THE ENGLISH WÄNDERVÖGEL
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
Artemis Cooper, London: John Murray, 2010
On December 9th, 1933, an eighteen-year-old miscreant rushed through the rain at Tower Bridge to catch the Stadtholder Willem, about to hoist anchor and leave for Rotterdam. His luggage was light—a little money, a few letters of introduction, a knapsack, a sturdy pair of boots, an ash stick, some drawing materials, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and Horace’s Odes—all the more light because he did not intend to hang around in the Hook of Holland but to walk from there across Europe to the civilization-straddling metropolis that for him would always be Constantinople.
But deficiencies of kit or connection were amply compensated for by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s longing for picaresque adventure and a strong personality an exasperated former schoolteacher described as “a dangerous mixture of recklessness and sophistication.” He was also an instinctive antiquarian and amateur philologist—an unusual personality type, later summarized by one wondering journalist as “a blend of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene.”
His peregrination would take him through the intestines of a Europe on the verge of self-immolation into the most obscure corners of a continent where pre-feudal folkways had somehow persisted into the Art Deco era. He observed the lager-swollen, Lebensraum-thirsty stormtroopers spilling out of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus as a few years afterward they would spill over Germany’s frontiers. There were tanks on Vienna’s streets, and as he moved east he “became inoculated against Bolshevism.”
His wistful accounts of his walk would be suffused with sad awareness of what such manifestations of modernity meant for the Europe he had come to find. These classics of travel literature—A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water—were written decades later with the help of historical hindsight. They were the products of obsessive editing and some confabulation, but even the young Leigh Fermor could see that pre-modern Europe existed on borrowed time. Unlike his communist contemporary Laurie Lee, who poetically recorded the Gloucestershire and Spain he sought to turn into Soviets, Leigh Fermor traveled in the service of tradition, even taking part in a militarily insignificant but memorably evocative Greek Royalist cavalry charge.
He found old Europe just in time to write about its counter-temporal cultures in what Nicholas Shakespeare disdainfully terms “Manueline prose…overly crammed with truffles.” Yet Manueline style suits the subject in all its complexity and color, its crisscrossing connections and layers, lost landscapes, jealous identities, and ancient animosities. Leigh Fermor roots in a reverie amid history’s scattered fragments—giant catfish patrolling the untamed Danube, bears in the high woods, intoxicatingly empty seas of grass, shepherds in outlandish sheepskin overcoats with spiked-collared dogs to fend off wolves, churches still the centres of local cults, farmhands fervently reenacting pre-Christian rituals, eccentric polymaths with extensive libraries, relict ethnic groups left behind by long-retreated armies, crumbling cartouches, invalidated vexillography, and sailors who played musical instruments that would have been recognizable to Odysseus. He mingled with representatives of all the nationalities he encountered, whether peasants or princesses, dining in cafés or caves, sleeping in haystacks or great houses according to the hazards of the highway, with the accepting flexibility of youth. Small wonder that his reminiscences should have met with favor among postwar Europeans, for whom Europe is no longer an epic, but a synonym for the barbarizing activities of Brussels’s bore-acrats.
He augmented his Byronic life-legend by fighting with the Cretan resistance during the war and masterminding the 1944 abduction of a German general—an exploit commemorated in the 1957 Powell & Pressburger film Ill Met by Moonlight. Then he devoted the rest of his life to building his and his wife’s ideal house at Kardamyli on one of the Greek mainland’s southernmost tips. (John Betjeman swooned that the living room was “one of the rooms in the world.”) He also continued travelling.
Apart from the two European books (a third has just been published as The Broken Road, reworked by Artemis Cooper from an early draft), he wrote about Greece (Mani, Roumeli), the Caribbean (The Traveller’s Tree, The Violins of Saint Jacques), monasteries (A Time to Keep Silence), and South America (Three Letters From the Andes) and turned out impossibly elegant review-essays. His last publication was in 2008, a collection of his correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire (In Tearing Haste).
A painfully slow, easily distracted writer who was often bumptious and careless with other people’s money, he nonetheless contrived to lead an extravagant existence, moving in glitteringly gifted circles. He made almost no enemies in the course of 96 years (he died in 2011) except for hardline communists who tried to kill him in 1979, and in England a few less dangerous but equally unappetizing reviewers who disapproved of his maleness, class, and intellectualism. He had a chivalric understanding even with the abducted General Kreipe, with whom he exchanged Horatian snippets as PLF’s party took their prize furtively through the Cretan uplands to rendezvous with a British boat. Even a blood feud that commenced when he killed a resistance fighter by accident was eventually resolved in a flurry of ouzo and embraces from the dead man’s nephew, mixed with kindly offers to dispatch anyone Leigh Fermor wanted dispatched.
Artemis Cooper is Leigh Fermor’s first biographer, and she is well-placed to offer insights. If anything, she may be too close to her subject. Her grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, was a close friend of Leigh Fermor’s, and the author has halcyon memories of childhood visits to Kardamyli, stroking the Fermors’ pet dog while listening entranced to its master’s stories.
She has done an excellent job of narration, whether she is telling us about London’s literati, Moldavian manors, Irish venery, or PLF’s venereal disease. If at times the reader feels he is not really getting under PLF’s skin, it is almost certainly due to a paucity of confessional source material rather than Cooper’s shortcomings as researcher or collator. Leigh Fermor’s generation did not weary the world with self-analysis; they just did things, quietly or showily according to taste. As Stephen Spender once observed, PLF was clearly “not an empathizing introvert.” That is not to say there are no revelations or inspired guesses in what could have been hagiography – the author senses when her self-romancing subject was being economical with the actualité, such as when she discloses his ignoble interlude as hosiery hawker around west London.
It would have been fascinating to know whether he ever came to any conclusions about all the wonderful things he had seen that mostly disappeared within his lifetime. He may not have been an empathizing introvert, but he must surely have fretted about Greece, England, and Europe’s future. Just as Joan and all his friends fell away during his life, leaving him a lonely relic, so too his vibrant Europe has dried up and diminished under the pressures of centralization, communism, fascism, globalism, homogenization, immigration, internationalism, rationalism, and technology. We read him as raconteur and stylist rather than as oracle, yet had he written of these things many would have paid attention. As we close the book at the end of his epic adventure, we are left wondering whether at the end the winsome Wändervogel was really content.
This article first appeared at Takimag.com in December 2012, and is reproduced with permission