Thursday, November 21, 2013
Patrick Leigh Fermor: His Charm Conquered (Almost) All
Patrick Leigh Fermor was raised virtually an orphan, his parents divorced, his father away in India, his mother often neglectful. He managed to get himself expelled from every English boarding school that took him in. Eighteen years old and at loose ends, instead of joining the army he decided to walk to Constantinople (he would never call it Istanbul). The year was 1933.
A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople, From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube was written mostly in the 1960s and first published in 1977, but I didn’t stumble on it until the late 1990s. Reading the book was an unsettling but ultimately liberating surprise. Its author was not just an extraordinary stylist but a wholly different person than the one I thought I knew from reading about his wartime adventures in German-occupied Crete.
In Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Leigh Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, aptly describes his writing as “built up, layer upon layer, over the years…,” strata “so folded over one another… that the book reads like a journey across a continent that exists somewhere between memory and imagination.”
Paddy actually did walk many a mile (Cooper and everyone who knew him calls him Paddy, and so will I), and he often slept on the ground or in shepherds’ huts or other rough accommodations, but rather more of his journey was spent traveling by train, automobile, boat, or horseback in the company of aristocratic hosts to whom he’d been introduced by letters, some from his numerous bohemian but upper-class friends.
He had no money and no titled ancestors. What kept him going was charm, and the basis of all genuine charm, a fascination with the people he met. He had an insatiable curiosity, a gift for languages, unbounded daring and brass, and an astonishing, if not completely faultless, memory. He applied it to memorizing poems in a volume of Horace his mother had given him for the trip, including one in particular, To Thaliarchus, that he’d translated before being kicked out of King’s School, Canterbury – for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter.
The charm lasted all his life. In May 2006, not long after Paddy’s ninety-first birthday, Anthony Lane published a deft profile in The New Yorker, from which I learned that I was one among a great many of Paddy’s fans and a latecomer at that. Lane, more familiar as the magazine’s stern film critic, gushed over his subject, who has “so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient – pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope.”
Lane’s piece begins with the kidnapping of General Kreipe (see my former post) and later quotes its most famous incident, which comes straight from a digression in A Time of Gifts, but which Paddy often repeated elsewhere:
During a lull in the pursuit, we woke up among the rocks just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida…. the general murmured to himself:
Vides ut alte stet nive candidum
It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off:
nec jam sustineant onus
The general’s blue eyes swiveled away from the mountain-top to mine…. “Ach so, Herr Major!”… for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist….
The poem was in fact To Thaliarchus, a passage beginning (in Paddy’s schoolboy translation) “See Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow….” Lane notes that this incident feels like “the last, companionable gasp of a civilization” that bound Europe together for over a thousand years. More than that, it’s an ability we may have lost forever. Who needs memory, with Google always at our fingertips?
Women were particularly susceptible to Paddy’s charm, and Cooper, his biographer, interviewed by Allison Pearson for the Daily Telegraph, told her “‘He would never talk about the women in his life.’ Eventually, [Cooper] deduced that whenever he said of a woman, ‘we were terrific pals,’ he had been to bed with her.”
Some women were much more than pals. Joan Rayner, neé Monsell, whom Paddy met in wartime Cairo and stayed with, but not exclusively, for the next six decades, was to be his companion during the research and writing of his every book, supporting him through much of his writing life, and building a home with him in the wilds of the Mani. They finally married, it seemed almost impulsively, in 1968, and were together until her death in 2003.
Like Joan many of his women friends were bluebloods, which gave ammunition to those who were immune to his charm. Ian Fleming’s wife Ann arranged an invitation for Paddy and her to spend a weekend at the house of W. Somerset Maugham, a writer Paddy admired but had never met. His attempts at humor were disastrous – for once, his prodigious capacity for alcohol failed him – and Maugham asked them to leave. Maugham later called him “that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women.”
This and many hard-to-imagine adventures are to be found in Cooper’s biography, including the rest of Paddy’s walk across Europe – and, not least, the truth about the German destruction of Anogeia and the villages of Crete.
More next time. For those who can’t wait, an introduction to all things Paddy starts here.