Tag Archives: Adam Sisman

Joey Casey’s review of Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Following the recent podcast including Adam Sisman, I thought that you might like to read Joey Casey’s review of his second Paddy letters compilation. This was first published in an edition of the PLF Society newsletter, and I am grateful to Joey for letting me re-publish here.

Daphne Fielding once said that Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor ‘should be turned into pills so that you can take him when you feel low’ and for that reason alone Adam Sisman’s books of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters – Volumes 1 and 2 should grace every bedside table. The sheer ebullience of them may keep you awake but you will have good dreams! Paddy wrote to Sophie Moss, wife of Billy Moss his comrade in arms in Crete, in 1950: ‘Sackcloth and Ashes…could be the title of a published volume of my letters…as all my letters start with abject apologies for lateness in answering’. However, as Sisman rightly points out, the image of a ‘dashing’ Paddy suits much better than one in mourning garb’.

In Volume 2 ‘More Dashing’ the letters span from 1938 to 2010 and display more variety and nearly twice the number of correspondents as Volume 1. There are slightly fewer ‘laugh out loud’ moments than in the first book but more breadth of subject matter with interesting intimate glimpses into Paddy’s love life, working methods and the many ways he tries, but often fails, to ward off distraction: ’I wish I were a better concentrator: feel like a grasshopper harnessed to a plough’ he writes to his friend and comrade in arms in Crete Xan Fielding (1976).

Whether as a very young man or very old with tunnel vision, Paddy’s letters entertain with drawings, comic verse and occasional cringe-making puns. They are microcosms of his books but often, Sisman writes, easier to read, and less ‘worked over’ although in most cases carefully honed with a view perhaps to future publication. Even at his most desperate, when alone on a bare mountainside in 1944 wartime Crete, he still feels the need to write complete with illustrations to a friend, Annette Crean, as if on a holiday postcard ‘Of course life is just one big whisker as usual. It’s very cold and snowy and rather beautiful, Wish you were here.’

Sisman explains in his introduction that physically Paddy was constantly away from his friends, either travelling or in Greece, and letters were just the right length both to practise his writing skills and “engage with his correspondents”. Interwoven with amusing anecdotes, quotes, references, social happenings and book recommendations plus a cast of many characters (mostly titled) the letters often require the reader to dive for Sisman’s notes. For a gregarious Paddy though they were the next best thing to a good conversation over a glass of wine. The editor’s sterling research in tracking down the most obscure references from Paddy’s magpie mind is to be applauded; he writes to Joan Rayner, who would become his wife nearly twenty years later, in 1956 that a friend has ‘sent me a remarkable Personal Religion in Ancient Greece by a Dominican called Festugiere, which is my bed and meal-time reading. Very odd for a monk. Has anyone heard of him?’ Sisman has ..and gives date, chapter and verse in the notes!

Above all it is Paddy’s lyrical sensory descriptions that really sing such as those to his ‘lady pen pal’ Diana Cooper in 1955 while staying at the Grand Hotel Bassoul in Beirut ‘lying there on enormous high beds in cool dilapidated rooms, listening to the clatter of trams, the cries of vendors clanking brass objects and muezzin answering muezzin, a faint rank whiff of kebabs and spices drifting in through those mock crusading windows’ The armchair traveller is instantly transported to the Middle East. Religious processions were another favourite of Paddy’s; in another letter to Joan Rayner in 1950 he writes:-‘10,000 people burst into a furore of clapping and cheers as the enormous Mararena virgin came out ( every one murmuring ‘Mira la, Mira la ..look at her’) preceded by a hundred Roman soldiers in full armour and huge ostrich feather plumes playing slow marches on muffled drums etc…..boys putting on velvet and gold dalmatics and ruffs, all in candlelight under white baroque vaults – the closest one could get to the Funeral of Count Orgaz’. (nb note 6 this painting was by El Greco not Goya!).

In 1970 he waxes lyrical recomposing the landscape in painterly fashion from a trip to Turkey with Damaris Stewart, a close friend along with her husband Michael Stewart, British Ambassador to Greece, and later their daughter Olivia. ‘Give me an agora choked with capers and cow parsley every time, convolvulus twirling up the shafts of columns, stylite storks, an odeum full of frogs with a Yuruk (Turkish nomad) and a camel or two for scale in the middle distance..’.

Paddy seems slightly insecure in his early descriptions of the sexual mores in bohemian
and upper class circles. He and Joan had an open arrangement which he was happy to follow but was slightly anxious that she should not! ‘How lively London sounds, everybody’s changed places. It’s like Sir Roger de Coverley …whoops! Away again and all change. I wouldn’t mind a day or two of it now, as long as neither of us performed leading roles, I don’t think I could bear any change now’. In 1950 he wrote to her ‘you as a friend and a lover are almost (not quite) equally precious things.’

In Sisman’s Volume 1 Paddy’s letters were often all innocence smitten with love such as the ‘crush’ he had on Lyndall Birch in the late 1950s. This is now replaced in Volume 2 by more knowing but nevertheless passionate declarations to his lover Ricki Huston, John Huston’s wife, who gets four long letters in two months and we feel the urgency and passion of their affair: driving from Rome to Bologna and on through France in April 1961, he describes driving through a mountain storm from motorway to country road ‘soaring through the firmament like a destroying demon out of Dante, crackling sword cast aside and mackintosh wings a-draggle, a grounded Lucifer. ‘The exciting subterfuge in the relationship is mirrored when he writes that he is staying at Viscount de Noaille’s mansion in Paris ..’Mr Sponge has fallen on his feet again’ he quips later on when mentioning ‘cadged’ friends’ houses. Hushed vistas of Louis XV furniture, labyrinths of gilt and brocade magnificence…Very grand but a bit eerie as if spies and eunuchs were observing one’s every step from inside gigantic Ming vases and through giant portraits of Noailles after Noailles’.

In another letter to Ricki he declares ( 1961) ‘I do feel grateful to life this …setting all these treasures cascading so generously and gratuitously’ but she is not fooled and replies quoting him: ‘there’s been many and many a handful of multicoloured silk and a good few chunks of alabaster for after all aren’t you a poet and a loving man?’

When trying to console Diana Cooper one month after her husband Duff Cooper’s death in 1954 we sense Paddy’s rather naive perplexity as to how to react. He starts by trying to cadge a ticket to a ball in Rome and hopes she might come and join him ..travel and changes could help..or when in doubt there is always a ‘nursery’ solution ‘a giant nanny’. He then tries distraction with a tale of his Irish ‘scrape’ and finally finishes by sending her a rather mournful 16th century poem which would probably have made her burst into tears. Paddy then proceeded to lose all her condolence thank you letters. They remained firm friends.

We feel for Paddy’s publisher, the long suffering Jock Murray who had to make sense of the spidery maze of corrections presented late along with excuses and pleas for finance. He writes to Jock in 1992 ‘Oh for Chagford or Saint Wandrille ( a hotel and a monastery where he used to take refuge keeping all temptations at bay). I’ve started clearing all this stuff, written a hundred letters I had allowed to mount up and hoping Volume 111 will get forward a bit faster’ …It never did and was eventually published from Paddy’s notes posthumously.

It is at beautiful Kardamyli, the home that he and Joan had built in the Mani in Greece, where he spent most of the year from the mid sixties writing, swimming, reading and entertaining friends.

In 1962 he describes finding the perfect spot for their house to Joan. ‘The appearance and mood of the place is half Calypso’s cave, half orchard where Odysseus found his old father at work…this interpenetration of sea and rocks with olives, cypresses, sweet smelling shrubs; marine and georgic with that hectic sunset amphitheatre of precipices behind and the phantom Taygetus ( mountains) looming’.

The last third or so of Sisman’s book deals with correspondence largely arising from Paddy’s books plus the many introductions, addresses, reviews and obituaries he had to write for dear friends. These later years are also times for sorting out his affairs and paperwork. In a letter to Rudi Fischer, his advisor and mentor on all things Hungarian and Romanian he guiltily admits in 1987 to his use of the ‘Dichtung’ (poetic licence and sheer invention) in the chapter concerning a romantic fugue with Xenia in Between the Woods and the Water. He also tries to prepare his papers for Artemis Cooper, Diana Cooper’s granddaughter, to write his biography to appear posthumously. Anxious not to hurt or upset he suggests she might like to go through all his letters to Joan ‘I’ve put lines round any over gossipy or scandalous bits with OMIT written in the margin.’

I have only given a very small sample here from Paddy’s many letters in this Volume 2 (the first PLF book to be published by Bloomsbury rather than John Murray) but, since Sisman mentions that in all there are probably around ten thousand letters including those to Joan, perhaps we can expect Volumes 3 and 4? I hope so as they are such a joy to read.

Purchase More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

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Slightly Foxed Podcast – Dashing for the Post editor Adam Sisman

Adam Sisman

I do look forward to the emails I receive from Slightly Foxed, the specialist London-based publisher of fine reproduction books. They are always upbeat and inclusive. Their publications are varied but always popular. I have started to collect some of their children’s books for my grandchildren!

Earlier in 2019 they started a podcast which I highlighted back in June. Episode 6 includes an interview with Adam Sisman, who edited Dashing for the Post: Selected Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2016) and More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2018). Unfortunately the interview is not about his Paddy work, but I thought that you might like to hear Adam speak!

Listen to the podcast here.

Event 3 October 2018: More Dashing – Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adam Sisman will be speaking about his new book on Wednesday 3rd October at 7.15pm at The Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington Street, London W1U 5AS.

If you would like to attend, please email info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Admission is free but non-members are asked to make a £10 contribution towards the expenses of the evening or to join the Society, which entitles members to free attendance at all events. The new book will be for sale at a special launch price.

More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is the follow-up of Dashing for the Post: Selected Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2016) which received terrific reviews including:

‘Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor…. Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters’ The Spectator

‘Adam Sisman has done an excellent job of selecting and editing these letters, almost any one of which would have been a joy to receive’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Oh joy! … No other contemporary writer could have given us so much to relish and we’re fortunate that Adam Sisman has distilled such a treat from so much rich material…. The wit, the humour, and the dazzling intelligence make this, for me, the most unputdownable book of the year’ Country Life

Patrick Leigh Fermor – the journey continues

From time to time, the Benaki Museum publishes a supplement to its regular journal, and the 9th Supplement is a masterpiece dedicated to Paddy’s life.

Well bound, and coffee table book sized, there are over twenty new articles exploring a range of topics including Paddy’s intimates and friends, his walks, the Cretan resistance, wider discussions of Greece, Paddy’s writing and of course the house.

The Benaki have assembled a remarkable collection of writers including Hamish Robertson, Cressida Connolly, the Marques de Tamaron, Nick Hunt, John Kitmer, Chris White, Colin Thubron, John Julius Norwich, Adam Sisman, and Roberto Calasso amongst others.

The supplement is available from the Benaki Museum shop for 18 Euros plus worldwide DHL shipping.

Details of the contents are here.

Persian princes and twelve cadillacs

Paddy sent this letter to Deborah Devonshire in October 1960, having completed a road trip through the Balkans. Read more of their letters in Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Darling Debo,

Off we set in Joan’s Sunbeam Rapier, hood down, singing at the wheel, heading from Le Touquet to our old friend Lady Smart’s, spent three days there, then into a deserted dusty summer Paris, so bare that it might have been emptied by a Bedouin raid, and south to Fontainebleau, for a further three days of utmost luxury and pleasure at your old pal Charles de Noailles and Natalie’s house … Then off hot wheel eastwards to Chatillon-sur-Marne, to see the Vix Vase, a huge Greco-Etruscan amphora dug up seven years ago …

Then across the Rhine, through the Black Forest, one night on the shores of Lake Constance surrounded by Germans; south into the Austrian Tyrol, on into Italy at Bolzano, then clean through the Dolomites, hundreds of miles of sheer and dizzy spikes a-gush with streams out of which beautiful trout virtually leap straight on to frying pan, grill and saucepan; north of Venice into Yugoslavia at last; through Slovenia to Lubliana, through Croatia to Zagreb, then east along a billiard table autostrada towards Belgrade. Now, a travel tip for motoring in Yugoslavia: there are only about three petrol pumps the country, and scarcely any motors. We ran out hundreds of miles from one on this autostrada in the heat of the day and settled for hours under an acacia tree … until at last a caravan of twelve Cadillacs drew up and succoured us by siphoning petrol out of their tanks. They were a party of Persian princes with their sloe-eyed princesses on the way from Claridge’s to Teheran. They partook freely of our wine flask, asked us to stay in their palaces (the competition began to look ugly) and then slipped into gear for Iran.

We continued south into wildest Bosnia, where mountains began to rise and minarets to sprout in every village, each alive with Moslem invocations intoned thrice daily. The roads became dust tracks across plains or twisty ledges of rubble little wider than eyebrows along the rims of deep gorges at the bottom of which huge rivers curled and swooped through echoing and forested ravines, with here and there an old Turkish bridge spanning them as thinly and insubstantially as a rainbow. The food became odd and wonderful, stuffed with garlic and paprika and the sunlight and our breath got stronger with every mile. So on to Sarajevo, scene of the Archduke’s murder, and, through range after range of mountains to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast, a terrific medieval walled city full of renaissance palaces and belfries and winding columns and cloisters, and oysters too—huge and wonderful ones. South of this is the old kingdom of Montenegro, now part of Yugoslavia, reached after a three-hour zigzag up a sheer and cloud-topped wall of mountain, looking down on to strange rock fjords caked with water lilies and with pyramid-shaped mountains that hover on mist like the ones in Japanese pictures, and plenty of gliding storks …

Into Greek Macedonia at last, and then by familiar roads to Athens … a colossal road is being built outside, with fifty pneumatic drills, giant steel claws for rubble, hydraulic pumps, steamrollers and blasphemy. One has to talk in bellows. I have now bought some pink wax ear plugs, which makes everything even eerier. I see massed drills a-shudder, rollers a-crunch, and ten tons of broken concrete crashing from suddenly gaping steel claws all only a few yards off, and all in dead silence; lorries hurtle by as soundlessly as minnows. Meanwhile, one’s heart sounds like a steam hammer, and one’s own steps like nail-clad footfalls in a cathedral.

Published in The Paris Review

Hanging Out with the Churchills on Aristotle Onassis’s Yacht

A letter excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters.

By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Published in The Paris Review
December 8, 2017

To Ann Fleming
c/o Niko Ghika
Hydra

18 September 1954

Darling Annie,

Very many apologies indeed from both of us (1) for neither having answered your lovely long letter, full of exactly the sort of thing one wants to hear—it was a masterpiece, and by far the best of any ex-Hydriot so far; and (2) for being such laggards in saying ‘thank you’ for The Dynasts. It really was kind of you to remember it. Joan is now in the thick of the first vol.—the second, which is reprinting, will follow soon, your bookseller says. It arrived just as we were about to run out of books. That green detective one, The Gilded Fly, which vanished so mysteriously, miraculously materialized on the hall table yesterday!

You were missed a great deal by everyone, including the servants, who still talk affectionately of Kyria Anna. Soon after you went, I got a letter from Kisty Hesketh, introducing her brother called Rory McEwen and a pal called Mr Vyner. You probably know the former, v. good looking, and a champion guitar player it seems, and probably very nice. They both seemed wet beyond words to us, without a spark of life or curiosity, and such a total lack of conversation that each subject died after a minute’s existence. We had sixty subjects killed under us in an hour, till at last even Maurice and I were reduced to silence. Joan did her best, but most understandably subsided into a bored scowl after the first few hours.

We heaved a sigh when they vanished after two days that had seemed like a fortnight … Your fortnight, I must say, passed with the speed of a weekend. Joan saw Maurice off in Athens, another sad wrench.

Diana, JJ and Anne finally turned up on the 2nd September. The last two left four days ago and D. is still here. They were not nearly such a handful as we feared, in fact very nice and easy and resourceful, Anne painting away industriously, or wandering off independently with JJ, who gave us lots of splendid guitar playing—always stopping in time & not boring at all. I think they enjoyed it very much. Diana, who is in your old room, seems as happy as she is anywhere now, and is very easy and unfussy, enjoying everything, loos, odd food, garlic, ouzo, retsina, etc., mooching about in the port, darting off to Athens, once to see Susan Mary Patten off a caïque (but she wasn’t there), once to see the Norwiches off, returning both times laden with Embassy whisky and so on, which was gratefully lapped up. We had a very entertaining old Greek friend for last weekend, Tanty Rodocanachi, which was a great success, lots of funny stories and old world gallantry … But Diana’s presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez in a very sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. Chips was on board, le Baron Redé, a horrible French count called Castéja [Lopez-Willshaw’s son-in-law] and a few other people who looked unmitigated hell, but I didn’t quite manage to take them in during our two hours on board. We all felt a bit bumpkin-ish as we clutched our weighty cut-glass whisky goblets and perched on the edge of satin sofas. We were put down at the little restaurant down the hill, to the wonder of the assembled crowds; and the Balkan dark swallowed us up. They were off for the Cyclades and Beirut.

But this was nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with an aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. It was followed by an immense three-masted wonder ship with silk sails, miles of corridor, dozens of Impressionist paintings, baths to every cabin and regiments of stewards, belonging to his brother-in-law, Niarchos. They have made 400 million quid between the two of them, and own, after England, USA and Sweden, the largest merchant fleet in the world, all under Panamanian flags; and all, it seems, acquired in fifteen years. We only saw Niarchos, who is young, rather good looking, very drunk and tousled, not bad really. On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr. Sailing beside it was another three-masted yacht, gigantic by ordinary standards, but by comparison the sort of thing one sees inside bottles in seaside pubs. This was also Niarchos’s, a sort of annexe for overflow, soi-disant, lent to Lord Warwick, though he is plainly some kind of stooge. He looked like a Neapolitan hairdresser run to fat. We did a certain amount of drinking and social chat on the big one (spurning Lord Warwick’s cockleshell) and wandered through labyrinthine corridors gaping at the fittings. I gathered from Pam C. next morning—the focus of all eyes on the quay in pink shorts, gilt sandals and a-clank with gems—that it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours, nobody knowing what is a test. Diana, Tanty, and the Norwiches got a lift in this to Athens (D. returning next day), and Joan and I trudged up to fried salt cod and lentils and garlic. We learnt on Diana’s return that the massed blast of our five breaths nearly blew the whole party overboard. There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich. What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?

Modiano’s Cyprus article was the best I have seen so far. After you left Athens, I accompanied the whole of the demonstration: oaths in front of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb, the burning of the Cyprus sedition proclamation, also of bundles of Union Jacks, cries of ‘Down with the English! Down with the Barbarians!’, then, from the steps of the University, an awful incendiary speech from the Rector that overstated the case so much (he ended with an undying curse and anathema to the English!) that nearly all the sensible Greeks feel ashamed. What a bore it is, and so foolishly unnecessary. Niko G[hika] comes back next week, but may not be able to stay on, as he is a lecturer in Athens. Joan returns sooner than me, so I’m going to keep my teeth into Hydra till the last possible moment. In spite of all the goings on, I’ve managed to keep on scribbling. I hate the idea of another uprooting and would like to stay till winter starts. Thanks again, dearest Annie, for The Dynasts, and do please write another London newsletter! Lots of love from Joan and Diana, also to Ian, and from me. All wish you were here.

Love
Paddy

Excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, selected and edited by Adam Sisman © 1940–2010 by the Estate of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Courtesy The New York Review Books.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters

This review of Adam Sisman’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, the US version of Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (New York Review of Books) was published on Barnes and Noble, and worth reading if only for the opening quotation.

In November 1996, a young writer named William Blacker, planning to travel to the wilds of northern Romania, wrote to Patrick Leigh Fermor for advice. Fermor, then in his seventies, replied:

Dear William — if I may make so bold —
I can’t think of anything more exciting than your imminent prospect — and well done starting in winter. (a) You have the whole world to yourself, and (b) inhabitants never take summer visitors seriously. Winter is a sort of Rite of Passage. Do take down any songs or sayings, above all descantice — spells, incantations, invocations, etc. I bet Maramures is full of them. Also, as much wolf and bear lore as possible — and remember, never drink rainwater that has collected in a bear’s footprint, however thirsty.

This jaunty note, now published in Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, edited by Adam Sisman, conveys so much of the “old boy,” as he himself might have put it: the generosity and enthusiasm, the arcane knowledge and irresistible wit. Fermor had by then been traveling and writing for almost six decades, and the letters gathered here span seventy peripatetic years, from 1940 to 2010. By turns gossipy, lyrical, profound, and dazzling, they carry Fermor’s voice so clearly that we seem to hear him speaking as we read. Not that we hear everything. Fermor admits to pruning his correspondence (“lots of things not for strangers’ eyes”), and Sisman has excised the more quotidian passages. Yet no letter seems incomplete. And thanks to Sisman’s astute selection and fine introductory notes, the volume’s gradually darkening mood seems to mirror Fermor’s ultimate journey from youthful exuberance to aged decline.

He began traveling in 1933 at the age of eighteen by walking from England to Constantinople, a trek that took a year and produced a trilogy — A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and The Broken Road (2003) — that remains one of the treasures of English travel writing. Never mind that The Broken Road was unfinished at Fermor’s death in 2011 (procrastination was a lifelong affliction) or that he inserted episodes from the 1980s into his odyssey of the 1930s (an “extremely immoral procedure” charmingly justified in a letter to a Hungarian scholar). Fermor’s true sleight-of-hand is his seemingly effortless ability to conjure up a place or person with astonishing clarity — a hillside at dawn, a garrulous stranger — while simultaneously revealing a world that is centuries deep. The breadth of his scholarship, so airily present and matched only by his curiosity, compresses time. In a 1948 letter to his then-lover Joan Rayner, for example, Fermor writes, “I knew a very old woman in Athens whose father had been alive when a Stylite was living on top of one of the pillars of Olympian Zeus.” (The Stylites being ancient monastic penitents.)

No penitent himself, Fermor occasionally retreated to monasteries to write, and that otherworld is as powerfully evoked in these letters as it was in his short book A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1957. Two masterworks followed: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), which chronicle Fermor’s travels in Greece, the country where he spent most of his life. And where he fought. Operating undercover alongside Cretan partisans during the Nazi occupation, Fermor’s most famous mission was the abduction of General Heinrich Kriepe, with whom Fermor was reunited in 1972 for a Greek TV documentary. “Tremendous singing, and lyre-playing and Cretan dancing,” after the filming, Fermor writes to a comrade’s widow, “all ending up pretty tight, and many tears being shed for old times’ sake…After all, the old boy hadn’t managed to do any harm in Crete before his capture and I always liked him… ”

He likes most people. In Northern Ireland in 1972 he spends a pleasant hour or so drinking with an Irish Republican Army spokesman (“Three dull thuds, two streets away, of exploding bombs”) before returning to “Blighty” for a weekend at Chatsworth, seat of Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. One of the Mitford sisters, “Debo,” was a lifelong friend, (their correspondence was published in 2008), and of her homey palace Fermor writes, “it’s wonderful what forgotten knitting and a couple of seed catalogues will do for a bust of Diocletian.” His world in such moments is English to the core, with a hint of P. G. Wodehouse: all weekend larks and biffing off to the country. Indeed, many of Fermor’s acquaintances could be characters out of Thank You, Jeeves: Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, fourteenth Baron Berners; Lady Dorothy “Coote” Lygon, daughter of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and so on. There’s Miss Crowe, a relic of British rule on Corfu, pacing her terrace, ” . . . stick in hand, only slightly stooping, and followed by a rippling wake of old and half-blind dogs.” There’s Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Lord Byron, sporting “a gigantic and very disheveled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails” and occupying a manor “as untidy as a barn — trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled ‘LD BYRON’S papers . . . in chalk.”

But the writer and the man revealed in these letters is no Bertie Wooster-ish dilettante. Though “never less than two years overdue” finishing a book, Fermor, we learn here, took his craft, if not himself, seriously; in one letter he identifies his literary flaws and in another speculates how screenwriting for a 1958 John Huston film might instill “lessons about concision and dexterity.” And while expert at “high-class cadging” of Italian villas and the like, he detests anything “smart” — the “revolting” Côte d’Azur, for example — and observes, after an evening on an Onassis yacht, that there is “something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich.” Fermor cannot be corralled, either by class or by place. Throughout his life, and throughout these letters, he strays. Into love affairs and across borders, enraptured by the ancient and the natural world — even when mortality looms. “We walked in the fields yesterday where we slid on the hayrick twenty years ago,” he writes in 1975 to Alexander Fielding, a constant friend since wartime. Joan Rayner, his wife and strength, drops dead in 2003 — “no pain, thank heavens, except for survivors” — and Fermor will live eight more years. In a 1948 letter to Joan, he had described waking from sleep “as easily and inevitably as the faint touch of the keel on the sand of the opposite bank.” Across the final page, that image seems to shimmer.