Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Inspired Voyage of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Phlomochori, a village on the Mani peninsula, southern Peloponnese, Greece (Joan Leigh Fermor/John Murray Collection)

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Phlomochori, a village on the Mani peninsula, southern Peloponnese, Greece (Joan Leigh Fermor/John Murray Collection)

“The irony of the publication of his final, posthumous work is that it creates, retrospectively and almost accidentally, something of that meaningful arc for the entire trilogy. By the end, the lacquered manner has dissolved, and a different, far more touching and sympathetic hero emerges. The whole thing couldn’t have been better structured if the author had planned it this way all along.” It is somewhat ironic that many of the best reviews and profiles, and indeed the most lengthy and detailed, come from American publications. This is one of the best of the crop using a review of The Broken Road as the vehicle for a wider discussion of Paddy’s style of writing.

by Daniel Mendelsohn

First published in the New York Review of Books, 19 June 2014

“We shall never get to Constantinople like this.” This rueful aside, which comes toward the end of the first of the three books that the late Patrick Leigh Fermor devoted to his youthful travels on foot across Europe in the early 1930s, was to prove prophetic. “Like this” ostensibly refers to the author’s weakness for detours. By this point in A Time of Gifts—written some four decades after that remarkable journey and first published in 1977—it is late in 1933, and the high-spirited, precocious, poetry-spouting eighteen-year-old, long since expelled from school (“a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” a housemaster clucked), weary of England, and hungry for adventure, finds himself in Czechoslovakia, having walked from the Hook of Holland through the Low Countries, southern Germany, and Austria, his battered copies of The Oxford Book of English Verse and Horace’s Odes firmly, famously in hand.

His plan at this point was to follow the Danube all the way to the Black Sea, whence he would head south to Constantinople—the name by which the romantic-minded youth, his head brimming with memorized verse, insisted on calling Istanbul. But in Bratislava, with Hungary and the continuation of his southeasterly route shimmering just across the great river, he finds himself unable to resist a Czech friend’s invitation to go north to see Prague, that “bewildering and captivating town.”

Here, as often with this erudite and garrulous author—the dashing autodidact and World War II hero, considered by some to be the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century—the geographical digression becomes a narrative one. As the impecunious Leigh Fermor zigzags around the city, the guest of his better-heeled and well-connected friend (the blithe sponging off obliging students, postmistresses, madams, diplomats, and aristocrats is an amusing leitmotif of his travels), goggling at the castles and bridges, the relics and the nightclubs, the text goggles and zigzags, too. And so we carom from the murder of the tenth-century Bohemian leader we know as “Good King Wenceslas” (actually, a duke; later a saint) to the brief Mitteleuropäisch reign of James I’s daughter, the so-called Winter Queen; from swoony evocations of medieval architectural details (“in King Vladislav’s vast Hall of Homage the ribs of the vaulting had further to travel, higher to soar”) to the tale of the Defenestration of Prague in 1618; from Kabala, Rosicrucians, the “sad charm” of the Habsburgs, and the tomb of the creator of the Golem to a triumphant conclusion (via an offhand rumination about the identity of Shakespeare’s Mr. W. H.) in which the teenaged narrator believes he has solved the mystery of where the mysterious “coast of Bohemia” in The Winter’s Tale could possibly have been. It is only after all this that the Leigh Fermor of 1933 heads south once again, to the Danube and his planned itinerary.

So it is possible to take “we shall never get to Constantinople like this” as a humorous acknowledgment by the author of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative, one that will be familiar to anyone who has read even a few pages of Leigh Fermor’s books: the early one about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree (1950); a slender volume called A Time to Keep Silence (1957), about his visits to three monastic communities; Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), his two lively and impassioned books about Greece, the country he loved best and where he ended up living part-time; and of course the trilogy of his walk across Europe—A Time of Gifts and its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two installments, now completed by the posthumous publication last year of an unfinished final volume, The Broken Road.

The author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following. It has more than a little in common with the “centrifugal lambency and recoil” he found in Central European design, the “swashbuckling, exuberant and preposterous” aesthetic that he so extravagantly admired in a picture of Maximilian I’s knights, which he came across one night while leafing through a book on German history in the luxurious apartment of a charming girl he met and ended up staying with in Stuttgart. (The strange new city, the chance meeting, the aesthetic reverie, the hints of money and eros: this would prove to be the pattern of the young man’s progress across the continent.)

It is indeed odd that, among the many classical authors to whom Leigh Fermor refers in his writing—none more famously than Horace, verses of whose Soracte Ode the author found himself swapping, in Latin, with a German general he had kidnapped on Crete during World War II, a famous incident that was later turned into a film starring Dirk Bogarde—Herodotus does not figure more prominently. There is no writer whose technique Leigh Fermor’s more closely resembles. Expansive, meandering, circular, it allows him to weave what is, after all, a relatively straightforward tale of a youthful backpacking hike into a vast and highly colored tapestry, embroidered with observations, insights, and lessons about the whole panorama of European history, society, architecture, religion, and art.

And yet the author’s charming and useful tendency to lose track of his destination became a serious real-life problem in the case of the books about the walk across Europe—the most beloved of his works, which have achieved the status of cult classics particularly among adventure-bent youth. (“Those bibles of backpacking seekers everywhere”: so Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, a young California-based writer and geographer who wrote the preface to a recent reissue of The Traveller’s Tree by New York Review Books, which has now republished nearly all of the author’s work.) However many the detours, Leigh Fermor’s youthful journey did have a destination, which the author finally reached: he got to “Constantinople” on New Year’s Eve, 1935, a little shy of his twenty-first birthday. The two installments he eventually published committed him inexorably to writing about that climactic arrival.

For A Time of Gifts, which ends with Leigh Fermor arriving at last in Hungary—he crosses the Danube from Slovakia in the spring, just in time to witness a magnificent Easter service at the Basilica of Estergom—closes with the legend “TO BE CONTINUED.” So too Between the Woods and the Water, which follows its young hero through many a Hungarian and Yugoslavian castle’s “antlered corridor” to the Iron Gates, the gorge on the Danube that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania; he reaches them at the end of his nineteenth summer, on the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin. (That the climaxes of both works are marked by great religious events is not accidental: the mondain and sensual Leigh Fermor, who always knew how to find his way into a count’s castle or a duchess’s good graces—Somerset Maugham once dismissed him as a “middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”—was beguiled by religious ceremonials; and, perhaps not so paradoxically, by intense religious feeling.) This book also ends with an all-caps promise: “TO BE CONCLUDED.”

But the conclusion never came. When Leigh Fermor died in 2011, at ninety-six, he had been afflicted by a writer’s block that had lasted a quarter of a century. Already soon after the publication of Between the Woods and the Water in the 1980s, he was worried that the subject was, in the words of his friend and biographer Artemis Cooper, “stale” and “written out.”* In the early 1990s, his wife Joan wrote to a friend that he was “sadly stuck”; not long after, Charlotte Mosley, who at the time was editing a volume of Leigh Fermor’s correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire (another distraction), observed that “it takes his mind off Vol III which is clearly never going to appear.” Given his predilection for wandering, invention, and improvisation, it’s hard not to feel, in this culminating crisis, that the public expectation of a concrete result had caused a kind of creative paralysis. When Leigh Fermor’s name appeared on the 2004 Honors List, a fan wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph declaring that the knighthood should be conditional on finishing the trilogy.

It now turns out that the work was, in a way, already complete. As you learn from the preface to The Broken Road (edited by Artemis Cooper and the British novelist and travel writer Colin Thubron), a preliminary draft describing the last leg of his European adventure had been composed long before, in fact when the idea for the books about the walking tour first germinated. In the early 1960s, Leigh Fermor was invited by the editor of Holiday to write an article on the “pleasures of walking.” As he began to write about his youthful journey, the floodgates of memory opened; he wrote to his longtime publisher and friend John Murray that the article had soon “ripened out of all recognition.” After nearly seventy manuscript pages he’d only got as far as the Iron Gates—at which point, frustrated by the need for compression, he began to write at the more expansive, elaborated pace he preferred, bringing his narrative as far as his arrival at the shores of the Black Sea.

This manuscript, tentatively known as “A Youthful Journey,” eventually formed the basis for the whole trilogy. After setting the pages aside for a decade (during which time he published Roumeli and built a fabulous house for himself in the Mani, the Wild West–ish tip of the southern Peloponnese, about which he also wrote: more distractions), the author went back to the beginning, expanding those compressed first seventy pages into what became the richly wrought narratives of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

It was only when he was in his early nineties that Leigh Fermor finally summoned the will to confront the decades-old pages covering the final third of his journey, from the Iron Gates to the Black Sea—the part he’d slowed down to treat at greater length in the original manuscript—and painstakingly set about elaborating them in his inimitable style.

The text he was working on at his death, along with excerpts from his original travel journal—brief entries covering his stay in Istanbul and a much longer narrative about his visit to the monasteries of Mount Athos—make up The Broken Road: the long-awaited “Vol III.” Precisely because its author didn’t have time to bring his text to its usual level of high and elaborate polish, this final work—plainer, more straightforward, less elaborate, and more frank than its predecessors—provides some intriguing retrospective insights into Leigh Fermor’s distinctive tics and mannerisms, strengths and weaknesses.

Patrick Leigh Fermor with Spiro and Maria Lazaros, owners of the watermill at Lemonodassos, Greece, where he first stayed in the summer of 1935 (Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/Trustees of the National Library of Scotland)

Patrick Leigh Fermor with Spiro and Maria Lazaros, owners of the watermill at Lemonodassos, Greece, where he first stayed in the summer of 1935 (Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/Trustees of the National Library of Scotland)

In a review of Mani that appeared when the book was first published, Lawrence Durrell referred to the “truffled style and dense plumage” of Leigh Fermor’s prose. What you think of his writing, and indeed what you make of the final installment of his most beloved work, depends on your taste for truffles and feathers.

Structural rigor was, as we know, never Leigh Fermor’s strong point—inevitably, perhaps, in the case of narratives that follow a real-life itinerary. The two walking-tour books published during his lifetime have a fortuitous coherence—he is, after all, heading somewhere—but what holds the others together are the intensity of the author’s curiosity about whatever happens to (literally) cross his path, and the brilliance of his talk about them: the “saga boys” of Trinidad in their wildly patterned shirts, “worn with a flaunting ease and a grace of deportment that compels nothing but admiration”; the nomadic Sarakatsáns of the northern Greek region called Roumeli (Roumeli opens with a dazzling set piece about a Sarakatsán wedding); the miroloyia or funeral dirges that are the only poetry prevalent in the Mani; Jewish lumbermen in Romania; the Uniotes of Eastern Europe, who observe the Eastern Rite while submitting to the authority of Rome (a recurrent object of fascination).

Small wonder that a salient feature of Leigh Fermor’s style is the long list, that most unconstructed of devices. His penchant for lengthy enumerations confirms your suspicion that what delights this writer is the sheer abundance in the world of things for him to look at and learn about. Mani memorably opens with one such enumeration, in this case of the varieties of Greek communities throughout the world (to which the author hopes to add a group of Jews who, he has heard, live in the Mani):

I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores,…the phallus-wielding Bounariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamandlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf,… the Basilian Monks,…both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards’ Club,…the Shqip-speaking Atticans of Sfax,…the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos, the Karagounides of the Thessalian plain,…the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India,…the lepers of Spinalonga…—if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?

There is an incantatory charm about such accumulations that, among other things, neutralizes the critical faculty. I have read this book three times—it is by far his best, a work in which the author’s high style finds an appropriate correlative in the piratical dash of his favorite region’s inhabitants—and have still never bothered to find out just who the “exaggerators of Mykonos” might be. Such stylistic prestidigitation is an advantage when you are a fabulist like Leigh Fermor, who admitted late in life to having distorted and elaborated his ostensibly nonfiction works.

A related stylistic tic, born of the author’s resistance to the strictures of factuality and his relish for long concatenations of chewy words, is the occasional flights of prose in which he indulges in extended imaginative riffs that allow him to leave, briefly, whatever scene he happens to find himself in and provide a bird’s-eye view of some bit of geography or history. Some of these, like the one in Mani in which the cock-a-doodle-doo of an Athenian rooster is picked up, from bird to bird, until it spreads around the world (“swelling now, sweeping south across the pampas, the Gran Chaco, the Rio Grande…to the maelstroms and the tempests, the hail and the darkness and the battering waves of Cape Horn”), are little more than self-indulgences.

But others can be deliciously pointed. In the same book, the author excitedly pays a call on a humble fisherman named Strati who, he has heard, is a remote descendant of an imperial Byzantine dynasty. As the kindly man tediously recounts the story of a near disaster at sea, Leigh Fermor sits across from him, constructing a private fantasy in which this last scion of the Paleologues is whisked to Istanbul to be crowned at Hagia Sophia as the emperor of a restored Byzantium. The increasingly funny oscillation between the two narratives and two narrative styles—one bejeweled (“Semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore; then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks”), the other plainspoken (“I was never in a worse situation!… There I was, on all fours in the bilge water, baling for life”)—becomes a tart vehicle for ruminating about the special burden of history that contemporary Greece has to deal with.

A drawback of these predilections is that the books can sometimes feel like agglomerations of showy set pieces. (In her biography, Artemis Cooper describes Leigh Fermor’s mother, a bright and talented woman who found herself married to a dour geologist, as someone who “sparkled a little too brightly”; the son could be like that, too.) Roumeli, in particular, is a stew in which the ingredients, delicious as many are, never quite blend. At one point the author gets so bored with the book’s nominal subject that he writes at length about his years in Crete, which clearly he felt more passionately about. John Murray once observed, as Leigh Fermor was preparing to write his first book, that “there is no doubt that he can write though sometimes rather incoherently”; the problem, he went on, was to give the book “a sense of purpose.” It would remain a problem.

A certain narrative purposefulness, an organic shape, might, in other hands, have derived from an autobiographical impulse: the tale of a young man’s walk across Europe in the years just before World War II could, indeed, have made an ideal vehicle for a stirring Bildung narrative. But between his British distaste for public introspection and his magpie’s curiosity, Leigh Fermor is at his best when he avoids emotions and hews to the bright surfaces of things. He’s fascinated by, and knows an astonishing amount about, the glamour of history, the glitter of ceremonial, the gilt on a reliquary; and he knows how to make them gleam for us, too.

Leigh Fermor’s travel books are the works of a great talker, and his strong points are those of the best conversationalists. He has, to begin with, a memorably vivid turn of phrase. Turkish loanwords in modern Greek are like “a wipe of garlic round a salad bowl”; Armenians whom he encounters in Sofia are “grouped, their eyes bright with acumen on either side of their wonderful noses, in the doors of their shops, like confabulating toucans.” His deep affection and admiration for the Greeks are reflected in particularly colorful and suggestive writing. There is a passage in Mani in which the letters of the Greek alphabet become characters in a little drama meant to suggest the intensity of that people’s passion for disputation:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

He also has the born teacher’s gift for bringing to arresting life the remote and complicated histories that lurk beneath the landscapes, architecture, and artifacts he encounters. Early in The Broken Road we find him in Bulgaria, where for the first time he gets a glimpse of a substantial number of Turks—“the westernmost remnants” of the “astonishing race” that had forged a mighty Asiatic empire and come close to overrunning Europe. This remarkable fact, which (he implies) Europeans themselves have lost track of, is vividly present to Leigh Fermor:

When we remember that the Moors of Spain were only halted at Tours, on the Loire, it seems, at moments, something of a fluke that St Peter’s and Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey are not today three celebrated mosques, kindred fanes to Haghia Sophia in Constantinople.

He is, too, a master of the illuminating aperçu. Italian statues of the Virgin Mary, he remarks in the course of a terrific excursus in Roumeli about Byzantine icons, “woo her devotees,” but “the expression of the Panayia, even at the foot of the Cross, says ‘No comment.’” And he knows how to leaven his legendary and occasionally irritating penchant for ostensibly offhand pedantic display (“What figure could seem more remote than Swiatopluk, Kral of the brittle Moravian realm?” he wonders aloud at one point in Between the Woods and the Water) with exclamations of disarmingly ingenuous charm. “With what ease populations moved about in ancient Greek lands, in the world conquered and Hellenized by Alexander, the wide elbow room of Rome and the Byzantine Empire!”

Wide elbow room: not the least part of Leigh Fermor’s appeal to us is his concrete sense, however romanticized it may have been, of the past as a kind of mythic outback, the habitation of grander, more authentic, more liberated men than we can hope to be today. Small wonder that the people Leigh Fermor admires the most are those canny and swashbuckling Maniots, with whom he clearly identified. His worshipful description of a famous Maniot leader in the Greek war of independence is, you suspect, a fantasy that the womanizing, hard-drinking writer had of an idealized self:

His fine looks and dignity and gracious manners were the outward signs of an upright and honorable nature, high intelligence, diplomatic skill, generosity, patriotism, unshakable courage and strength of will: qualities suitably leavened by ambition and family pride and occasionally marred by cruelty.

Certainly his need to sparkle at all costs could cause him to be cruel: at least a small part of Somerset Maugham’s hostility can be attributed to an evening during which Leigh Fermor, a guest at the older writer’s table, entertained the company by making fun of his host’s stutter.

The narcissistic glitter, the aversion to introspection, can hinder some of the books from being all they might have been. There is, among other things, a startling lack of interest in the politics that were seething beneath the landscapes he so loved to describe. A Time of Gifts covers his walk through Germany in 1933—a setting that, you’d think, would inspire some broader ruminations and deep thinking in a youth so fervently interested in history. But the young author—as his older self, to his credit, would acknowledge—“didn’t care a damn”; he thrilled to the dramas of the past, without seeming to care a great deal about their import for the present. “The gloom didn’t last longer than breakfast,” he blithely writes after the assassination of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss in 1934.

The youthful apathy eventually ossified into a staunchly reflexive, monarchist conservatism. Leigh Fermor can summon outrage about the deprivations, during World War II and the cold war, suffered by his aristocratic Hungarian and Romanian friends; but given his deep and clearly authentic love of Greece, it is disturbing to read, in Artemis Cooper’s biography, that this extravagant philhellene—a friend of George Seferis, no less—never spoke out against the oppressive right-wing regime of the Colonels in the 1960s and 1970s.

His tendency to stick to the surfaces becomes a problem even when politics isn’t an issue—as, for instance, in the underpowered and, I think, overrated A Time to Keep Silence, about the Benedictine and Trappist monasteries where he spent some time in the 1950s in order to work quietly on his first couple of books, and about his visit to the abandoned cells of Orthodox Greek monks in Cappadocia. It is hard not to find amusing the underlying premise of the notoriously voluble and social author forced to be silent for the first time, an experience that gives him a fleeting, climactic appreciation of the outside world as an “inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks” when he returns to it. But such aperçus feel generic. Here as elsewhere, you feel that, whatever his interest in religion and spiritual devotion, he is finally far more comfortable flourishing his eruditions. (“The gulf between the cenobites of Rome and those of Byzantium was often in my mind.”) It is hard to write profoundly about spirituality when you don’t really like to talk about the inner life.

In The Broken Road, we get many of the things we love in Leigh Fermor. Here again, he goggles and zigzags, flirts and pontificates. There are the vivid descriptions and the donnish asides; a touching near romance with a Greek girl—his first exposure to the people who would capture his imagination later—and a fantastical encounter with dancing fishermen in a cave, which affords the elderly author a chance to discourse on Greek folk choreography in a way his younger self couldn’t possibly have done. (“The other great dancers of the hasapiko and the tzeibekiko, as the two forms of rebetiko dances are severally called…”)

Still, one of the most interesting revelations afforded by the new book is that the high style of later years was already more or less fully formed by the end of his great walking tour. This is clear from reading the latter part of the book—the original entries from the journal he was keeping during his voyage to Mount Athos after he left Istanbul. (Ironically, all we have of the long-awaited sojourn in the historic capital city are terse and colorless notes.) The prose here already bristles with the flights of invention and erudite riffs we know so well from the finished books:

I thought of the triremes of all the empires that have sailed these same waters, and called to mind the tales about Perseus, Jason and Odysseus, and the Tyrants of the Archipelago; the piracy of Mithridate…

In other important ways, the Leigh Fermor of this final book of the trilogy—which, as we know, was in fact the first installment to be written, and in many ways the freshest and least mediated by subsequent authorial fussing—isn’t quite the person familiar from the earlier books. A gratifying new element is an emotional frankness, even vulnerability, that was edited out of in the earlier books. Here, for the first time, you see the flip side of the blithe self-involvement and brash charm (“Not for the first time, I concluded despondently, I have wounded somebody badly without meaning to; nor, alas, for the last. But I wish I knew exactly how”). Here you get the moments of terror that, you always felt reading the earlier books, must have been part of all that solitary wandering: “Then my guts seemed to drain right out of me,” he writes at one point, “and a fit of panic came, thoughts of passing the night there, without food in the rain.”

And whereas in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water Leigh Fermor liked more than once to draw attention to the “ecstasy” he always felt on realizing that nobody in the world knew where he was—an emotion that travelers today are unlikely ever to have, and that surely accounts for some of the nostalgic appeal of these volumes—here he admits, for the first time, to a paralyzing homesickness:

Outside now, the moon and stars are shining brightly on the snowy roofs, and making a silver track across the inky sea. I do so wonder what everyone is doing at home now.

I have said that Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first two books about his great adventure lacked the satisfying structure of Bildung narratives. The irony of the publication of his final, posthumous work is that it creates, retrospectively and almost accidentally, something of that meaningful arc for the entire trilogy. By the end, the lacquered manner has dissolved, and a different, far more touching and sympathetic hero emerges. The whole thing couldn’t have been better structured if the author had planned it this way all along. When you put down The Broken Road you feel what he himself felt on departing from Mount Athos, another place of quiet that he had to leave in the end in order to rejoin the noisy world: “a great deal of regret.”

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A review of Artemis Cooper’s Cairo in the War 1939–1945 by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy on the roof of Tara in Cairo

Paddy on the roof of Tara in Cairo

So it seems we can still find the occasional piece of Paddy’s original writing to get us excited. He reviews his good friend Artemis’ book, remaining very formal and making no mention of his friendship! Who else though was better placed to review this book than one of the residents of the infamous Tara?

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

This article first appeared in the TLS of September 1, 1989.

 

Artemis Cooper’s introductions and accompanying text to Duff and Diana Cooper’s published letters, A Durable Fire (1983), and to Lady Diana’s Scrapbook (1987), had a strong dash of her grandmother’s humour and lightness of touch; but only a most clairvoyant critic could have predicted Cairo in the War, 1939–1945. Her account, though it sticks punctiliously to fact, is as hard to put down as good fiction . The research is wide, detailed and scrupulous. She lays hold of the military background – the dramas unfolding just off-stage, but threatening to break out of the wings at any moment – with a soldierly grasp; and she seems to have talked at length with all the surviving dramatis personae.

Unleavened by personalities, military history can be heavy on the hand, and politics too, once the urgency has gone. The author’s skill redeems them both. As for the complex country and people on whom the war had impinged, she has segregated the strands with great discernment – the Copts, the Arabs, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, all the sects and enclaves of the Mediterranean and the Levant, the Helleno-Judaeo-Ptolemaic nexus of Alexandria, the fellahin and the effendis and the nationalists, the rivalries of the Western European powers, with their local allegiances and clients and phobias, and, above all, the reigning Albanian dynasty and the predominating British presence and tutelage.

The author is particularly helpful and fair about the tensions between the last (in the persons of the young King Farouk and the proconsular Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson), which culminated with British tanks all round the Palace, near-abdication and an enforced change of government: the German advance in the desert was the raison d’état. The enemy was held and driven back; certain froideurs remained at the top; but, astonishingly, the surface of the luxurious, dazzling and hospitable social life was hardly ruffled. At times this resembled the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo, at others the Congress of Vienna: “The Kings sit down to dinner and the Queens stand up to dance . . .”. The pool at the Gezira Sporting Club sluiced hangovers away, the willow smacked the leather, polo-balls whizzed there all afternoon, and roulette-balls plopped at the Mohammed Ali after dark. There were enticing restaurants and enterprising night-clubs, party followed party and bedtime often coincided with the first muezzin’s call from the minaret of Ibn Tulun. Guilt about rationed London bit sharp now and then, but for those on short leave from the Desert, not deep.

Among the missions and staffs and the permanent officials, intrigue and gossip were as intense as in Mrs Hauksbee’s Simla. The author is eerily well informed about Groppi’s Horse and the Short-Range Shepherd’s Group and, a fortiori, about GHQ at Grey Pillars and SOE at Rustam Buildings (particularly the latter) and all the cross-currents, promotion-mania and the clashes – eg, “Bolo” Keble and Fitzroy Maclean – the political schisms of Southern Europe and their repercussions in Egypt. The pages on spies and counterespionage and raiding forces are one of the most impressive parts of the book.

The author is perceptive about the frustrations and amusements of all ranks of the assorted armies. There were shaming moments, but on balance it seems that arrogant behaviour towards the Egyptians may have been more frequent among the commissioned than the other ranks. In the case of a pasha who was insulted beyond endurance by a very drunk officer, nemesis was brisk and condign. The oblivious offender was inveigled to the pasha’s house. Most would have kept quiet, Artemis Cooper observes, but he was soon telling everyone, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night — dashed unpleasant. I got buggered by six Nubians.”

In spite of the strains on high, the diplomatic world, the military, the cosmopolitan, the purely decorative and the intellectual interwove to a surprising degree, and lasting friendships were formed. The contribution of Greeks such as Seferis, and transplanted Greece-addicts like Lawrence Durrell and Robin Fedden, were important here. Poets and writers teemed, and Personal Landscape, the Nilotic equivalent of Horizon, was impressive. The author unfolds the catalogue of personalities with humour and understanding, though she is unduly dismissive of Sir Charles Johnston: cf his sonnet “The Lock”, and his Pushkin translations. The only omissions I can spot are Elizabeth David, the painter Adrian Daintrey and the writer-painter Richard Wyndham. Perhaps she should have included an eccentric cavalryman called Colonel Wintle, who got into hot water for taking a surrendered Italian general to luncheon, in full uniform, at the Turf Club.

The book ends with the calamitous post-war aftermath. Like the abstruse anecdotes, the range and choice of the photographs will promote sighs of delighted recognition and occasional ground teeth, and it is hard to think, on finishing, how this demanding book could have been handled better, more lucidly or more entertainingly.

You can buy Artemis Cooper’s Cairo in the War: 1939-45 on Amazon.

The It girl and the war hero

A young and beautiful Debo

What the trigger-happy, book-hating Duchess of Devonshire said to Patrick Leigh Fermor

Kate McLoughlin

From The Times Literary Supplement November 26, 2008

Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – known as Debo – was the youngest of those prototype It girls, the Mitford sisters; in faint and possibly euphemistic praise, the editor of this book of letters, her niece-by-marriage Charlotte Mosley, also describes her as “the most well-adjusted”. In this collection of letters, Debo comes across as jolly, plain-spoken and, where animals are concerned, murderous, her gun having taken her “from Sussex to Devon, from Anglesey to Norfolk and home via Northumberland”. Debo tends Chatsworth (the Devonshires’ stately home in Derbyshire), which she endearingly refers to as “the dump”, and engages in country pursuits. When asked by President Kennedy what she does all day, she admits she is “stumped”. A disarmingly simple soul – “I now prefer horse shows to lovers & I’ve never liked drink” – the Duchess is at her best on varieties of gooseberry and rare breeds of cattle. A running joke in this correspondence is her anti-intellectualism in general and antipathy to reading in particular. Invited to a literary lunch in Leamington Spa, she plans to tell her audience, “BOOKS how I hate them – as an avid non-reader it is awful to have added to their number”. The reader of her letters may be forgiven a wry smile.

The recipient of the Devonshire dispatches is Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as “Paddy” and occasionally “Whack”): war hero, author of travel books such as The Traveller’s Tree (1950), Mani (1958), A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the recipient of many honours, including a knighthood for services to literature and Anglo-Greek relations. During the Second World War, he was posted to Crete to support the local Resistance and led the successful abduction of the German commander on the island, an exploit that earned him the DSO and was later filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). Fermor attends the making of the movie and is enchanted when Dirk Bogarde portrays him as “a mixture of Garth and Superman, shooting Germans clean through the breast from a dentist’s chair, strangling sentries in an offhand manner”. From his letters, Fermor emerges as charming and whimsical, with a delightfully childlike imagination offsetting an annoyingly schoolboyish sense of humour. Still entranced by what he calls in A Time of Gifts “the glamour of fairy stories”, he hears the sea roar “like angry lions at feeding-time”, sees hills crowned with “tea-cosies of mist”, watches blackbirds mass “as if someone had rashly opened a pie”. In the best of his travel writings, Fermor combines a similar sense of wonder with local colour, an eye for ridiculousness (including his own) and vivid description in rangy sentences remarkable for their buoyancy. There is little of this soaring prose here: although some lengthy descriptions of travel are included, Fermor is reduced to telling his reluctant reader which passages she may skip.

Fermor and the then Deborah Mitford first met at a regimental ball in 1940. They bumped into each other at parties from time to time over the next decade but the first letter in this collection is a six-liner dated March 21, 1954, from Debo, now married to Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire, to Paddy saying that she hopes he will come and stay with them at Lismore, their house in Wexford. This sets the tone for the correspondence to follow: invitations are extended and accepted, thank-you notes are then sent. Too intermittent, the letters are unsatisfying records of festivities long finished. Although Charlotte Mosley claims to have excised plans for meetings, reports on health, grumbles about the weather and the slowness of the posts, the weeding out has not been thorough enough.

Another of Mosley’s claims in support of the correspondence is that the participants are indifferent to politics. It is difficult to decide whether this indifference is another instance of charming whimsicality or just unforgivable negligence. The exchange of letters is too sporadic to allow for political themes to be developed at length, but politics are not entirely absent. Andrew Cavendish was Harold Macmillan’s nephew-by-marriage and served in his government, later becoming an early member of the Social Democratic Party.

In 1958, with Macmillan a year into office, Debo “talks secrets with the PM” and finds it “most jolly and educational”. Much later, John Major “exudes goodness”, Tony Blair is “the wretched little Prime Minister”, Cherie “frightful”, and John Prescott “looks like a bare-knuckle fighter . . . from the East End”. This animosity may have been partly caused by the hunting ban, brought into force by the New Labour government in 2005, and the slaughter of livestock following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In their strongest expression of political feelings, Paddy calls the passing of the anti-hunt bill “a day of mourning” and Debo describes the cull as “truly ghoul”.

These references apart, the correspondence is largely devoted to the dramatis personae of high society, mostly long-gone minor aristocrats about whom Mosley provides rather more information than necessary in her footnotes. The Queen Mother, whom Debo calls “Cake”, having been lastingly impressed by her enthusiasm at a wedding when the cake was cut, puts in a few appearances, memorably crying “Oh God” and making a dash for the Royal Box when the conductor unexpectedly strikes up “God Save the Queen” at an opera gala. Princess Diana visits Chatsworth and Debo is stuck for what to give her to eat “as she prefers the fridge to the table, I’m told”. In other sly thrusts, Jackie Kennedy’s face “is put together in a very wild way” and Somerset Maugham’s is “so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille”.

Old age arrives suddenly for the correspondents – the long gaps between the letters mask the passing of time – but they sound the same as ever, still playing with the same phrases (“I freely admit” is one of Debo’s, much repeated by family and friends), the nicknames (Nancy Mitford is “the Old French authoress” and “the Ancient Dame of France”), the in-jokes (Debo’s supposed illiteracy), still “v v excited” about things or finding them “frightfully good”. Their lack of self-pity as they age is impressive and appealing; there are jokes about failing eyesight and “Dr. Oblivion” but, even though they have reached the stage in life when Paddy is constantly writing obituaries, they maintain good cheer. Twenty-first-century life fails to disconcert them. “There are marvellous entertainments called car-boot sales”, writes Debo. “You can buy a Rembrandt for a few quid in any old field. So why not sell a few?”

Did they love each other? Debo is “funny, touching, ravishing and enslaving”, Paddy tells mutual friends. In a letter of 1957 he rebukes her: “I wish you didn’t love everyone else more than me – it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t rather love you, as I suppose I do, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so selfish and possessive [. . . .] I do adore you”. His adoration is clear in his letters, which outnumber Debo’s: he chides her for not writing often enough, he delights over her average prose, he sends her long travelogues that she replies to with short letters about gooseberries. But her fondness and admiration for him are also evident, and a photograph in the volume of them aged ninety-three and eighty-eight shows a pair close together but not touching: a couple of old friends.

In one of her letters to Paddy, Debo marvels that the University of Texas has paid $10,000 for her sister’s papers: “They’ve got all Evie [Waugh]’s stuff, & Osbert [Sitwell]’s, & letters saying things like ‘Arriving on the 2.14 on Saturday so much looking forward to seeing you’ are put under glass and revered”. Similar feelings are induced by In Tearing Haste. The volume diminishes its subjects by preserving their off-the-cuff remarks and, in Fermor’s case, prose that does nothing to suggest that his finest writing is spectacular. It is good to know that the two are corresponding still, but it might be for the best to save their last letters for their own private pleasure.

Snail’s pace to Byzantium: journey of a lifetime

This is a combination of profile and review of Words of Mercury. An interesting piece.

by Ann Elder

First Published in Athens News, 9 Jan 2004

“I HATE the word travel-writer,” London-born, Mani-based Patrick Leigh Fermor told a British journalist in 1995. Under the title Words of Mercury, a selection of his writings was published by John Murray this autumn. The excerpts from half a dozen of his books, some articles and reviews show clearly why he must flinch from being slotted anywhere confining.

As his followers know, he writes with an enchanted pen. Any topic he takes up becomes something ‘rich and strange’. He has a story-teller’s knack of compelling interest, like the Ancient Mariner mesmerizing listeners with his glittering eye. And he has a particular flair for catching the heightened receptivity and visceral thrill felt at new encounters, what Cavafy wished the traveler in his poem Ithaka:

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbours never seen before.”
(Kimon Friar translation)

Not least, Leigh Fermor wins readers’ allegiance by creating the sense of affinity with an engaging personality, uncensorious, untinged by chauvinism, reveling in life, akin in spirit to A E Housman, onetime professor of Latin at Cambridge, in his lines:

Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love or fights
Lief should I rouse at mornings
And lief lie down at nights.

Edited by Artemis Cooper, a writer (Cairo in Wartime) and wife of historian Antony Beevor (Crete: The Battle and the Resistance), the book has five parts: travel, Greece, people, books and flotsam (finishing with a poem on Christmas maybe better forgotten). Cooper gives brief introductions to each piece and starts off with a succinct biography.

As an 18-year-old living on a pound a week in a flat off Picadilly in 1933, Leigh Fermor spent more time partying than buckling down to write. As fate had it, he had read The Station: Athos: Treasures and Men by the irreverent young Robert Byron in 1928. The ‘great and misunderstood spirit of Byzantium’ had greatly impressed him.

“About lamp-lighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table,” he related later. “A plan unfolded – to set out across Europe like a tramp – a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight.”

“The chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it hovered Mount Athos; and the Greek archipelago.”

In excess of his wildest dreams, he found material to write about. All was grist to his mill, but his mill ground slowly. His writing proved to require long gestation. He became fanatical about polishing his product, and research, the more obscure, the more it seemed to appeal to him, like the origins of the Sarakatsans or the Laz-speaking Greeks of Trebizond. The first book about his venture, A Time of Gifts, came out in 1977, over 40 years later, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water about “those mysterious regions between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea” as Saki put it – in 1986. In France they called him “l’escargot (the snail) of the Carpathes.”

Real life and events also delayed his writing. The trek took him about a year. He reached his goal on New Year’s Eve, 1934, after ending his traverse of Bulgaria with a splash, falling into the Black Sea on a cold December evening. He came to the coast some 150 miles north of the Bosphorus. “An old man was smoking a narghileh on the doorstep of a hut beside a little boat beached among the rushes – a Tartar fisherman, the only human being I saw all day,” he  wrote over 20 years later in an article in the May 1965 Holiday Magazine.

Darkness fell. “I lost my footing on a ledge and skidded – waist-deep into a pool. Jarred and shaken, with a gash on my forehead and a torn thumb, I climbed out, shuddering with cold. At the bottom of the pool, about two fathoms down, my torch was sending a yellow shaft through sea anemones and a flickering concourse of fish.”

Crawling round the rocks, he came to a veritable Cyclop’s cave sheltering a dozen Greek fishermen and Bulgarian goatherds with their 50 goats and cheese-making apparatus, eating lentils by a thornbush fire. The young wayfarer was soon dried and warm, tossing back slivovitz and eating fresh fried mackerel.

Leigh Fermor is in his element in the climax of this thoroughly Homeric episode, when one of the Greeks, Costa, turns out to be an unsung Nijinsky, his dancing invested with a ‘tragic and doomed aura.’ He performed the stunt  with which Greek cruise ships like to wind up their Greek night shows: dancing with a table between the teeth.

“On a rock, lifted there to clear the floor, the low, round, heavy table was perched. Revolving past it, Costa leaned forward: suddenly the table levitated itself into the air, sailed past us, and pivoted at right angles to Costa’s head in a series of wide loops, the edge clamped firmly in his mouth and held here only by his teeth. The dancer whirled like a dervish, till the flying table melted into a disc, finally returned to its rock, glasses, cutlery, lentil pot and cigarette burning on the edge of a plate undisturbed.”

Time in Greece he dates from his 20th birthday, February 11, 1935, when he arrived at Mt Athos as ‘snowflakes were falling fast’ and ‘in deep snow, trudged from monastery to monastery.’ In Athens later, he frequented the  Romanian embassy, meeting descendants of Phanariot hospodars, Ypsilantes, Ghikas and Cantacuzenes. As with Greece, he fell in love with Balasha Cantacuzene whose forebear, Emperor John Vl, invited the Seljuk Turks to  Europe (and is recalled sorrowfully in a Cavafy poem for having coloured glass not jewels in his coronation crown).

After time writing and painting in an old mill among the lemon groves overlooking Poros, they went to her decaying family estate in Moldavia. Published in 1961 was a perfectly pitched account of a picnic in sunlit  countryside by open carriage and on horseback on September 2, 1939, the last day of peace. “It had been a happy day, as we had hoped, and it had to last us a long time, for the next day’s news scattered the little society for ever.”

Utterly desolating is the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine article of May 1990 on his first breaking through the Iron Curtain in 1965. He found the Cantecuzene sisters in a Bucharest attic eking out a communist state pension  teaching. The gracious old houses he had stayed in among flowery meadows and nightingale-filled woods were psychiatric hospitals, their owners dead.

Leigh Fermor seems happiest gilding the past, writing to ‘the brave music of a distant drum,’ as old Khayyan put it, not dwelling on ‘bitter furies of complexity’ or ‘that gong-tormented sea’ of Yeats’s “Byzantium” which he refers to at the outset in Time of Gifts. The days of his youth were the days of his glory and he evokes them with zest, if no doubt some selective memory. He admits he is beset with ‘retrogressive hankerings,’ but these add to the richness of the embroidered prose dazzling his readers, to twist Yeats a bit. And sometimes he might be shoulder-to-shoulder with the poet:

Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

His review of Edmund Keeley’s Cavafy’s Alexandria in a 1977  Times Literary Supplement (TLS) shows him at his serious best. He recalls “the blacked-out, jolly, rather wicked wartime port” he knew as a young British World War Two agent, then is off with Cavafy into the Judaeo-Hellenic Franco-Levantine city “old in sin, steeped in history, warrened with intrigue.”

He notes the depths of irony and dark humour in the notion of citizens aghast with consternation when the barbarians fail to invade them on cue. He ponders “the jagged Ithaka at the long Odyssey’s end; the imminent Ephialtes ready to sell the Thermopylae of the spirit.” He goes on: “Issued without preamble from an atmosphere of earthly delights these warnings sound as harsh, for a moment, as the words of Mercury after the songs of Apollo at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.'”

Leigh Fermor is a mild Mercury though. In a review of Oxford classicist CM Bowra’s Primitive Song in a 1962 Spectator he commends him for eschewing ‘a softer technique, swaying to the seductions of every coincidence  and historical chance-shot.’ He himself tends to yield to the tempting vistas of ‘alluring byways.’

The selections from his writings on Greece include a report he wrote for London’s Imperial War Museum archives in 1969 on how the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe was abducted by a Cretan-British force he led in April 1944. While still controversial, the coup makes a cracking good story.

At Anoyeia where captors and captive rested, villagers were ‘convulsed by incredulity, then excitement and finally by triumphant hilarity. We could hear running feet in the streets, shouts and laughter. “Just think, we’ve stolen their General!”‘

Heading south round Psiloritis – Mt Ida of antiquity, over 2,200 metres high and snow-covered till late May – the getaways were to meet a British vessel on the coast to spirit them to Egypt. After a night in a shepherd’s hut sharing  one blanket, “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mt Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said (in Latin): ‘See, how it stands, one pile of snow’. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off (likewise in Latin);

‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents flow
With clear sharp ice is all congealed.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.

(Conington’s translation)

The stanzas are much-loved, ‘a picturesque Christmas card,’ say scholars. They evoke the perfect ambience in which to peruse the book. Those unfamiliar with Leigh Fermor will surely have appetites whetted for more. Those who know him and have his books around will dash for them to locate the extracts, then hotly debate the choices, such as the punning Achitectural Notes from a 1994 Spectator: “If you squinch, aisle screen,” and “Put those Saxon  here Norman,” and “Overhung? Per apse, when dais done.”

The author has covered himself. “Pure nonsense is as rare among the arts as an equatorial snowdrop”, he wrote in a review of George Seferis’s Illustrated Verses for Small Children in a 1977  TLS.

Der letzte englische Gentleman

I have at last made a start on the book review section. This is an attempt to bring together as many online book reviews as I can find. Most are pretty formulaic, repetitive and dull, but in the quest to build as complete an on-line archive as possible it has to be done. 

This is my most recent addition, to add also to the content of the site which is in German. There is nothing startlingly new here I am afraid, but it is an opportunity to practice your German (if you have any!).

Copy and paste into Google Translate if you need to.

by Sven Boedecker

First published in the Sonntags Zeitung, 4 July 2010

Abenteurer, Kriegsheld und Künstler: Mit Patrick Leigh Fermor können wir ein Griechenland entdecken, das inzwischen verschwunden ist

Als Hitler kam, ist er gegangen. Wie ein mittelalterlicher Pilger ist er 1933 von London nach Konstantinopel gewandert, hat in Scheunen und Schlössern übernachtet. Da war er gerade mal achtzehn Jahre alt. Über diese Reise hat er Jahrzehnte später zwei Bücher voller Esprit, Wissen und Lebenslust geschrieben – «Die Zeit der Gaben» (1977) und «Zwischen Wäldern und Wasser» (1986) haben Patrick Leigh Fermor zur Schriftsteller-Legende gemacht.

Aber der Engländer kann mehr als nur gut schreiben, er vollbrachte auch Heldentaten, für die er bis heute in seiner Heimat wie in Griechenland verehrt wird. Denn als Soldat sprang er im Zweiten Weltkrieg über dem Nazi-besetzten Kreta mit dem Fallschirm ab, lebte dort verkleidet als Berghirte und organisierte den kretischen Widerstand. Und dann entführte er 1944 in einer Nacht-und-Nebel-Aktion einen General der deutschen Wehrmacht und schmuggelte ihn nach Libyen. Dieser Coup machte Leigh Fermor später sogar zum Leinwandhelden, gespielt von Dirk Bogarde. Continue reading