By Jeremy Bernstein
First published in the Los Angeles Times. January 18, 1998
Here is the scene: The time is late April of 1944. The place is near the summit of Mt. Ida, the highest mountain on Crete. There is still snow. Gathered are five Cretans, fully mustached and heavily armed. Three other men wear German uniforms. This is deceptive: Two of them are British officers (commandos). The third, however, is something else. If you are very familiar with German military uniforms, you will see from pictures of the group that he is a general. In these photographs he is not looking at the camera. He does not smile. It is little wonder. His name is Karl Kreipe. He was, until he was kidnapped two days before, the commanding general of the German occupation forces on Crete. He was due to be promoted to lieutenant general yesterday. German patrols are looking for him.
As dawn breaks over Mt. Ida, he murmurs to himself:
Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte
(“Do you not see how Soracte is shining”)….
Then, surprisingly, one of the British officers continues,
nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto
(“beneath a heavy covering of snow, and how
The laboring trees can no longer hold up their burden,
And how the rivers are frozen by the sharp cold?”).
(Translation of the Latin was provided by Professor W.C. Dowling of Rutgers University.)
The officer continues through the next five stanzas to the end of Horace’s Soracte ode. Many years later, he wrote, “The general’s blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountaintop to my own — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange as though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk from the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
Readers of this anecdote may divide into two groups: both, in my view, equally fortunate. A few of you will recognize this scene as one of the mosaic tiles out of which Patrick Leigh Fermor’s (the British major was he) magnificent travel book “A Time of Gifts” was composed. (Readers intrigued by this passing anecdote who want to know more about what was one of the most daring exploits of World War II will enjoy reading “Ill Met by Moonlight” by W. Stanley Moss — he was the other British officer — George G. Harrap & Co.: London, 1950, as well as “Crete: The Battle and the Resistance” by Antony Beevor, Penguin Books: New York, 1991. Both books have photographs.) You are fortunate readers because you have discovered this marvelous author. But those of you who have not discovered him are also fortunate: When you do, you will have in front of you hours of enormous pleasure and satisfaction. I should confess that, until a few years ago, I had never heard of Fermor either. But in the fall of 1993, I went on a bicycle trip around Crete. Looking for something to read, I found “A Time of Gifts” in a local bookstore. I glanced through the first few pages and decided there and then that I would try to read everything the man ever wrote.
While all of Fermor’s books (there are not that many, only half a dozen or so by my count) are autobiographical, he has never written an autobiography. Nor, as far as I can determine, has anyone written his biography. The best one can do is to snatch fragments from his own books and from books written by people who came across him in passing. Constructing a person’s life this way, especially the life of a man like Fermor, is like trying to cross a rapidly flowing stream by hopping from rock to rock. There are lacunae for which I simply cannot account. What, for example, was he doing living in a vast Romanian country house near the Russian border for about two years just before the war? And later, how did he come to spend an almost equal amount of time in the Caribbean: an experience that resulted in the first of his travel books, “The Traveller’s Tree”? Moreover, why was that book actually written in two monasteries in France where Fermor was a resident visitor? This experience resulted in a gem of a short book, “A Time to Keep Silence,” which, he informs us, began as letters written from the monasteries to the woman who was to become his wife. We are told nothing more about her, not even her name. Why, I don’t know. But here, at least, are a few of the steppingstones in his life.
Fermor, whom friends apparently call “Paddy,” was born on Feb. 11, 1915, in London. As he wrote in an introductory letter to Xan Fielding (one of his fellow clandestine officers on Crete who was responsible for the west of the island, while Fermor was responsible for the east) in “A Time of Gifts”: “In the second year of World War I, soon after I was born, my mother and sister sailed away to India (where my father was a servant of the Indian Government) he directed the Geological Survey of India, and I was left behind so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine.” Fermor was deposited with a country family which “left a memory of complete and unalloyed bliss.” But, he continued, “when my mother and sister got back at last, I rushed several fields away and fought off their advances in gruff Northhamptonshire tones; and they understood they had a small savage on their hands, and not a friendly one.” Taken in hand, he was sent to a series of schools, all of which “ended in uniform catastrophe.” He explained: “Harmless in appearance, more presentable by now and of refreshingly unconstricted address, I would earn excellent opinions at first. But as soon as early influences began to tell, these short-lived virtues must have seemed a cruel Fauntleroy veneer, cynically assumed to mask the Charles Addams fiend that lurked beneath: It coloured with an even darker tinct the sum of misdeeds which soon began heaping up. When I catch a glimpse of similar children today, I am transfixed with fellow-feelings, and with dread.”
By this time, his mother and father had separated, and in locus parentis he was sent to two psychiatrists, one of whom he later found out had treated Virginia Woolf. This was followed by a stay at a cramming institution where he prepared himself for the examination to get into a public school, in this case, King’s School, Canterbury. His tenure at King’s School was abruptly terminated when he was discovered holding hands with the daughter of a local green grocer ” in the back-shop on upturned apple baskets.” He notes that his house master’s penultimate report remarked that he had made “some attempts at improvement but more to avoid detection. He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”
While this is not necessarily an ideal recommendation for getting into a university, it does nicely for the army, Fermor’s next goal. Somehow he managed to winkle a decent letter to Sandhurst, the British West Point. The only obstacle was obtaining what was known as the school certificate (which I suppose was something like a GED), a high school degree for people who did not actually finish high school. To this end, he was sent at the age of 17 to London to live and work with a tutor. All went well, and he managed to pass the London certificate. But then the scheme came unglued. He lost interest in the army. He began to write poetry and to hang out with a Bohemian group of “Bright Young People” of whom he was the youngest. Then at 18, he had a perfectly lunar idea. He would walk (walk!) from Holland to Istanbul. As he wrote to Fielding: “I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in the 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 supplied by his father and supplemented by a £15 loan from the father of a school friend … 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!” Something to write about, indeed — except that it would happen 40 years later! The first volume of the triptych describing this incredible 18-month journey, “A Time of Gifts,” appeared in 1977; the second, “Between the Woods and the Water” in 1986; we still await the third.
What makes a great writer? I find this as difficult to characterize as trying to characterize what makes a woman beautiful. In both cases, it is something we feel in our guts. One thing, it seems to me, that great writers have in common is an obsessive love of language: words, words, words. In Fermor’s case, it was a love for all languages. When he left England in 1933 for his walk, Fermor had, it appears, schoolboy French and some Latin and classical Greek. By the time he enlisted in the Irish guards in 1939, the Latin had turned into Romanian and the classical Greek into modern Greek of sufficient fluency so that he could pass for a Cretan shepherd during the three years that he was in the resistance. In addition, he had acquired enough German so that after Gen. Kreipe was abducted, he could pass for a German soldier when they drove the general’s car, with him in it, past the sentries who were guarding the complex in which he lived.
But that is not all. Everywhere he went he absorbed languages. Here is a passage from “Between the Woods and the Water,” in which Fermor has come upon a strange enclave of Orthodox Jewish woodcutters high in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. He was as taken in by them as he was taken in by nearly everyone he encountered. They were curious about him and he about them, although they were initially wary of such an odd visitor. Then, he wrote, “everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava Fermor kept diaries and this one miraculously reappeared after the war, sent by the people with whom he had left it on the continent from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafes, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kisch, Koscher Wuerst und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absolom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was like a marvelous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on willows: This they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn. In the back of my diary are a few lines in Hebrew, utterly indecipherable to me; and underneath them are the phonetic sounds I took down from his recitation of them.”
And Fermor continues: “By this time the otherworldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were doubly charged with meaning for them, and their emotion was infectious. They seemed astonished — touched too — that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world; utterly cut off, I think they had no inkling of this. A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up and the Rabbi kept polishing his glasses, not for use, but out of enjoyment and nervous energy, and his brother surveyed us with benevolent amusement. It got dark while we sat at the table, and when he took off the glass chimney to light the paraffin lamp, three pairs of spectacles flashed. If it had been Friday night, the Rabbi said, they would have asked me to light it; he explained about the shabbas goy. This was the Sabbath-gentile whom well-off Jews — ‘not like us’ — employed in their houses to light fires and lamps and tie and untie knots or perform the many tasks the Law forbids on the Seventh Day. I said I was sorry it was only Thursday (the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday) as I could have made myself useful for a change. We said good night with laughter.” Considering the kind of world war he would fight (after his tour of duty in Crete, Fermor joined an airborne reconnaissance force that considered rescuing prisoners from a concentration camp just before the war ended), he knew, as well as anybody, what the fate of these woodcutters must have been. Part of the beauty of his writing is that here, and elsewhere, he allows us to fill in this blank for ourselves. We read these books knowing, as he does, that the world he is describing no longer exists. There is no need for him to tell us.
As Fermor wrote in his letter to Fielding, his original intention had been to walk across Europe, sleeping in hayricks and barns. It didn’t quite work out that way: He often slept in castles and mansions and, sometimes, instead of walking, he rode horses and fast motor cars or sailed on barges. It is clear that he was, and is, a man of extraordinary charm. A photograph of him taken in 1943 in Crete would pass for the photograph of a film star. His army contemporaries describe him as being Byronic. I am not sure what that means, except that at one point he seems to have swum the Hellespont. On his walk he made friends with nearly everyone he met. Some were Central European nobility with wonderful castles and libraries that he haunted. There were Gypsies and shepherds. There was a family of Czech acrobats he encountered in Vienna when he was trying to supplement his pound-a-week allowance with sketches in pencil. He couldn’t sell them a sketch, but they ended up giving him an autographed picture of themselves, which he kept as a remembrance. All of this is described in a language that is so rich and precise that, after reading a few pages, one shakes one’s head in wonder. (Reading Nabokov has the same effect on me.) If you are a writer, you either want to rush to your laptop or jump out of a window.
After his sojourns in the Caribbean and France, Fermor chose Greece as his permanent home. He lives, it says on the jackets of his books, in a house he designed and built himself. He has written two wonderful books about Greece, “Mani” and “Roumeli.” He ends “Roumeli” with a prose poem based on Greek place names. Here is a small part of it:
Chalcis is the flurry of the tide, Naxos the boxwood click of a rosary muffled by a nun’s skirt; Ossa is a giant’s tread, Pelion the beat of centaurs’ hoofs through glades of chestnut, Tempe a susurrus of plane trees, and Rhodes a flutter of moths.
Santorini zigzags to the sky at dawn like a lark singing but dies at sunset with the Dies Irae. Komotini is a muezzin’s call, Patmos the faraway trumpets of the Apocalypse.
The Dodacenese is a sea-song by twelve sponge-fishers, Antikythera a mermaid forsaken; Skopelos, a lobster’s and Poros, a mock-turtle’s song, Aegina a tambourine.
The Sporades are the sea’s whispers through olive trees.
And Patrick Leigh Fermor is a treasure and delight.