A Prince of the Road

A Time to Keep Silence

by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with an introduction by Karen Armstrong
New York Review Books, 96 pp., $12.95 (paper)

A Time of Gifts

by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with an introduction by Jan Morris
New York Review Books, 321 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Patrick Leigh Fermor.jpg

To suggest that Patrick Leigh Fermor is the greatest travel writer alive is to omit a great deal. In Britain and Greece he is a near legend, celebrated not only for his books but for his wartime exploits as a guerrilla leader in occupied Crete, where his abduction of a German general has passed into folklore. He is, perhaps, the last of a breed of writer-travelers whose reputation has an aura of genuine action and courage.

The qualities suited to the travel writer’s trade have always been contradictory. The mental (and physical) robustness necessary for ambitious travel often excludes the sensitivity to record it, and vice versa. So there are travelers who write, and writers who travel—and they rarely converge in the same person.

In Leigh Fermor, they do. The richness of his prose, his polymathic exuberance, and his cultural allusiveness render him less immediately accessible than some of his contemporaries, such as Peter Fleming or Norman Lewis. But his six travel books—one for each decade of his adult life—have secured him a readership drawn to a voice that is omnivorous in its tastes and curiosity, learned without condescension, cultivated but never effete, curiously innocent, occasionally swanky, infectiously joyous. If he is less known in the United States than he is in Britain, it is because Leigh Fermor is deeply European.

His reputation rests, above all, on two pairs of books—about his youthful walk across pre-war Europe, published in 1977 and 1986—and about Greece, published in 1958 and 1966. But then there is A Time to Keep Silence. In the oeuvre of a traveler whose books are full of worldly curiosity, this short reflection on the monastic life sits like a troubled question mark. First published in Britain in 1953, it now appears in the US for the first time. In less than a hundred pages it records the author’s stay in the ancient French monasteries of St. Wandrille, Solesmes, and La Grande Trappe, with a brief excursion to the deserted Byzantine chapels of Cappadocian Turkey.

Yet there are readers for whom A Time to Keep Silence is Leigh Fermor’s finest—if most uncharacteristically elusive—book. In her introduction, the religious historian (and ex-nun) Karen Armstrong writes:

The monks’ monotonous way of life has been deliberately designed to protect them from the distractions of, and the lust for, novelty: they do the same things day after day; they dress alike and shun individuality and personal style. They keep almost perpetual silence….

Nothing could be more antipathetic to everything that Leigh Fermor’s books project and embrace. His persona as a writer brims with “individuality and personal style.” So, of course, does his prose. He is famously gregarious, and a dazzling raconteur. For a traveler so tough, his books are rich in pleasures: in leisure, in wine, in company. History and landscape bring a visceral exhilaration.

In 1952, aged thirty-seven, Leigh…

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