Thursday, August 20, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

I recently finished Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor:  An Adventure.  You simply can't find a better travel-writer than Fermor who died in 2011 at age 96 (see my comments on The Broken Road here and here.)  Cooper is an accomplished author in her own right, but as the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper--a great friend of Fermor's--she had unique insight into his life.

Her portrayal does not disappoint, though I am afraid it has disabused me of any idol worship I may have held for Fermor.  He was, simply put, a bit much.  A self-educated man of no fortune, from his teenage years Paddy Fermor made his way in the world on charm and a well-earned reputation as a brilliant and ebullient conversationalist.  He was just the sort of guest that the upper-classes liked to have hanging around, for entertainment I suppose.  Even on his initial and memorable walk across Europe in 1933-1934, the doors of the great houses of central Europe opened wide for him.  Following his exploits in Crete during the war, he was something of a minor celebrity and moved easily among the drawing rooms and bedrooms of all the "right people": languid holidays at Chatsworth, the Black and White Ball at Longleat, along the Amalfi coast on the Niarchos yacht, etc.  The Independent placed him "in the pantheon of literary liggers, a consummate lifelong freeloader, a prince among sponge-artists, which he paid for with his unique energy, talent and enthusiasm for song, dance, talk, memorised verse, drink and other men's wives."  You get the picture.  His charm did not work on everyone, however.  After wrangling an invitation to Somerset Maugham's villa at Cap Ferrat, he was quite literally thrown out of the house by the owner, who dismissed him as a "middle-class gigolo for upper-class women."  But Fermor was not a class-conscious English twit.  While he certainly knew how to work that crowd, Paddy was just as likely to be found in some waterfront taverna, or sitting around a campfire with shepherds, or in the back of a hay wagon with the proverbial farmer's daughter.

If the Second World War had not developed as it did, Fermor would have probably lived out his life in obscurity in Rumania.  From about age 20, he had been the lover of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, 16 years his senior.  They lived together on a remote and decaying family estate in Bessarabia.  She and Paddy were picking mushrooms in the woods when word came of Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany.  Paddy immediately returned home to enlist.  His knowledge of Greek and other languages got him a posting in Athens, which led to his later fame in the Cretan resistance, including the actual capture of a German general.  He met Joan Raynor in Cairo during the war, and she became his great companion.  They spent decades more or less together, and eventually married.  But theirs was a casual and open relationship--on both sides.  Neither bothered much about whom the other was sleeping with. I suppose the lack of deceit is something...though not much.

While Fermor was interested and conversant in most everything, he would be the first to admit that he was not particularly introspective.  He had a habit of visiting Catholic monasteries in France, for the solitude he needed in order to write.  He spent many years in Orthodox Rumania and Greece and certainly appreciated the aesthetics of it all.  But there seemed no engagement with the transcendent, past a boyhood infatuation with Catholicism.  For a 20th-Century English author, this is almost to be expected, the Faith having been more or less bred out of the land.  At the end of his long life, Fermor seemed almost puzzled by the falling-away of his peers and his own looming mortality.  Yes, his life was an adventure like few others--but at the end of the day, I can't help feeling it was all a bit sad.  Still, Paddy was good-humored to the end, as evidenced by a note found at his bedside after his death:  "Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness."


gretchenjoanna said...

What an exceptional review - Thank you for a thorough and engaging assessment. If I don't have interest enough to read a book, I hope I may always read your review of it so I won't feel I have missed anything.

elizabeth said...

thank you for this... may God have mercy on him! a fascinating person... always so glad to read your thoughts here.

John said...

Elizabeth--you always have the nicest comments! You encourage me to write more often. Thanks again.