The following review of Words of Mercury was first published in The Spectator. It is unusual as it was written by the Marques de Tamaron who was the Spanish Ambassador in London in 1999-2004. He and his wife stayed with Debo at Chatsworth in November 2000 (see p 322 In Tearing Haste). The Marques is clearly a fan!
by Santiago Tamaron
First published in The Spectator Oct 4, 2003
The perfect anthology, like the perfect hors d’oeuvre, should turn us into gluttons. The many small dishes add up to a balanced and nourishing meal, but they are so exquisite that they whet one’s appetite for more. And the anthology should also include unexpected delicacies, things that even the literary gourmet had not heard about.
This book fulfils both requirements but also a third, more difficult one: it presents a complete portrait of the author. The compiler, Artemis Cooper, writes an introduction which is a model of informative brevity, but also succeeds – with her selection of essays and book chapters, plus an unpublished letter and a dazzlingly original poem, under the headings of Travels’, ‘Greece’, ‘People’, ‘Books’ and ‘Flotsam’ and with a few explanatory words now and then – in capturing the essence of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man as well as the literary oeuvre. If there was ever a writer of whom it can be said that le style c’est l’homme, it is he. And the essence of Paddy (as the compiler and many others call him) is not his superb English or his arcane erudition, but his obvious and contagious enjoyment of everything he writes about.
Of course, if he enjoys the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes he travels through, and the words he hears and reads in a dozen languages or two, if he admires the stones and paintings, the plants and trees and the strangely shaped clouds and mountains in the Balkans or the Danubian basin or the Himalayas, if he cares and makes you care about Mozarabic liturgy (in Latin only, naturally, and only in Toledo), or about Phanariot genealogy or Bulgarian shepherd dances or the punctilio of Cretan blood-feuds, it is because all these wonders are not dry-as-dust erudition for Paddy, they are perfectly alive, in his memory and, through his magical language, in our minds.
It is not that he refuses reality and the unprecedented scale of the destruction brought upon civilisation by the bestiality of the 20th century. He knows and indeed he tells us that the island of Ada Kaleh in the Danube, with its melancholy and beautiful remnant of Ottoman life, was flooded by the Iron Gates dam built in 1971. He knows that the happy Transylvanian country house of his friend Tibor (‘jolly, baronial, rubicund, Jager-hatted and plumed, an ex-Horse Gunner’) had been turned by the communists into a lunatic asylum. Even sadder, when he returned to Baleni, the house in Moldavia belonging to his friend Balasha Cantacuzene and her sister, where he lived during the months before the start of the second world war (the most poignant memory in this book is the perfect early autumn mushroom-gathering picnic on the last day of peace), he found that ‘the house had completely vanished. Some industrial buildings, already abandoned, had taken its place, and the trees had been cut down long ago.’ The author is fully aware that many of the things he loves have been destroyed, but I think that he also realises that the joy and pain and privilege of a writer is to save the memories and thereby the physical beauty of past glories, and this he does supremely well and with an immense joie de vivre.
Two months ago he told friends that he had read in the morning Othello, which had depressed him so much that in the afternoon he had read A Midsummer Might’s Dream, which had greatly gladdened him. Clearly Shakespeare, like so many other muses and marvels, is no museum piece for Paddy but part of his daily life. That is why he is truly cultured and never pedantic.
He is a generous writer. I have never found an ounce of spite or envy in his books, or sarcasm in his occasional irony (‘the agglutinative harshness of the Turks, laced with genteel diaereses, sounded like drinking out of a foeman’s skull with a raised little finger’). He genuinely likes and understands Greeks and Turks, Magyars and Rumanians, Germans, Austrians and Jews, even enemies in times of war like General Kreipe whom he abducted in Crete. There is not a dull character in the vast gallery in these pages where barons, bandits and beggars abound, where scholars and poets are colourful and ladies are beautiful (although the latter circumstance is usually left untold, for Paddy is most un-Byronic in his reticence about his own loves).
Some years ago, a group of friends gathered to celebrate Paddy’s birthday. John Julius Norwich wrote and sang a new version of ‘You’re the Top’ in his honour:
You’re the million volts of the thunderbolts of Zeus, /You’re Leda’s swan, you’re the square upon the hypotenuse! …/And you’ll fill and thrill our hearts until we drop: /So from Bath to Burma, Fermor, you’re the top!
Most readers of Words of Mercury will, I think, agree with this assessment.
The Marques de Tamaron is the Spanish Ambassador in London.