Farewell Fermor

by wjw on June 19, 2011

I see from the papers that Patrick Leigh Fermor (DSO, OBE, COP, Chevalier Ordre des Arts et Lettres, etc.) has died, alas before I got a chance to track him down and share a bottle of ouzo with him.  (He couldn’t wait, I suppose.  He was 96.)

I have written elsewhere about his marvelous memoir A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and Water, detailing the journey he took by foot across Europe in 1933.  It is at once a picture of a Europe that no longer exists, a meditation on time (he wrote the memoir more than thirty years after his journey), and thoughts on the continuity of culture and civilization (he’s always referring to Tacitus and quoting Horace and layering in great swathes of often obscure history, much of it literally Byzantine).  Not least, the memoirs are also a glorious exercise in style.

Even his book on the Caribbean finds a Byzantine theme, as in this tombstone found on Barbados:  Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Died 3 Oct 1679.

A promised third volume never appeared.  I hope a manuscript can be shaken loose from wherever it’s been hiding.

Fermor was also one of the most successful of the erudite eccentrics that Churchill unleashed upon Nazi-occupied Europe, leading guerrilla forces in odd corners of the German dominion.  Fermor served in various parts of the Mediterranean, and at one point kidnapped the German Military Governor of Crete.  (They exchanged quotes from Horace.  Of course.)

How many other people get eulogized both by Jan Morris and Christopher Hitchens?

Here’s Morris:

For in many ways Paddy Leigh Fermor really was the ideal Englishman – good-looking in a gentle sort of way, strong but not beefy, full of fun, poetical and scholarly, metaphysically inclined, with a wife, a house, a cat and a calling, all of which he loved. Besides, he was a war hero.

In an aesthetic sense he was lucky to live when he did, because it enabled him to fight a fine war in a just cause. He was no Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen, because to fulfil the heroic image completely he ought to have died in battle, preferably at Gallipoli, but nevertheless he was a hero in a particularly English (as against British) kind – an individualist hero, quirkily bold, adventuring on his own or with friends and enjoying himself.

In war as in peace, he was one of a kind. He went to no university, but he was one of God’s own autodidacts, with a prodigious gift for languages and a fascination with the most intricate, subtle and sometimes obstruse constructions of historical learning. Partly because he chose to live for much of his life in the southern Peloponnese, he was especially good at relating modern to ancient worlds, so that travelling with him, if only on the page, was like simultaneously travelling through several ages.

And here’s Hitchens:

Now the bugle has sounded for the last and perhaps the most Byronic of this astonishing generation. When I met him some years ago, Leigh Fermor (a slight and elegant figure who didn’t look as if he could squash a roach; he was perfectly played by Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight, the movie of the Kreipe operation) was still able to drink anybody senseless, still capable of hiking the wildest parts of Greece, and still producing the most limpidly written accounts of his solitary, scholarly expeditions. (He had also just finished, for a bet, translating P.G. Wodehouse’s story The Great Sermon Handicap into classical Greek.) That other great classicist and rebel soldier T.E. Lawrence, pressed into the service of an imperial war, betrayed the Arabs he had been helping and ended his life as a twisted and cynical recluse. In the middle of a war that was total, Patrick Leigh Fermor fought a clean fight and kept faith with those whose cause he had adopted. To his last breath, he remained curious and open-minded to an almost innocent degree and was a conveyor of optimism and humor to his younger admirers. For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one.

I really can’t add much to that, so I’ll just quote Fermor at this point:

These spires and towers recalled the earlier Prague of the Wenceslases and the Ottokars and the race of the Premysl kings, sprung from the fairy-tale marriage of a Czech princess with a plough-boy encountered on the banks of the river. The Czechs have always looked back with longing to the reigns of the saintly sovereign and his descendants and to the powerful and benevolent Charles IV— a golden age when Czech was the language of rulers and subjects, religious discord unknown and the rights of crown and nobles and commons and peasants all intact. These feelings gained strength during the Czech revival under the last hundred years of Habsburg ascendancy. Austrian rule fluctuated between unconvinced absolutism and liberalism soon repented and it was abetted by linguistic pressures, untimely inflexibility and all of the follies that assail declining empires, for knavery was not to blame. These ancient wrongs must have lost much of their bitterness in the baleful light of modern times when the only evidence to survive is an heirloom of luminous architectural beauty.

So there it is: beauty, style, history, careful judgment that stops short of condemnation.  And a monument to the man who wrote it, a truly civilized man who was among the best his generation had to offer.

Dave Bishop June 19, 2011 at 7:53 am

I particularly love his book, ‘Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece’. The opening chapter, describing his encounter with a Sarakatsan nomadic shepherd, is unforgettable – but just a prelude to a book full of wonders and marvels.

Steve Stirling June 20, 2011 at 6:26 am

He was 3 years older than my father when he died; they must have been near-contemporaries. I wonder if they ever met? Not likely, but not impossible — my father was in Europe during and after the war.

Fermor was a beautiful prose stylist and a genuine adventurer; he did mad things with such style and panache that they’re not only astonishing, but -elegant-.

Ave atque vale.

John Appel June 20, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. While I’ve heard of “Ill-Met By Moonlight” (and possibly read it when I was much younger, and the rum & sleep apnea hadn’t killed the brain cells) I wasn’t really aware of Mr. Fermor and his work. These will make a dandy break from the 17th century history I’ve been plowing through lately.

Jim Braiden June 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm

It was Leigh Fermor’s Mani and Zelazny’s Call Me Conrad which prompted my first visit to Greece- and no the combination is not as odd as you might think.

There is a rumour that he was working on a third volume to follow A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

One can but hope.

And I think Mr. Stirling painted his character perfectly with those three adjectives- style, panache and elegance.

They really, really don’t make them like that anymore.

PhilRM June 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Damn, I hadn’t heard that. Damn damn damn. I’m reminded of the comment (sorry I can’t recall the reference) that someone made about Ralph Vaughn Williams (who died at a similar age, not long after finishing his 9th symphony): “He was taken away too soon”.

Jim Braiden – Fermor had apparently been working on the third volume for pretty much the last twenty-five years.

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