By Michael Dirda.
First published in the Washington Post, 23 October 2013.
In the annals of armchair adventure, nothing can rival a travel classic by a good-looking, sandy-haired young Englishman — or Englishwoman. If you’re planning ahead for some ideal winter’s reading, you can’t go wrong with any of the following:
- A.W. Kinglake’s “Eothen.”
- Peter Fleming’s “Brazilian Adventure.”
- Freya Stark’s “The Valleys of the Assassins.”
- Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana.”
- Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World.”
- Sybille Bedford’s “A Visit to Don Otavio.”
- Wilfred Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands.”
- Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.”
- Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia.”
All of these are wondrous. Still, the most beautifully written of modern “travel books” — an awkward term — may well be Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” (1977) closely followed by its sequel “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986). These two volumes lyrically memorialize a youthful walk across Europe in 1933-34, starting from the Hook of Holland and passing through Germany and much of Eastern Europe. A never-completed final volume — drafts of which will be published in March (in the US) as “The Broken Road” — would have followed its boyish hero to Constantinople and Mount Athos.
While most of Leigh Fermor’s work is highly personal, his various books — and these include one about the Caribbean, “The Traveller’s Tree” (1950), and two about Greece, “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966) — offer only carefully chosen glimpses of his long and astonishing life (he died at age 96 in 2011). Artemis Cooper’s excellent biography, “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” fills in the details, corrects errors and makes clear that Paddy — as he was always known — often conflated incidents or fudged details in his writing, sometimes for reasons of art, sometimes to protect a friend or a woman’s reputation.
When Paddy began his European rambles, he was not quite 19. Up until then he had been an indifferent student, although passionate about reading and gifted with a phenomenal memory. Paddy also possessed, along with good looks, daring and boundless curiosity and a seemingly irresistible charm. He originally expected to doss down in haystacks and barns as he trudged along; in fact, he regularly smiled his way into country houses, consulates and baronial manors — and sometimes into the beds of young women and lonely divorcees. Letters of introduction then eased his way into other homes. As he cheerfully sauntered along, he would belt out each region’s folk songs.
At the end of his journey, Paddy met Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a scion of one of the great dynasties of Moldavia and Wallachia. She was 16 years his senior, but the two fell in love and the young Englishman passed four idyllic years living on her family estate at Baleni in what was then known as Rumania. During these years he read voraciously — history, reference works, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Gide, Proust, Tolstoy and much else. To his personal magnetism and general sexiness, the magpielike Paddy soon added a mind filled with poetry and out-of-the-way knowledge.
When Britain declared war on Germany, the stylish young adventurer immediately left Baleni to enlist. He was, at this point, all of 24. But Paddy already knew much of Europe intimately, had made friends everywhere, and could speak French, German, Romanian and Greek. He was a natural for the Intelligence Corps.
Lieutenant, later Major Leigh Fermor spent much of the war behind the lines in Crete, helping to coordinate its resistance to the Germans. Periodically, though, he would be pulled out for R&R in Cairo, where he partied all night, slept in the arms of exotic girlfriends and drank champagne with King Farouk. During one particularly orgiastic revel, the young intelligence officer came up with a plan to kidnap the commanding German general in his area of Crete. It would give a boost to the partisans’ morale. He eventually recruited his admiring friend William Stanley Moss to join him in this crazy exploit.
The two actually brought it off. Dressed as German border patrolmen, Paddy and Moss stopped General Heinrich Kreipe’s car, which was immediately surrounded by Cretan guerrillas. For more than two weeks, the ambushers and their victim eluded capture until they were able to rendezvous with their escape boat. In her biography, Cooper provides the most detailed account available of this “hussar stunt,” the highlight of which occurred on a morning when the raiding party was hiding in a cave:
“No one slept well that night, and as dawn broke and the sun illuminated the great snow-streaked hump of Mount Ida, the General murmured a line in Latin: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte.’ ”
As it happened, this was not only a poem that Paddy had once translated — the line from Horace means, in his schoolboy version, “See Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow” — but one that he knew by heart. Taking up where Kreipe had paused, the youthful British major went on to recite the entire poem.
Cooper then quotes Paddy’s own account of what happened next:
“The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said, ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountain long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
This whole adventure was later chronicled in W. Stanley Moss’s minor classic “Ill Met By Moonlight.”
After the war, Paddy — now all of 30 — found work at the British Institute in Athens, where his colleagues included the historian of the Crusades Steven Runciman and the translator and novelist Rex Warner. But, despite all his gifts or because of them, Paddy couldn’t hold a 9-to-5 job. He was too free-spirited, too feckless, in some ways, too spoiled. For years he would rely on, sometimes live on, the generosity of rich and aristocratic friends and lovers.
And there were many. When he finally returned to England, Paddy cemented his connections with the aging members of the Brideshead Generation. The second half of Cooper’s biography is packed with the usual names: critic Cyril Connolly, the famous beauty Diana Cooper (the biographer’s grandmother), the Duchess of Devonshire (nee Deborah Mitford), Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), poet John Betjeman and many others. With Joan Rayner, whom he had first met in Cairo, Paddy would settle into a permanent, if extremely open relationship. By the time the two finally married in 1968, they had already bought property in Kardamyli, Greece, and built their ideal house (marble, open air, lots of books, cats), where they would welcome celebrated friends, former Cretan partisans and numerous admirers of Paddy’s books.
Easily distracted and as much a perfectionist as Flaubert, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor — as he eventually became — always found writing difficult. His descriptions are like tapestries, rich in color and intricate design; his bravura diction often requires a dictionary close at hand; and sometimes his weaker pages are clotted and overwrought. Yet “A Time of Gifts” marvelously evokes an ancient Mitteleuropa now almost wholly vanished. If you’ve never read it, do; and if you have, you’ll certainly want to follow up with this fine biography of its adventurous and romantic author.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
Artemis Cooper will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, at 6 p.m. Nov. 2. Call 202-364-1919.