Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis CooperThursday 22 Nov 2012
Publisher: John Murray, hardback
In 1933, at a tender 18 years of age, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on a marathon journey - much of which he intended to walk - from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He went, as he wrote, "south-east through the snow into Germany, then up the Rhine and eastwards down the Danube ... in Hungary I borrowed a horse, then plunged into Transylvania; from Romania, on into Bulgaria."
His daring adventures included a torrid afffair in Romania, with one Princess Balasha Cantacuzene. She was 12 years his senior, and he lived with her on the family estate in Moldavia until the Second World War began. You could call his life the stuff that young men's dreams are made of.
His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was the director of the Geological Survey of India, while his mother, Eileen wrote plays, largely unsuccessfully. Following the birth of her son, his mother, brought his elder sister back to India. Paddy was left behind, "so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine." His parents would later separate.
He endured an erratic, inauspicious education in England, some of that in Canterbury which he liked for its historical ambience. He excelled at Latin and Greek, but he had grave reservations about his writing ability throughout his life. So there were many gaps between the books.
44 years after his trip through Europe betweeen the wars, during which he witnessed the Nazis on the rise, Paddy published the first volume recounting his European experiences. A Time of Gifts was published in 1977.
"A treasure chest of descriptive writing," enthused The Spectator. "The resplendent domes, the monasteries, the great rivers, the hospitable burgomasters, the sun on the Bavarian snow, the storks and frogs, the grandeurs, the courtesies, all are recalled with a sweep and verve that are almost majestic."
Nine year later, Between the Woods and the Water appeared, which ended with the message, "To be continued." A third instalment about his European jaunt is expected to appear next year, based on a 1960s manuscript and a diary.
Indeed, the work is eagerly awaited by the many fans of this likable, unpretentious man, who had some Irish family connections. Leigh Fermor was always much more than just `travel writer.' In his books, he thought out loud, as it were, sharing his companionable meditations with his readers, for all the world as though we were his pals, walking the mountain path-ways with him.
In 1945, he found himself in charge of a commando group in occupied Crete who were there to kidnap the local Nazi commander, General Kreipe. He and a number of his soldier comrades slept in caves for a month until it was deemed safe to have Kreipe transferred to Egypt. That chapter became the matter of a film called Ill Met By Moonlight, in which Dirk Bogarde played the Leigh Fermor role.
Leigh Fermor's reputation for elegant and beautifully expressive prose rests on a mere eight books. The Traveller's Tree details his Caribbean travels. A Time To Keep Silence was published in 1957, and recounted a period spent at a Benedictine monastery in Normandy. Much of the latter years of his long life were spent in the Peloponnese, in Greece, with his wife Joan, a celebrated photographer who predeceased him.
Mani and Roumeli are his two books about Greece, in which he investigates fortresses and monasteries - yet again - constantly enquiring to himself and to the people he meets about the actual details, the truth behind the myths of the places he visited. His style was both forensic and eccentric.
Artemis Cooper's 448-page account vividly fills out the picture of a unique and charismatic individual who was in fact a dedicated smoker and wine drinker, despite his long life.