayed under the roof.” I express astonishment. “I don’t know … It sounds like a milling mob, but it’s never that way.”

Shelves of reference books line Leigh Fermor’s dining room. He paraphrases T.S. Eliot, who told a mutual friend that “you must have books of reference handy for mealtimes, because that’s where questions crop up about history or literature, and these problems, one always thinks one will write them down and remember them after, but one doesn’t.” He lists the titles of some of his favorites: the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” “Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary,” “the ‘Oxford Companions to Literature’ in various countries, and art, religion and so on,” and “the thing that’s absolutely invaluable, ‘Chambers International Biographical Dictionary’ … It’s tip-top.”

Leigh Fermor laments that his “great traveling days I suppose are going downhill a bit,” in the same breath that he mentions recent trips taken to France, Spain and Morocco. (He also lives a quarter of the year in England.) I ask him if he’s traveled much in America. “No! I’ve spent a fortnight only. It’s most extraordinary. I’ve always meant to do it. And that fortnight was a very curious one, because I was invited there by the Pan-Cretan Association of America, and they all live in Long Island. So I went there and I saw really nothing but Greeks!”


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