Tag Archives: Matthew Staite

“A dangerous mix of recklessness and sophistication”: Themes of identity and nostalgic ideas of Europe in the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy after the war in Byronic costume – Benaki

Dear readers I hope that you all remain well. During what was almost a global “lockdown” I attempted to publish articles that might have been somewhat longer than usual on the basis that you might have more time on your hands to absorb them! I do wish that I had remembered to offer this masters thesis by Matthew Staite at the time, as it is a good read; absorbing and well written, exploring themes that make us think about Paddy’s work, the times he describes, and his own character. This is only a study of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water and does not purport to analyse his other work. I commend it to you and hope that you might find the time to read it.

A PDF of the thesis can be found here: Matthew Staite Leigh Fermor Thesis.

Here’s how Matthew introduced himself to me back in April:

Two years ago I completed a masters degree at the University of Amsterdam in the field of European Studies, in a track attempting to study the Identity & Integration of Europe. As a British person with a love of travel writing, I chose to write my thesis on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. Very little academic scholarship exists about his writing, so I attempted to academically analyse the first two books about his European walk and look at themes of memory and how he splits Europe between East and West in the texts. I found your site very interesting and helpful when writing the thesis (I even made reference to you at one point), so I thought I would send it to you in case you found it of any interest!

If nothing else it is worth reading Matthew’s conclusion.

While this thesis has travelled across the width of the European continent alongside Leigh
Fermor, it is time for this journey to come to an end. It has been demonstrated that, while Leigh Fermor sought a Europe bound by common culture and history upon his travels, this was a nostalgic search for a Europe rooted in the past. While the texts may describe his youthful adventuring through Europe, they were written and narrated by an older Leigh Fermor who was more nostalgic for this lost past and who desperately searched for the glimpses of it that remained.

The interaction with memory that this entails proves crucial to both books. As a result of the
parallax structure, the narrative is split between the past time of his journey and the future time of his writing. As a rhetorical device it allows Leigh Fermor to jump seamlessly between the past and the present, enabling him to write in a way that both captures the younger Leigh
Fermor’s boyish charm and the older Leigh Fermor’s wisdom and knowledge. It lends narrative power to the images of lost Europe that he constructs, for Leigh Fermor has experienced this past and can contrast it with the narrative present.

The Europe that Leigh Fermor was travelling through was in many ways on the cusp of
modernity, and many of the things he describes were to completely destroyed or changed by
the effects of the Second World War. He is implicitly critical of the period under communism
that followed the Second World War in Eastern Europe; a criticism of communism (still present at the time of the book’s writing) forms the ‘elephant in the room’ of his narrative. Despite his sympathy for Eastern Europe, Leigh Fermor’s texts also conform to the tradition of writing against Eastern Europe as a backwards and savage place. While there are elements of his narrative that go against this trend, they certainly form the lesser part of his narrative.

The two tiers of class (the peasants and the elite) that Leigh Fermor encounters throughout
Europe stem from this lost past, and he only lightly deals with the contemporary changes that
were happening to the societies he travelled through at the time of his journey. Despite this
criticism, the texts remain a wonderful journey across the European continent and back into
its past. Leigh Fermor’s personality and enthusiasm for knowledge permeate the texts, and
the rich descriptions of history, literature and language that ensue read as a beautiful tribute
to European culture.

This thesis has attempted to alert scholars of the scope for analysis and research that Leigh
Fermor’s travel texts provide. However it is far from a comprehensive study of Leigh Fermor
and his writing. By conducting a close study of only A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods
and the Water, it has only looked at the themes of identity and ideas of Europe that Leigh
Fermor established between Holland and Romania. Due to the complications presented by
artificially constructed nature of the unfinished The Broken Road, there has not been the space to conduct a close analysis of it within this thesis. However that book is certainly of use to scholars, for there is certainly scope for analysis as to how Leigh Fermor includes Bulgaria
within his conception of Eastern Europe, or whether he others with it alongside Turkey as a
demarcation of the orient.

I have also not chosen to incorporate Leigh Fermor’s interpretation of Greece and its
importance within Europe. The latter half of A Broken Road is set in Greece, along with Leigh Fermor’s other travel texts Mani and Roumeli. As the south-eastern edge of Europe, and a nation where he spent a significant part of his life, it would be interesting to analyse how Leigh Fermor’s depictions of Greece correspond with the same themes of identity and nostalgia for Europe’s past that this thesis has explored.

Finally this thesis has largely treated A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water
as a single and coherent travel narrative. In doing so it has readily jumped between the two
texts despite them being published nearly a decade apart. There is certainly scope for analysis
into the effect of this time on the differences of the two books.