Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915-2011

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University 

He was a largely self-educated writer who surpassed many an Oxbridge intellectual in general knowledge and in wit. He was a breezy and seemingly casual world traveler who nonetheless mastered that most difficult of all genres, literary travel writing. He lacked formal military training but was the mastermind of what was arguably the most swashbuckling Allied adventure of the Second World War. While he never went to university, he was undoubtedly one of the supreme literary stylists in the English language in this generation. And he was a student of comparative religion in a way that anticipated developments in the academic study of the world’s religions by more than a generation. And now he has died, on June 10th, in his 96th year. 

Patrick Leigh “Paddy” Fermor was born on February 11, 1915 in England. Like many another aspiring artist, his family and upbringing were unorthodox.  His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was a civil servant of the late empire, working for the Geological Survey of India; the boy rarely saw his father in his early years. 

His mother, Eileen Taafe Ambler (a name that would prove predestinate), was an aspiring if poorly known playwright and poet. While Paddy spent the first four years of his life in the care of family friends, and thus developed the habit of living in a completely undisciplined and relatively unregulated environment, he lived with his mother after the age of four and remained in her care after his parents’ divorce. He was expelled from more schools than many a lesser light attended, most dramatically from King’s School, Canterbury, after the revelation of a romantic dalliance with a local grocer’s daughter eight years his senior. 

This would prove to be a recurrent pattern in his life: the pendular see-saw from intense romantic involvements to long periods of almost hermetic isolation. 

At the ripe age of “eighteen and three quarters” (his words), Paddy Fermor decided to take a long walk, in lieu of attending university. He determined to travel by foot from the Hook of Holland all the way to Istanbul (a city he always imagined Greek-ly, and referred to stubbornly as “Constantinople” or “Byzantium,” its first name as a Greek colony). The trip took some years, and it gave both flavor and form to the rest of his extraordinarily long and extraordinarily creative life. 

But he did not begin to publish his reflections on the journey until fully forty years later, and that generational lapse between a youthful excursion and a mature reminiscence is a central feature in what makes his writing so singular, and the genre he created so difficult to define. 

Fermor departed in December 1933 and thus, as fortune would have it, he was deposited into the very epicenter of a world about undergo a cataclysmic geopolitical upheaval. He found himself traipsing through Bavaria just after Hitler’s ascension to the post of Chancellor. And thus he witnessed at first hand a sudden chilling in his hosts’ reception of a young man who was clearly a unusually charming representative of the very best that British culture had to offer in the late afternoon of its imperial career. 

His recollections of a first long night in a Munich beer-hall are among the most memorable descriptions in any work of history or of travel, and they fade out with his collapse into drunken unconsciousness under a table, the theft of his passport and his walking staff (adorned with metal plaques, mementoes from each of his stopping points on the way). 

Content to sleep under bridges and in countryside train-or police-stations, the young man’s fortunes shifted decisively at the Hungarian border. He fell into easy conversation at the bridge with a man who proved to be a local aristocrat of considerable means and who invited him to spend his first night in the new country in an apartment in his castle. While it was a point of pride for the young Englishman that he cover his ground on foot, the Count sent letters of introduction ahead of him by horse, and thus Paddy Fermor spent virtually every evening in the care of some local grandee, and normally under the roof of some castle or fortress. What he could not have known at the time was that he was walking through a dreamworld that was about to come undone, enjoying his guiltless dreams under rooves that were destined to be obliterated in just a few short years. 

But not yet. Fermor arrived at the Turkish border on New Year’s Day of 1935, and after a brief sojourn in Istanbul, he returned to Greece which had especially captured his fancy.  After a brief turn in the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos (he was there on his 20th birthday), Fermor returned to Athens, then moved to Moldova with an aspiring painter (and Romanian princess) twelve years his senior, the divorcee Balasha Cantacuzene. The couple lived for three years in a kind of somnolent artistic bliss, she painting, he writing. 

But when the War finally came in 1939, Fermor bade paradise adieu.  He volunteered for the Irish Guards and, given his impressive language skills, he was sent back to Greece to prepare for the invasion everyone knew was coming. When the Italians were repulsed in the west and pushed back into Albania, German forces were diverted from the east to the south.  After a bruising five week thrust south through Yugoslavia, they made short work of a stiff Anglo-Greek resistance, the survivors of which (Fermor among them) took ship south to the island of Crete for what proved to be the last Allied stand in Europe. 

The German invasion came initially by air, and remains to this day the largest air invasion in military history.  The outcome was uncertain for five days (they lost more men in a week than they had in the entire French Blitz), but when German parachutists secured an airport on the western side of the island, they enabled the shipment of tanks and artillery in support. And thus Crete too was lost. 

Fermor fell back with the survivors to Egypt, where he rode out the rest of the War as an organizer of the guerilla resistance on Crete.  It was there, in a legendary bar called “Tara,” that Fermor and some friends first cooked up the caper for which they would become famous.  They parachuted into Crete in April 1944 and arranged for the kidnap of the German general in charge of the Cretan occupation.  Alas, by the time they got to Crete the murderous General, who had been the original object of their designs, was gone and had been replaced by the somewhat more benign Heinrich Kreipe. 

The group ambushed Kreipe’s car as he was leaving his headquarters at the “Villa Ariadne,” built by the noted British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, as the headquarters for his excavation of the Minoan palace at Knossos.  Much to Fermor’s chagrin, the driver was spirited away from the vehicle and summarily shot.  Kreipe was put on the floor with a gun to his head, and Fermor, dressed as the General himself, passed through more than 20 checkpoints in the capital city of Herakleion before running the General’s car up to the northern coast. 

The plan was to abandon the car there and to make it appear that they’d been picked up by British submarines.  In reality, the northern coast was too dangerous for the British navy, so the men walked the General over two mountain ranges to the southern coast where they had scheduled a pick-up. 

Everything went wrong.  The radio broke down.  Then Kreipe fell and broke his arm.  Given the unexpected delays, they missed their rendezvous and were forced to hide out in mountains crawling with German patrols.  Finally, they secured a second radio, arranged a second pick–up, and got the General off the island nearly one month after his capture. 

Fermor never wrote a word about this affair, nor surprisingly enough, about his beloved Crete (his only contribution to this literature was a translation of the charming eyewitness report of a local messenger, George Psychondakis’s The Cretan Runner in 1955). One of Fermor’s fellows, William Stanley Moss, did write a short account of the kidnap, Ill-Met By Moonlight, which was later turned into a film in 1957 (with Dirk Bogarde playing a dashing and funny Paddy Fermor). 

After the War, and after some more time in Athens, Fermor left in 1949 for a long cruise by sail through the French Antilles.  He was accompanied by a Greek wartime companion and by his beloved Joan, the woman who would later be his wife.  They traveled for nearly a year and the book that resulted, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), immediately established Fermor as a writer on whom to keep an expectant eye (the only novel he ever wrote, The Violins of St. Jacques [1953], was set in a similar Caribbean setting under the looming presence of a volcano that brings the book to a strange and jarring close). 

This first book shows Fermor at his best both as a traveler and as a person of uncommon eloquence, wit and charm.  But of equal importance was the clear declaration of his utter fascination, not just with history, but with religion. 

Three long chapters devoted to Haiti make this plain.  As an organizer of a guerilla resistance himself, Fermor had keen insights into the dynamics of the Haitian War for Independence.  He understood well how the imperial interests of the French collided with those of the freed people under Toussaint L’Ouverture, and he accepted the horrific violence of reprisal and counter-reprisal as a murderous fact he neither supported nor avoided.  But of far greater interest are his observations about the Afro-Caribbean religious synthesis we know as “Voodoo.” Fermor describes his own unmistakable and unapologetic addiction to the evening “drumming and rumming” ceremonies, so aesthetically rich in music and dance, collective performance and spirit possession.  His observations are on a par with Levi-Strauss, another European expatriate from the War, whose Tristes Tropiques had just been published two years before.

And now the pattern recurs.  Fermor left his friends for another stint in a monastery, a Benedictine monastery in Normandy this time.  He’d gone there to write up his notes from the Caribbean, but he ended up so fascinated by the monastic life that he wrote a short book about it, a luminous meditation entitled A Time to Keep Silence (1957).  His reflections on what living in a different order of time is like make a significant contribution to the literature on monasticism and meditation, alike, rivaling those of another one of his direct contemporaries, Thomas Merton

Fermor’s finest books came next, and both were devoted to and inspired by, his beloved Greece. The first one, Mani (1958) is dedicated to the rough-hewn mountains south of Sparta where he would eventually build his own home; the photographs by Joan Eyres-Monsell offer a powerful supplement to the text, including a memorable excursus on Byzantine icon painting that shows how lightly and how lovingly he could wear his enormous erudition. 

Fermor moved to the Mani in 1964, when he and Joan purchased some land on a splendid coastline and designed their own home in local stone (thus settled, the two finally married in 1968—truly a life-companion, she died in 2003 at the age of 91).  Roumeli, Fermor’s elegant first meditation on the northern regions through which he’d walked thirty years earlier, appeared in 1966.  A chapter on the Byzantine residue in contemporary Greek culture is nonpareil, and shows him at his anthropological and linguistic best. 

Fermor did not write explicitly of the walk that started it all until many years later—forty years, to be precise.  He claimed that it was a mixture of humility, anxiety, and winsomeness that kept him from the task.  And while he planned to devote three volumes to the trip, only two of those volumes ever appeared.  A Time of Gifts was published to great acclaim in 1977, and includes that bacchanalian description of the Munich brewhouse.  Between the Woods and the Water, his delicately nostalgic recollections of Hungary and central Europe, appeared in 1986. There is rumored to be a complete draft of the long-awaited third volume, but his publishers will not confirm this. We can only hope that it is so. (Desperate to break the logjam of his writer’s block, they commissioned another short travelogue, Three Letters from the Andes (1991), that shows what made him so masterful as a traveler, equally at home in public archives and on mountaintops at fourteen thousand feet).           

Patrick Leigh Fermor represented the swansong of a supremely confident, if fading, empire as well as much that was best, and noblest, about her heyday.  Cosmopolitan in spirit, uncommonly gifted in languages and in music, a lover of poetry and folksong in equal measure, his table was legendary for the quality of the conversation and an impressive dipsomania (a term that often found its way into his writing). 

It was while working on an excavation in western Crete that I first read the two volumes describing his walk in the 1930s.  Some of the local workers informed me that he was living in Greece, in a Peloponnesian town called Kardamyli (it is mentioned in the Homeric poems).

So I packed up his books, two bottles of the notorious Cretan grappa called tsikoudia, and made my way to Kardamyli. 

I waited all day, as there appeared to be no one in the house.  Resigned by day’s end, I left the bottles with an appreciative note and began the long trek back into town.  Then the skies opened—a very rare event in Greece in the summer—that lasted all night.  I took refuge in a local hillside shrine dedicated to St. George.  I lit a lamp, drank a bottle of wine, and rode out the deluge.  The next morning broke bright and clear, so I returned one last time to the house at Kardamyli. T he bottles were gone, but there was still no sign of the man.  Dispirited, I left for good.  Then came a booming voice shouting my last name, and the legendary 85-year-old came scampering up the hill with the impressive stride of a man less than half his age.  He indicated that he was working just then, but that he’d be delighted if I’d join him for lunch. 

His table was all I’d heard it was, and more.  One could imagine the likes of former Cretan comrades like Xan Fielding who’d graced this same table, but still more all the writers and poets, like Bruce Chatwin, Freya Stark, Philip Toynbee, and of course Lawrence Durrell.  Paddy and Joan were equally interested in religion, and equally well-informed on the topic, so my profession was my ironic first point of entry.  We spoke at length of Haiti and the Afro-Caribbean, of the unique curiosities of North American Protestantism, but mostly they were interested, as I was, in the continuities between Classical and Christian culture.   

Hours passed, and bottle after bottle fell, emptied, to the carpet.  Finally, Paddy and Joan confessed the need for a nap, and set me down on a canape in their library, one of the world’s truly splendid rooms.  I took a long swim, reveled in my good fortune, and looked forward to dinner. It was more of the same, lasted late and then, the sky opening for the second time in as many days, Paddy drove me back into town in a hilarious staccato four-wheeled imitation of the scamper I’d seen him undertake earlier in the day.  “Write what you see,” he smiled, then he was gone. 

I was asleep within five minutes of finding my seat. 

We corresponded periodically after that.  His cards were always, charmingly equal parts word and image.  He had an endearing habit of bordering his notes with images—of clouds and birds in flight, mostly.  Knowing that he should be the one to write a book about Crete, but knowing that he had no time (or inclination? it was never clear) to do so, I told him that I might have a go of it.  He was enthusiastic, sent me postcards suggesting books I should read, inevitably things I’d neither known nor heard of before. 

He was a man of uncommon generosity, sing-song creativity, sparkling eloquence, in all of the ways that matter most a true gentleman.  We will not see his like again.  He wrote what he saw. And what he saw was mesmerizing.  But his life was ever a pendulum swing between writerly seduction and long, hermetic silences.  Having seduced so brilliantly with his prose, he has walked ahead of us yet again, eyes open, into the Great Silence.

Filed Under: Culture & ArtFeaturedLiteratureLouis A. RuprechtTravelWar


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