In Praise of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The British writer, adventurer, war hero, linguist, and otherwise fascinating individual Patrick Leigh Fermor passed away this summer.  The Secret History of Art recently read the first two books recounting Fermor’s best-known action: walking from London to Istanbul in 1933/34, on foot across a Europe that, a few years later, would entirely cease to exist.  Two books out of three have been published, and the third installment will eventually come out, now sadly posthumously.  A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water offer a truly magical vision of a lost Europe.  Painted thickly with haunting images and turns of phrase, these travel memoirs are an invaluable anthropological resource, a reminder of all that has been lost forever from a once far more innocent world.  Fermor’s writing style is very Victorian, slow and full of flavor, like drinking honey.  It’s not a light beach read, but neither will you struggle.  The slowness is part of the experience, akin to Fermor’s own long walk as a nineteen-year-old.  He and his books are international treasures.

While most people who know of Fermor are familiar with his famous walk to Istanbul (or Constantinople as he charmingly insisted on calling it, out of nostalgia), Fermor’s greatest accomplishment is as a war hero.  During the Second World War his fluency in Greek allowed him to blend in with locals on Crete and lead a guerilla band of Cretan rebels in a truly stunning accomplishment—successfully kidnapping a Nazi general.  Fermor was a life-long expat, and a lover of languages with impressive abilities, as seen from his 19-year-old conversations in quickly-picked-up Hungarian, Romanian, German, and French, not to mention fluent Greek.  His adventures in Greece are detailed in two memoirs, Mani and Roumeli.  I recommend a recent article on Fermor the man, from his friend and fellow travel-writer-cum-adventurer, Colin Thubron in The New York Times Book Review.  Fermor was someone one wishes one had met and befriended.  Such larger-than-life figures seem like a dying breed.  The sort who wrestle alligators, ride with nomadic gypsies, and kidnap Nazi generals don’t pop up often.  So worldly, so witty, brimming with knowledge in a pre-Internet era when knowledge was something to be shared, treasured, lined with velvet, not pulled like pieces of shrapnel from a metallic digital soup, Fermor embodied an Edwardian adventurer when the world was still a place with uncharted territories.  Really the last period before the Internet and digitalization made the world very small, indeed.  Today the last uncorrupt tribesmen are the subject of television documentaries that resemble respectful reality TV shows, and anyone with a computer (which is everyone) can virtually “visit” any place in the world.  With digital video cameras always running on the Amazon and the source of the Nile, adventure is hard to come by.  The world has at once been tamed, and feels far more dangerous.  Who today would sanction their 19-year-old child walking alone across Europe?  And who would think to walk, in an age of automobile road trips.  Forget On the Road, across a harnessed America by car.  Walking across Europe with the breath of the Nazis rising in the distance is something altogether different.

Fermor’s memoirs are in bite-sized pieces, and do not necessarily have to be read all in one go.  They are snap-shots, or rather dreamy memories for the reader.  Closing one’s eyes and recalling a moment decades earlier, for Fermor wrote these memoirs decades after the fact, from his prodigious memory and his copious notebooks, a similar effect is produced in the reader, even if the reader is leeching off someone else’s memories.  What is most haunting is the way Europe was so dramatically different, a sort of Narnia or Middle Earth, and how the Second World War swept all that away, sometimes literally.

Fermor describes the ethnic groups he visits in passing, a wonderful list of exotic titles, of what were essentially tribes that rarely married outside of their boundaries, of shepherds on the Great Hungarian Plain who smoke yard-long pipes, of gypsy spoon-carvers, of ancient beer-halls in snowy Bavaria where snow-melt covers the warped-wood floors and reflects the candle light.  This was a time when such ethnic groups still wore traditional costume.  Now we are blue-jeaned and fleece-jacketed, and the idea of traditional costume is reserved for ethnographic museums and parades.  Some such groups, remote herdsmen or the minor aristocracy that often housed Fermor on his journey in wayward castles that were still lived in, not relegated to museums, were literally wiped out by the Nazis.  Some places were likewise obliterated, quite literally.  I learned of an island, Ada Kaleh, once in a river between Romania and Bulgaria, at the so-called Iron Gates (which itself sounds like the location of a decisive battle in Lord of the Rings).  The island once featured a wonder of the ancient world, a great stone bridge built under Trajan by Apollodorus of Damascus, and an enormous castle built by the Hungarian hero John Hunyadi.  The island also featured a small community of residents who never left, Turks with Balkan attributes, who smoked water pipes, drank raki and Turkish coffee, and spoke an isolated dialect that was unpolluted by foreign influence.  This entire island, and its archaeological and anthropological treasures, was wiped away, submerged under a huge lake when the Iron Gates Hydroelectric Dam was built to provide electricity for Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.  This island, now submerged (one wonders what a scuba diving expedition into Hunyadi’s now-buried underwater castle would be like), is a metaphor for the cultures that were lost, either eradicated or homogenized, since Fermor’s great walk.

For a long, slow, unctuous, magical journey to a lost Europe, I cannot recommend Fermor’s books highly enough.  The painting he produces with words is invaluable, and the man himself was a true fictional hero.  To read about him now out of context, one would have to suspend disbelief to believe his adventures and abilities could actually be real.  I do hope that someone out there is working on a biography that would tell his story in something approaching the detail with which he told his own (to date there is, surprisingly, no biography).  Meanwhile he left a handful of precious books, including a thoughtful memoir of his time visiting several French monasteries, called A Time to Keep Silence. But if you’ve not read his work, begin with the two books on his walk across Europe.  It’s the closest you’ll ever come to knowing what a wondrous, enchanted continent Europe once was.

Noah Charney is an international best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction and a professor of art history.  His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, profits from which go to charity.

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