Patrick Leigh Fermor was a maker of paradisiacal sentences that leave the reader hungry for life.
Toward the end of his life, the great writer, war hero and traveler Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on June 10 at age 96, grew deaf and suffered from poor eyesight, sometimes wearing a rakish eye patch to correct his vision. But when I saw him last September he was still volubly alert, his memory undimmed as he retold stories of World War II. His hair was thick, hardly grayed, and his hands resting on the tablecloth resembled knots of wood. We were seated outside for lunch beneath the Byzantine-styled arches of his villa in southern Greece. Ilex trees cast shadows on the stone walls, and waves washed the rocky beach nearby.
It was good to be back.
by David Mason
First published in The Wall Street Journal, 18 June 2011.
Thirty years ago, my first wife and I had lived in a tiny stone hut next door to this magnificent house on a bay called Kalamitsi, land once considered sacred to the Nereids, sea nymphs of Greek myth. A young would-be writer, I was given the great gift of friendship by Paddy and his wife, Joan. They meant as much to me as models of gracious living as anyone I have ever known. Joan (tall, angular, quiet, unfailingly wise) died in 2003, and Paddy soldiered on in her absence, buoyed by friends and his own unkillable enthusiasm for life.
In September, Paddy talked of the British retreat from northern Greece nearly 70 years earlier, how he and several companions in a Special Operations Executive unit found themselves making a mad dash south with a suitcase of money meant to shore up the Greek war effort. They bought a fishing boat, but it was shot out from under them by dive-bombing Stukas, “sending the suitcase and all that money straight to Davy Jones”—and several British commandos, Paddy among them, into the Aegean to swim for their lives. Following more trials, they made it to Crete in time for another battle and another retreat.
Paddy would return in 1942 to the island by parachute to live in the caves and mountains among shepherds and guerrilla fighters. He is best known for having kidnapped the German commander of the Cretan occupation in 1944—a story often related with romantic dash and brio and even made into a movie. Dirk Bogarde portrayed Paddy onscreen in “Ill Met by Moonlight” (1957). Yet Paddy himself avoided starring roles. The movie was based on a fellow officer’s book on the raid, and Paddy preferred translating a Greek account by George Psychoundakis, “The Cretan Runner” (1955), to writing his own.
Never inclined to introspection, Paddy was endlessly curious about the world, and that curiosity distinguished his life and writing from our confessional age. He insisted that the reference library be near the dining-room table for consultation during mealtime arguments. Once, as he recounted in his lecture, “The Aftermath of Travel,” he started researching “the distribution of crocodiles on the Upper Volta River, where I had never been or ever wanted to go. I took down the right volume of the Encyclopedia, but must have opened it at the wrong page, for three weeks later I had read the complete works of Voltaire, but I still knew nothing about the distribution of those crocodiles.”
What made Paddy famous as a writer—or as famous as a writer’s writer can be—was his narrative of walking from Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s. The writing was spurred by the unexpected recovery of diaries that he had assumed were lost forever, and what resulted was a pair of masterpieces, “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986). A third volume completing the journey is still awaited. The glacial pace of Paddy’s writing frustrated many readers, but his weaving and unweaving of sentences resulted in some of the richest English prose we have. Here he is in Vienna with a young Frisian Islander who learned his English from reading Shakespeare:
Our way back took us along the Graben and the Kärntnerstrasse. About lamplighting time, I had noticed a small, drifting population of decorative girls who shot unmistakable glances of invitation at passersby. Konrad shook his head. “You must beware, dear young,” he said in a solemn voice. “These are wenches and they are always seeking only pelf. They are wanton, and it is their wont.”
The particular exuberance of his prose came from endless revision, where he added layer upon layer of detail as his mind leapt nimbly across cultures and centuries. He wrote to me in 1985 about the second volume: “I have just put the mss on the Oitylo-Athens bus where it is to be met by the typist, who will get to work on it at once: now for pruning, revision, scissors and paste, the moment I get it back.” His manuscripts were fringed with emendations, often covered with fanciful scrawls and illustrations.
I have a copy of one of them, “Notes on the Hellespont,” sent to me after he had celebrated his 70th birthday by swimming that legendary strait. The typescript is covered not only with marginal arrows and alterations but also with seagulls, clouds and waves drawn with his fountain pen. “I was swimming sidestroke, and began to notice a strange fluctuating and hissing noise under my submerged left ear; it was very eerie, like an echo in a vast dark room below, and I thought it must have been the grinding of pebbles and silt at the bottom of the sea.”
It was after his long walk to Constantinople that Paddy gained intimate knowledge of Greece. On the plains of Thessaly, he participated in a cavalry charge during one of that country’s frequent political upheavals, and in Athens he fell in love with a Romanian princess. He lived with her in a windmill in the Peloponnese and then on her rambling estate in Moldova. But when war came in 1939, he returned home and enlisted in the Irish Guards.
After the war—during which he met Joan in Cairo—there were more peregrinations around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, the last of these resulting in “The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands” (1950) and his only novel, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques” (1953).
He and Joan knew they could never settle in Crete, where his wartime actions and subsequent friendships would result in an endless string of feasts and raki-drinking sprees that would have killed him in a Byronic flash. Instead their travels in Greece led them into the isolated middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese: the Mani, walled off from the rest of Greece by the Taygetus Mountains. There they constructed one of the world’s most inspired houses—not ostentatious in size but perfectly integrated into the landscape and culture of the region. Its walled garden, cypress and olive groves and the adjacent sea made the house feel open to the world, with terraces for intimate meals and spaces of quietude filled only by birdsong.
They lived in tents while the house was built. “We were given the raw-material free—grey, fawn, russet and apricot-coloured limestone—which we hacked, prized and blew out of the side of the Taygetus and roughly dressed with claw-chisels,” he wrote in “The Aftermath of Travel.” Our lunch last September was eaten near “a heavy stone lintel seven feet long, salvaged from a demolition in Tripoli,” as Paddy recounted. “Roping it to a ladder, twelve of us sweated and swore and stumbled under it for a quarter of a mile down the steep tiers of the olive-groves and through a flock of sheep. The simple-hearted shepherd asked us what we were going to do with it and our godbrother answered through clenched teeth: ‘We’re going to chuck it in the sea, to see if it floats!'”
Until the house was completed, Paddy was always writing in other people’s homes. He wrote the greatest of his books about Greece, “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese” (1958), at the home of the painter Nikos Ghika on the island of Hydra. The next volume, “Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece,” was drafted in France, Italy and England but finally finished at Kalamitsi in 1966. And I think it was the glorious dwelling with its large studio, its sea-pebbled terrace and shady isolation that made his later masterpieces possible.
But it also provided a temptation to countless visitors from all over the world. Paddy and the villa became a coveted destination for endless travelers. I met the likes of Stephen Spender, Bruce Chatwin, the publisher John Murray and the historian Steven Runciman passing by my hut, where I lived a lotus-eating life by the sea without electricity or running water. If I share some guilt for distracting Paddy from writing over the years, my gratitude overcomes it.
Paddy and Joan lent me books, fed me, regaled me with stories, introduced me to their friends and never once required proof that I was a personage of any stature. They were the most generous human beings I have ever known, and my own “time of gifts” began in their company. I walked with Paddy in the hills, swam with him in the sea and kept him apprised of my own crooked path in life. “I write in sackcloth and ashes,” he would joke when his letters were delayed and would proceed to supply me with drafts of his intoxicating verbal vintage.
Paddy was not a travel writer—the term is an idiotic reduction for the purposes of marketing. He was a poet, a fantastic re-creator of experience, a maker of paradisiacal sentences that leave me hungry for life. Chatwin chided him for his verbal embroidery, but what a rare thing it is to find the baroque in our time, and Paddy was just as capable of the simple observation—turning on a tap in an overheated Greek village and seeing nothing but a lonely cockroach crawl out of it, or hearing the conversation of Greeks muffled by a bedroom wall, as he noted in “Mani”: “The soft murmur of the town was suddenly drowned by the furious jay-like voices of two women below my window, arguing across a narrow lane about something I couldn’t catch. It didn’t matter. The point was the inventive richness of the language, the splendour of the vocabulary, the unstaunchable flow of imagination and invective. . . . I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like long balloons in comic strips.”
He had the good luck, or bad, depending on your point of view, to become a legend in his own lifetime. He saw the remote part of Greece he had chosen for his home commercialized and was himself the subject of innumerable tours by people far less likely to sweat for their adventures. None of this bothered him, as far as I could see. Now that he is dead, friends exclaim to me: “What a life!” Indeed, and what books he made of it—their breadth and style worthy shadows of the man himself.
Mr. Mason, the poet laureate of Colorado, teaches at Colorado College. His memoir of Patrick Leigh Fermor appears in “News From the Village” (2010).