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The Inspired Voyage of Patrick Leigh Fermor

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

1.

“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.

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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

2.

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.

3.

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.”

  1. *

    Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (New York Review Books, 2013), p. 378. 

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