by Colin Thubron
First published in the New York Review of Books, January 17 2008.
To suggest that Patrick Leigh Fermor is the greatest travel writer alive is to omit a great deal. In Britain and Greece he is a near legend, celebrated not only for his books but for his wartime exploits as a guerrilla leader in occupied Crete, where his abduction of a German general has passed into folklore. He is, perhaps, the last of a breed of writer-travelers whose reputation has an aura of genuine action and courage.
The qualities suited to the travel writer’s trade have always been contradictory. The mental (and physical) robustness necessary for ambitious travel often excludes the sensitivity to record it, and vice versa. So there are travelers who write, and writers who travel—and they rarely converge in the same person.
In Leigh Fermor, they do. The richness of his prose, his polymathic exuberance, and his cultural allusiveness render him less immediately accessible than some of his contemporaries, such as Peter Fleming or Norman Lewis. But his six travel books—one for each decade of his adult life—have secured him a readership drawn to a voice that is omnivorous in its tastes and curiosity, learned without condescension, cultivated but never effete, curiously innocent, occasionally swanky, infectiously joyous. If he is less known in the United States than he is in Britain, it is because Leigh Fermor is deeply European.
His reputation rests, above all, on two pairs of books—about his youthful walk across pre-war Europe, published in 1977 and 1986—and about Greece, published in 1958 and 1966. But then there is A Time to Keep Silence. In the oeuvre of a traveler whose books are full of worldly curiosity, this short reflection on the monastic life sits like a troubled question mark. First published in Britain in 1953, it now appears in the US for the first time. In less than a hundred pages it records the author’s stay in the ancient French monasteries of St. Wandrille, Solesmes, and La Grande Trappe, with a brief excursion to the deserted Byzantine chapels of Cappadocian Turkey.
Yet there are readers for whom A Time to Keep Silence is Leigh Fermor’s finest—if most uncharacteristically elusive—book. In her introduction, the religious historian (and ex-nun) Karen Armstrong writes:
The monks’ monotonous way of life has been deliberately designed to protect them from the distractions of, and the lust for, novelty: they do the same things day after day; they dress alike and shun individuality and personal style. They keep almost perpetual silence….
Nothing could be more antipathetic to everything that Leigh Fermor’s books project and embrace. His persona as a writer brims with “individuality and personal style.” So, of course, does his prose. He is famously gregarious, and a dazzling raconteur. For a traveler so tough, his books are rich in pleasures: in leisure, in wine, in company. History and landscape bring a visceral exhilaration.
In 1952, aged thirty-seven, Leigh Fermor arrived at the Benedictine abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontenelle, near Rouen, in quest not of religious retreat but of somewhere cheap and quiet in which to write his first book, on the Caribbean. The regimen of the monastery—the bloodless gloom of Vespers, the sepulchral mealtime recitations while the monks ate in silence—filled him at first with revulsion:
As I sat at Vespers watching them, now cowled, now uncovered, according to the progress of the liturgy, they appeared preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone-structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from any others. How different, I thought, from the fierce, whiskered, brigand-faces of the Greek monks of Athos or the Meteora, whose eyes smoulder and flash and twinkle under brows that are always tied up in knots of rage or laughter or concentration or suddenly relaxed into bland, Olympian benevolence.
There is no doubt about where Leigh Fermor’s sympathies lay. As for writing, he retired to his cell on the first day in the quiet, and picked up his pen:
But an hour passed, and nothing happened. It began to rain over the woods outside, and a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke.
For three or four days, little changed. He was prey to insomnia and a flat depression. Then he started to sleep. He slept until a few meals and church services a day were his only lucid moments. Then the pattern changed again. His lassitude dwindled away and was succeeded by a “limpid freshness.” He now slept only five hours in twenty-four. It was as if a profound tiredness, rooted in the outside world with its demands on nervous libido and instant response, had overswept him, then receded in this quietude to release a flood of unimpeded energy. “Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away.”
From the monastery’s library—a magnificent repository of the sacred and secular—he was able to borrow even those heretical books placed on the index or locked in the depository (named the Enfer) as destructive of monastic calm. And as he grew to know them, the monks became, to his charitable and indulgent mind, almost uniformly attractive.
Moving on, he was delayed only two weeks by the abbey of Solesmes, guardian of early Church music, before he reached the great Cistercian monastery of La Grande Trappe in southern Normandy. Among this grimly disciplined and silent order, the cycle that Leigh Fermor had experienced in St. Wandrille—the same tension between tenderness and revulsion—repeated itself more gently. Here the Benedictine dedication to the efficacy of prayer was reinforced by a notion of ferocious penance:
A Trappist monk rises at one or two in the morning according to the season. Seven hours of his day are spent in church, singing the offices, kneeling or standing in silent meditation, often in the dark…. There are no cells. All, from the Abbot downwards, sleep in cubicles in a dormitory on palliasses of straw stretched out on bare planks. Heating does not exist…. A special deaf and dumb language for cases of necessity has been evolved and codified, and the entire lifetime of a lay-brother, who does not participate in the singing of the offices, may pass without the uttering of a word beyond the confessional or his spiritual consultations with the Abbot. A monk on the point of death is removed from his infirmary bed and laid across a bed of straw which is scattered over a cross of ashes. There, after the last ghostly comforts in the presence of the assembled monks, he expires. His body is exposed for a while in the church. No coffin is used at his burial; his face is covered by his hood, and he is lowered into his grave with his habit folded about him.
A Time to Keep Silence evolved, sometimes word for word, from the letters written to Leigh Fermor’s future wife from these brief sojourns in monastic cells. They are touched by the unease of the doubter or atheist (he is never specific) who has intruded into the midst of pious conviction, and by his subsequent gratitude for the monks’ discretion which allowed him to escape any awkward challenge.
But for all the revolution in his feelings—and his brief excursions into the nature of prayer or temptation—it is less the inner journey than Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of monastic life that linger in the memory. He is a master of externals. The somber glamour of ritual and the drama of architecture rise naturally to his pen. In Roumeli, his book on northern Greece, he celebrates the pinnacle monasteries of Meteora with a gusto more immediate to him than the arcane inner lives of the sober monks of Normandy. His brief chapter on the rock chapels of Cappadocia, with which A Time to Keep Silence ends, relaxes into descriptive ease as it portrays a hermit city redolent of the dawn of monastic Christendom, whose human inhabitants have long gone.
Leigh Fermor’s sumptuous and sometimes complicated style has won him many admirers, barely one successful imitator, and a handful of disgruntled critics. When he writes that the quietude of St. Wandrille and his limited contact with the monks “compelled me again and again to seek my parallels in painting,” it sounds less like a limitation than a joyful release. The memory of Old Masters is never far away. In the muted light by which they worship, the monks evoke the canvases of Zurbarán and El Greco. The towering pinnacles of Solesmes remind him of the Rhenish castles of Gustave Doré and Victor Hugo. The wintry landscapes around La Trappe blend with those of Breughel and Bosch.
Sound itself turns visual. Leigh Fermor, in an act of nostalgic remembrance, conjures the ruined English abbeys lifting up their broken arches and emptied rose-windows “as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since”; and the complex chanting of the conventual High Mass elicits an image of the Gregorian notation—with its comet tails and arabesques—printed in the monks’ missals.
These stylistic flourishes would be woeful in lesser hands. But with Leigh Fermor they rarely fail. His early models include Alexander William Kinglake and Norman Douglas, but most potent perhaps was the influence of his precocious near-contemporary, Robert Byron, who died at sea in 1941, and who in The Road to Oxiana, an account of travel in Persia and Afghanistan, interleaved humorous vignettes with some of the most precise and beautiful architectural descriptions in the language. Leigh Fermor’s robustly poetic metaphors, like Byron’s, inform a world where past and present brilliantly interfuse. Thus, on his conversations with the venerable abbot of St. Wandrille:
Often, as though it were a quite normal procedure, his voice would slide off ex tempore into the soft ecclesiastical Latin of the Vatican; and this easy breathing back to life of a language so long dead gave me, each time it occurred, the same spasm of delight.
The same spasm recurs, one imagines, as the whiskers of the local peasants remind him of Vercingétorix. He loves the curious and the bizarre, the perennial stuff of travel writing. Joyfully he recounts the career of the seventeenth-century Cistercian abbot of La Trappe, Armand-Jean de Rancé, who enforced its regimen like a flail, in trauma or penance, after stumbling on the head of his (perhaps) lover, the Duchesse de Montbazon, which the doctors had severed after her death. A more benign vignette follows the author Maurice Maeterlinck, who rented St. Wandrille after the momentary expulsion of its monks: in search of inspiration, he would career furiously around the cloisters on roller skates, followed by a yapping horde of terriers.
The shock of immersion into monastic life was followed by Leigh Fermor’s bewildered return to the normal world. On the train back to Paris, even the Cinzano advertisements—once an invitation to levity—jarred him like a personal insult. And with his return, of course, came a confused wondering:
I was profoundly affected by the places I have described. I am not sure what these feelings amount to, but they are deeper than mere interest and curiosity….
For, in the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods—the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.
Toward the end of the volume, he concludes:
This essay, therefore, must end in ambiguity. I am as perplexed and uncertain now as I was on that first evening after leaving the Grande Trappe when I approached the damp and smeared radiance of the Boulevard St. Germain; as unqualified still to deliver a verdict on the conditions and possibilities of life in that hushed and wintry solitude.
To turn from A Time to Keep Silence to Leigh Fermor’s books on Greece (where he partly still lives) is to emerge into blazing sunlight. Mani, loosely based on a few weeks’ travel down the central prong of the Peloponnese in the late 1950s, is in fact the fruit of half a lifetime’s experience, so that this isolated region, with its feudal towers and still-remembered vendettas, becomes the launching pad for diversions on Greek life as various as the efficacy of icons, the cults of mourning, and the leftover nymphs and gorgons of paganism.
Roumeli, published in the 1960s, is the book’s younger twin, less winningly coherent, but filled with the same kinds of interest: with excursions among the nomad Sarakatsán shepherds and the beggars of Kravara, and a beautiful essay on the author’s quest for Byron’s slippers at Missolonghi, where the poet died. Common to both works is their concentration on a rural and village life that is fast fading. Even when they were written (forty and fifty years ago) they were recording a threatened and dwindling world:
The record of these journeys, then, undertaken a few years ago and all of them prompted by abstruse private motives, would be a deluding guide. Commodious charabancs have now replaced the ramshackle country buses, great roads cleave their way through the heart of remote villages…. All this is a source of direly-needed revenue and a joy to many; the occasional Greek or foreign dissenter can always stalk off petulantly into the wilderness and out of range. Indeed, it is into this contracting wilderness that these pages for the most part lead.
Not only do his pages leave behind the trampled routes of tourism, but the great sites of classical antiquity alongside. Leigh Fermor rejoices, rather, in their opposite, in the Romiosyne: a more earthy and demotic Greece. In a half-fanciful essay from Roumeli, he draws up an extended balance sheet, as it were, of the split personality of the country: on one side the Romiòs, whose instinctual, quick-witted fatalism has its roots in Byzantium and the struggle against Ottoman domination; on the other, its opposite and alter ego, the more cerebral and balanced Hellene. At first he contrasts them in terse summations: e.g., for the Romiòs: practice (Hellene: theory); for the Romiòs: the concrete (Hellene: the abstract); for the Romiòs: argument (Hellene: rhetoric); for the Romiòs: concentration (Hellene: diffusion). Later pairings move playfully into revealing characteristics, where the Hellene’s “decent self-confidence,” for instance, is set against “the certainty of every Romiòs of his own suitability for the office of Prime Minister.”
Leigh Fermor’s respect perhaps goes to the Hellene; but his affection clings to the Romiòs; and Romiosyne, in all its élan, its cunning, its wayward charm and timeless loyalties, is the perennial subject of his work. So it is a seductive shock when, near the little port of Gytheion, he closes off Mani with a chance stumbling on the island of Kranae. Here, at least in folklore, Paris of Troy and the abducted Helen spent their first night:
Kranae! I had always wondered where it was. The whole of Gytheion was suddenly transformed. Everything seemed to vanish except the dark silhouette of the island where thousands of years ago that momentous and incendiary honeymoon began among the whispering fennel.
Leigh Fermor’s last, linked pair of books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, record a journey made on foot across Central Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (which he still affectionately calls Constantinople). He was only eighteen when he set out in 1933 and these extraordinary narratives, written from memory and recovered notebooks almost half a century later, are perhaps the works by which he will be best remembered. Filled with youthful exuberance and precocious learning, the journey was at once an instant self-immersion in the culture and peoples of Mitteleuropa and a rite of passage.
In an extended introductory letter to his old wartime colleague Xan Fielding, Leigh Fermor, conscious that his book will be in a sense autobiography, fills in the trajectory of his boyhood in broad, high-colored strokes. It includes, of course, boarding school, the affliction that is perhaps one of the reasons the British have taken so naturally to travel writing. It was an institution ideally suited to the sons (and sometimes daughters) of parents abroad on colonial business. It imposes self-reliance, confidence, perhaps a dangerous sense of invulnerability, sometimes harrowing loneliness. Its products are often well-suited for solitary travel. Even today most British travel-writers are middle-class creatures of the system.
Leigh Fermor’s self-described life is a colorful variant on this theme. His father was a distinguished civil servant in India, absent with his wife for several years while their small son, farmed out to a rural family in Northamptonshire, ran amok. A string of impatiently endured boarding schools followed. “He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” wrote one percipient housemaster, and he was finally sacked, at the age of sixteen, for consorting innocently with “a ravishing and sonnet-begetting beauty” (the local greengrocer’s daughter).
Two years later, after cramming studies with a view to entering the army, then veering for a while into frustrated writing, “a plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler”:
To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp—or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar…. All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year…there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!
Readers will have to wait for the authorized biography of Leigh Fermor (being prepared by Artemis Cooper) before this buoyant sketch is filled out. But for now, we have the books. A Time of Gifts, first published in the 1970s, carries its author up the Rhine and down the Danube through Augsburg, Munich, Vienna, and Bratislava (with a detour to Prague), and leaves him poised on a bridge into Hungary. It is a miraculously remembered journey (for his vital diary was stolen in a Munich youth hostel), rich in the encountered cultures of medieval Germany and the Bavarian baroque, full of graphically conveyed and eccentric characters.
By now, after a chance invitation, Leigh Fermor’s regimen of sleeping in barns and hayricks was being punctuated by sojourns in castles, and as his journey continues in Between the Woods and the Water, riding on horseback across the Great Plain of Hungary, then east into Romania through the valleys of Transylvania, these aristocratic visits of the 1930s are all the more affecting for their hosts having long vanished under the Communist heel. The journey of the second book ends on the edge of the Balkans, pointing to Constantinople, awaiting a third and last volume yet (it is hoped) to come.
Memory, of course, however prodigious, was not quite enough. Leigh Fermor miraculously recovered his later travel notebook after World War II (he had left it behind in Romania). And elsewhere he has admitted to some conflation and imaginative license.* But the result is richly, persuasively real.
The few criticisms ever leveled at this work are political. In A Time of Gifts Leigh Fermor was walking across a land where Hitler had just come to power:
The proportion of Storm Troopers and SS in the streets was unusually high and still mounting and the Nazi salute flickered about the pavement like a tic douloureux.
There are allusions to beer-drinking Brownshirts, to fanatical converts to Nazism, and to awkward, antagonistic conversations about the merits of National Socialism. But these people are mostly boorish or naive rather than sinister. Leigh Fermor makes no attempt to darken his experiences with hindsight (and besides, the ugliest phases of Nazism were still to come). Nothing in his background, he says, had fitted him to divine the future, or even to carry on a mature political argument. “In this respect,” he writes, “I might have been sleepwalking.” Instead, what he gives us is the account—poignant for its honesty—of a politically innocent young man, wonder- stricken instead by history and landscape, hiking across a continent that will soon change forever.
This points to a curious vacuum in Leigh Fermor’s entire oeuvre: evil is absent. It is as if his long sojourn in rural Greece after World War II had protected him from the complications of a more jaded and cynical world, and his temperament had found its perfect subject in a return to remembered boyhood in all its bravado and trust.
Just as his Greek villagers or the cowled enigmas of the Normandy monasteries are revealed as unfailingly kind and courteous (and the more eccentric, the better), so the denizens of his Transylvanian castles conform to the boy’s expectation of them. Their aristocratic inhabitants, for all we know, may have been riddled with neuroses and family feuds. But under Leigh Fermor’s affectionate pen they are splendid forever: the young women are beautiful and witty (he fell in love with one), the men are dashing, effortless shots and equestrians, or charming scholars.
It is a beguiling picture: a prelapsarian world sweetened by memory, perhaps, and by the author’s genial nature. For certainly that innocence did not belong to the continent Leigh Fermor was crossing, which had suffered an atrocious war only fifteen years before. It lay rather in the vision of the gifted youth who, ashplant in hand, went striding into his own Europe, and who would bring it back at last, still rich and vivid, after half a century.