Honoring Patrick Leigh Fermor: Review Essay

This is quite an excellent essay that focuses on Paddy’s writing more than many other profiles.

Paddy in 1966

by Willard Manus

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 nine decades ago to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, director of the Geological Society in India, and Eileen Ambler, who was partly raised there. His first book, The Traveller’s Tree, published in 1950, dealt with the journey he made through the Caribbean islands in 1947-48. The book won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature, and established him as a writer of note.

His next two books, 1952’s A Time to Keep Silence, which described his stay in various European monasteries (where he discovered in himself “a capacity for solitude”), and 1956’s The Violins of Saint-Jacque, a novel, are interesting but minor works. His literary and political importance is linked to the two books on Greece he published a decade later—Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. Established his reputation as the pre-eminent non-native writer on 20th century Greece.

Fermor’s 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 with Constantinople as his ultimate destination was Constantinople. Envisioning himself as “a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots,” he embarked, in mid-winter, on a journey that eventually spanned three years and took him through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Rumania and, eventually, Greece. 2

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-thirties 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 water mill, where he wrote and she painted. When the money ran out they retreated to her decaying family home in Baldeni, Moldavia.

Fermor described the house in an essay published in Words of Mercury, “Most of a large estate had been lopped away in the agrarian reform. There was little cash about, people were paid in kind by a sort of sharing system, so, in a way, were the owners; and, on the spot, there was enough to go around. Elderly pensioners hovered in the middle distance and an ancient staff would come into being at moments of need. . . .

“There was one crone there who knew how to cast spells and break them by incantations; another, by magic, could deliver whole villages from rats. After sheep-shearing, a claca, fifty girls and crones, bristling with distaffs would gather in a barn to spin; hilarious days with a lot of food, drink, singing and story-telling.

“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 polymath, an autodidact. Not only was he conversant in five European languages (only Hungarian stumped him), he 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.

The importance of books in his life was discussed in a piece 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 torch lit hours under bedclothes.”‘

Among his favorite writers were Dickens, Thackeray (Vanity Fair, anyway), the Sitwells, Norman Douglas, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, not to speak of Kipling and Houseman; Baudelaire and Ronsard in French; Horace and Virgil in Latin; Holderlin, Rilke and Stefan George in German.

“The young learn as quick as mynahs, at an age, luckily, when everything sticks,” he continued. What also stuck were “reams of Shakespeare, border ballads, passages of Donne, Raleigh, Wyatt and Marvel . . . two Latin hymns, remnants of spasmodic religious mania . . swatches from Homer, two or three epitaphs of Simonides, and two four-line moon-poems of Sappho.”

Fermor’s list also includes “the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica … a battery of atlases, concordances, dictionaries, Loeb classics, Pleiades editions, Oxford companions, Cambridge histories, anthologies and books on birds, beasts, plants and stars.”

When Britain declared war in 1939, Fermor immediately went home to join up, leaving Balasha behind in Romania. He first enlisted in the Irish Guards, but because of his fluent command of Greek he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, serving at first as liaison officer to the Greek army fighting the Italians inAlbania. 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 triumph; disguised now as a Cretan shepherd, with a big handlebar moustache and a dagger in his belt, the tall, slim, Fermor cut a swashbuckling figure as he roamed the mountains to help organize the resistance movement.

It was there, in Crete’s high, wild country, that he recalled in Words of Mercury that…

“devotion to the Greek mountains and their population took root. . . . 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 herdsman’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 mustachioed 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 that later became the subject of a best-selling book, Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, a fellow intelligence officer. 5 The British plan was to kidnap the German army’s chief of staff, General Muller, who had become notorious and hated for his brutal treatment of both Cretan partisans and civilians. When Muller was called away, the new target was his replacement: General Heinrich Kreipe, a professional soldier arriving straight from service on the Russian front.

Fermor and his team, which included Moss, Sandy Rendel (former political correspondent for the Sunday Times), the Cretan partisan Niki Akoumianakis and a dozen other andartes, had to radically alter their original plan. Fermor and Moss agreed to disguise themselves as German military policemen. That meant Fermor had to part with his Cretan moustache Without it, he looked so much the stiff-necked Teuton that Moss kidded him about being on the wrong side. They decided to promote themselves to corporal’s rank and decorate themselves with a few (stolen) ribbons.

Taking up positions outside the isolated Villa Ariadne—the headquarters for the German army had been built above Heraklion before the war by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans—Fermor and Moss flagged the general’s car down at 9.30 pm.

“Is dies das general’s wagon?” he asked.

“Ja, ja,” came the muffled answer from inside.

With that assurance, key members of the band attacked from all sides, tearing at the doors of the car. The beam of a flashlight showed the startled face of the general and the chauffeur reaching for his automatic. There was the thud of a bludgeon; the chauffeur keeled over and was dragged out of sight.

The general, who offered no resistance, was brought to Anogia, the largest village on Crete, located on the northern slopes of Mt. Ida. “Famous for its independent spirit, its idiosyncrasy of dress and accent, it had always been a great hideout of ours,” said Fermor in an account written in 1969  for the Imperial War Museum.

Fermor related that a note had been left in the general’s car stating that he was safe and “would be treated with the respect due to his rank,” and that the kidnap had been carried out by British officers and Greek nationals serving as soldiers in the forces of His Hellenic Majesty. “The point  was to give the Germans no excuse for carnage and reprisals in the Knossos area.”

The next day, however, a single-winged Feiseler-Storck reconnaissance plane circled above Anovia and dropped a steady snowfall of leaflets. “To all Cretans,” the message read, “last night the German General Kreipe was abducted by bandits. He is being concealed in the Cretan mountains and his whereabouts cannot be unknown to the inhabitants. If the General isn’t returned within three days, all rebel villages in the Heraklion district will be razed to the ground and the severest reprisals exacted on the civilian population.”

The general was not, of course, returned to the Germans; he was smuggled off the island and delivered by submarine to British army headquarters in Egypt, and the Germans exacted their promised revenge. Fermor deals with this in circumspect fashion in his official report, asserting that “most untrue to form, there had been little violence, few arrests, no shooting on the part of the Germans.”

Fermor’s statement is disputed by Dr. Michael E. Paradise, a Midwest-based Greek-American whose father and two brothers were members of the British intelligence group on Crete. Though in his teens, Michael himself was often used as a courier. “Attacking in the darkness of one night,” he wrote in the April 10, 1997 edition of The Greek American (a now-defunct, New York-based newspaper), “the Germans proceeded to destroy several villages with the utmost brutality and ferocity. I was witness of the destruction of one of the villages, Ano Meros, on Mt. Kendros in Amari.”

The kidnapping of Gen. Kreipe, Paradise asserted, “contributed to the unnecessary death of hundreds of men, who were hunted down like wild animals in the streets of their villages, then, while some were injured and still alive, they were burnt in the houses of the villages, and buried in them when the dynamiting of the houses followed.”

Most Cretans, though, have not held a grudge against Fermor and his gung-ho confederates. As one veteran Cretan commando said at the time of Kreipe’s abduction, “So they’ll burn down all the houses one day. And what then? My house was burnt down four times by the Turks. Let the Germans burn it down for a fifth time! And they killed scores of my family, scores of them, my child, yet here I am! We’re at war and war has all of these things. You can’t make a wedding feast without meat.”

After the war—and his brief Caribbean sojourn—Fermor realized that his love of Greece had tied himself forever to the country’s fortunes. He lived for a time on Evia, then Ithaca and Hydra (in the house of the painter, Niko Ghika). Soon after he began his travels in the far corners of the Greek mainland which led to the publication of his two masterpieces, Mani and Rozemeli. Accompanied by the photographer (and his wife-to-be) Joan Rayner (daughter of the Conservative politician and First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government, Belton Eyres Monsell), whom he had met in wartime Cairo, 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.”

Mani is the southernmost part of Greece, an isolated, mountainous and forbidding peninsula known for its stark, sun-blistered landscape and warlike, feuding inhabitants. Despite having been warned not to attempt to penetrate into The Deep Mani— “the Maniatis are dangerous”—”they are Jews”—”they fear and hate foreigners”—”they live on salted starfish”—Fermor and Rayner defiantly set out on foot and mule, bus and caique, in search of an authentic Greek world.

What they found and reported on was a revelation to one and all. 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 part 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. Fermor’s prose and Rayner’s photographs (sadly dropped from subsequent editions) won plaudits from critics and readers alike. The British artist (and longtime Greek resident) Polly Hope has said, “Mani was one of the books that brought me to Greece. When my husband and I first read it we knew instantly that this was the world we wanted to go to. It told of magic and fury and history and people and landscape. Completely breathtaking. We read it and reread it and read it again until our heads were full of towers and feuds, cucumbers like slices of ancient pillars, and ouzo. Donkeys and heat. And the dark sea that because of the extraordinary Greek light stands up vertically as far as the horizon. We had to go. And immediately. “We did, and remained, though not in Mani. Still all these years later it is the book that tells about Greece as it is. It is still right and as clear and informative as that first reading. Although tourism has spread its ugly veil over most of Greece the people are still there, the feuds and cucumbers, the vertical sea and broiling sun.”

Similar praise was bestowed on Roumeli when it was published eight years later. Fermor and Rayner’s portrait of the northeast corner of Greece, including Messolonghi, where Lord Byron (one of Fermor’s heroes) fought and died for Greece, is as vivid and compelling as anything in Mani. 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 Karayiozi 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.

Historian John J. Norwich believes that Fermor “writes English as well as anyone alive.” 7 He also praised ‘the preternatural copiousness” of Fermor’s two books. Jan Morris seconded the statement, adding that Fermor was “beyond cavil, the greatest living travel writer.” In November, 2004 the British Guild of Travel Writers concurred, bestowing on Fermor its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fermor won another important prize in 2004: the 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.”

After lauding Fermor for his “imaginative projection of Greece,” Keeley offered a specific example of the kind of “special insight” that Fermor  brings to his writing about Greece. “A scene in his superb book on the Mani . . . not only captures the essence of Greek hedonism . . . but  demonstrates his easy and subtle understanding of the Greek sensibility.”

The scene took place in “the glaring white town” of Kalamata where the Feast of St. John the Baptist was being celebrated. Fermor, his wife Joan, and their friend the writer Xan Fielding sat down to eat their dinner set out at the water’s edge on flagstones “that flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off.”

Suddenly they decided to pick up their iron table, neatly laid out, and set it down a few yards out to sea, followed by their three chairs, then by the three of them sitting down with the cool water up to their waists. Quite sensible, the only slightly odd thing about this was that all three were fully dressed. Yet the really significant moment, the epiphany, came when the waiter arrived on the quay, gazed in surprise at the space they’d left empty on the burning flagstones, and then (quoting Fermor) “observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure,” stepped without further hesitation into the sea and “advanced with a butler’s gravity” to put down their meal before them, three broiled fish, “piping hot, and with their golden brown scales sparkling.”

As Keeley pointed out, “It is Fermor’s seeing both that flicker of pleasure and the quick masking of it that says so much, more even than his report that others on the quay sent their seaborne fellow diners can after measuring can of retsina, and a dozen boats gathered around to help them consume the complimentary wine, and a mandolin arrived . . . to accompany rebetika songs in praise of the liberated life. Only those who have often taken apart and savored a broiled tsipoura or fangri . fresh from the sea and amply bathed in an olive-oil-and-lemon sauce would recognize why no representative Greek citizen given to pleasure would think of disturbing, except in a celebratory way, any table holding such a succulent, earthy gift from the Gods. And only a writer with Fermor’s precise vision and brilliant skill in expression would choose to show our hedonistic waiter appropriately masking his pleasure and assuming the gravity of a butler as he entered the sea on his mission to deliver the gods’ gift.”

It is, alas, harder and harder to find such raffish scenes in 21stcentury, tourist-choked, EU-regimented Greece. Even Fermor, in a recent essay, had to admit 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.” 10

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.

Notes

1. ‘Only two of Fermor’s books are in print in the United States: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. They are New York Review of Books Classics. In the UK, most of Fermor’s books are published in hardbound and paperback by John Murray Ltd., but Penguin has published a few of his titles as paper reprints. The following are his major publications. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. Photos by Joan Eyres (London: Murray, 1958); Translation of George Pyschounadkis, The Cretan Runner: His story of the Germany Occupation. (London: J. Murray, 1978, c1955); Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (London & NY; Penguin, 1983, c1966); Introduction to Kostas Chatzepateras, Greece 1940-41 Eyewinessed (Anixi Attikis {Greece}: Efstathiadis Group, 1995); Text with Stephen Spender of Ghika: Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture (London: Lund Humpries, 1964); A Time of Gifts; On Foot to Constantinople, from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (NY: New York Review of BooKs, 2005).

2. Quotations is from a review from “Scholar in the Woods,” a review by James Campbell in The Guardian, April 8, 2005.

3. ‘James Campbell, Words of Mercury.

4. A11 quotes regarding Fermor’s reading tastes are taken from his essay in
the anthology The Pleasures of Reading edited by Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury,
1992.

5. ‘The details of the kidnapping are taken from Ill Met by Moonlight (London:
Harrap, 1950). In the movie of the same name released in 1958, Fermor is
played by Dirk Bogarde.

6. Letter to the author sent in 2004.

7. Copy written for the dusk jacket of the paperback edition of Between the Woods and the Water.

8. Ibid.

9. This and subsequent Keeley citations are from a 2004 letter to the author. Date?

10. See Fermor’s essay in A Time of Gifts.

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3 thoughts on “Honoring Patrick Leigh Fermor: Review Essay

  1. Roger de Brantes

    Thank you for posting this very complete and interesting essay (a student?), even though the footnotes and the bizarre reference to the EU would have probably been best left out.

    Reply

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