Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011)

Joan Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ’44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sidney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus…

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