The Observer review of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

The Observer review of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure which concludes that life was one great adventure for Paddy, with the hard part now being to separate the fact from the fiction. It concludes that Fermor emerges as a man determined to live on his own terms, if not his own means!

By Anthony Sattin

First published in The Observer, 21 October 2012.

Traveller and writer Paddy Leigh Fermor is best known for two events. In 1933, at the age of 18, he set off with a little money and a lot of nerve to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Eleven years later, with an equal amount of nerve, he led a commando group to occupied Crete to kidnap General Kreipe, the local Nazi commander. From these two events sprang the subjects and passions for his work and his life, the subject of Artemis Cooper’s new biography.

Fermor is a seriously challenging subject for any biographer, perhaps more so for Cooper, who knew him from a very early age. She was contracted to write the book in the 1990s but on the condition it did not appear before his death, perhaps wanting to spare his wife, friends and self the stories of his sexual adventures. Given his wine and cigarette intake, Cooper would have been forgiven for thinking he wouldn’t last as long as he did: he died last year at the age of 96. But not even close acquaintance with her subject and unrestricted access to his archive and friends will have made it any easier to get around the main obstacle: the man himself.

A school and army reject, Fermor was a self-made man in the most literal sense. He started, in the words of his headmaster, as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”. With those and other qualities, he honed his character with the company of extraordinary people and the words of great writers – he had a prodigious memory for prose as well as poetry. However complex his character, it was made more so, from a biographer’s point of view, by the fact that he had already written his own version of some of his life. His books contain some of the finest prose writing of the past century and disprove Wilde’s maxim that “it is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating”.

Charm, self-taught knowledge and enthusiasm made up for the lack of a university degree or a private income. His teenage walk across Europe and subsequent romantic sojourn in Baleni, Romania, with Princess Balasha Cantacuzene are proof enough of that. But the difficulty of capturing such an unconventional and glamorous life is made harder by the certainty that Fermor was an unreliable narrator.

He was also an infuriatingly slow writer. Driven by a life-long passion for words yet hampered by anxiety about his abilities, Fermor published eight books over 41 years. The Traveller’s Tree describes his postwar journey through the Caribbean; Mani and Roumeli (1958 and 1966) draw on his experiences in Greece, where he would live for much of the latter part of his life. But it is the books that came out of his trans-Europe walk that reveal both the brilliance and the flaws. A Time of Gifts was published in 1977, 44 years after he set out on the journey. Between the Woods and the Water appeared nine years later. Both describe a world of privilege and poverty, communism and the rising tide of Nazism, and end with the unequivocal words, “To be continued”. Yet the third volume hung like an albatross around the author’s neck. As the years passed, Fermor found it impossible to shape the last part of his story in the way he wanted. Yet Cooper refers to one manuscript written in the 1960s, and a diary, and from these the final volume will be fashioned and published next year.

Fermor’s longevity also presents challenges: there is much to record of more than nine decades of travelling, flirting, writing and hard living. Cooper runs through it mostly chronologically, drawing on published work, intimate letters, unpublished notebooks, and letters and interviews with some of the many people who knew and loved him. There are places where she verifies things that might otherwise have seemed a little incredible – some of the hospitality he enjoyed on his Constantinople walk, for instance. There are other places where she shows up inconsistencies. Some were no doubt due to his writing about events from a distant past, but some were deliberate. As Cooper explains it, these came about “partly because he is condensing more than one encounter, and partly out of tact”. He was also quite happy to merge details or elaborate in order to make his story work better. Some might feel cheated by the fabricating of non-fiction but Fermor would insist he always remained true to the spirit of the event.

Fermor emerges as a man determined to live on his own terms, if not his own means, and who mostly – and mostly magnificently – succeeded. Always popping off on a journey when he should have been writing about the last one, always ready to party, he was forever chasing beautiful, fascinating or powerful women, even when with his wife, Joan. She was the great facilitator who funded his passion for travel and writing, as well as women, from her trust fund. Cooper shows that he had often had such a character in his life, starting with his earliest memories, during the first world war, when he was left with a Northamptonshire family, including an older girl he thought was his sister, while his mother and real sister returned to India to be with his father. Fermor remembered spending those first years, “said to be such formative ones, more or less as a small farmer’s child run wild: they have left a memory of complete and unalloyed bliss”. Running wild, as Cooper shows, was one of the things he would do best during the 92 years that followed.

This is not a perfect book. There is too little analysis of man and motives and not enough probing throughout, as though Cooper could still imagine the wild family friend leaning over her shoulder as she wrote. But then Fermor was far from perfect himself. Instead he was funny, learned, sexy, irrepressible, flawed yet much loved, remarkable and, at times, brilliant – not unlike this book. Cooper ends with the words, “it all really happened”, although by then I was in no doubt.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure will also be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from 19th November onwards.

You can buy Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure here.

Don’t forget to visit Artemis Cooper’s Facebook page for further information.


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