Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, adventurer, war hero and writer, died earlier this month at the ripe old age of 96, while I was in the middle of reading his best-known book. It was the second time in a year that this had happened to me, and curiously enough, I had already been thinking about the mortality of both writers. Tony Judt, one of my favorite commentators on modern Europe, was only 62, but was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and writing about it. The much older Leigh Fermor had never gotten around to finishing that best-known work - a supposed three-volume account of a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople that the 18-year-old Englishman had set out upon in December 1933. Like other readers, I was hoping that the aged writer would finish his great work.

Others have written excellent obituaries and tributes, including people who knew the man personally; I thought the Economist's obit captured a sense of his style. But as a fellow traveler of Europe who just finished A Time of Gifts, the first volume of the 1933-34 walk, and a blogger, I will write a few words.

I discovered Leigh Fermor through the New York Review of Books Classics series, which is an excellent trove of decades-old treasures of literature that deserve to be better remembered. The first book that caught my eye, courtesy of a nice cover, was The Traveller's Tree, actually his first book, on the Caribbean. I recommended it to my father, who was heading there on vacation. A Time of Gifts, given its subject, aroused my interest, and I asked for the NYRB Classics edition for my birthday. It actually reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Fatih Akin's Im Juli, a German romantic comedy where the protagonists roadtrip from Hamburg to Istanbul over the course of a week.

The world Leigh Fermor observed in 1934 and wrote about 40 years later was very different, obviously, from the one the Turkish-German filmmaker displayed in 2000. Hitler had just come to power in Germany and Nazis show up around the corners as young Paddy walks through Cologne, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Munich. He generally loves Germany and the people he meets there and learns the language, which also helps him further east given its scattered speakers as Magyar and Slovak prove more challenging. Sticking around Greece and mastering the language (he lived there until his death and stayed a bit of an adventurer, a nice profile from The Guardian from a few years ago describes) , he joined the Irish Guards during World War II and kidnapped the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe in Crete in an escapade so daring it was made into a film, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor.

Young Paddy Leigh Fermor was great at making friends - with German girls in Stuttgart, with fellow tramps in Vienna, with innkeepers and old nobles in their castles across the continent. His writing is often beautiful, if occasionally a little show-off. Most of all, he has a keen eye and describes a fascinating vanished world. That for me is what makes the books a real jewel.

A Time of Gifts was published in 1977, and leaves young Paddy in Esztergom, on Hungary's border with Slovakia, not far from Budapest. Between the Woods and the Water followed in 1986 and brings Leigh Fermor further along the Danube to the Iron Gate between Yugoslavia and Romania. Many readers may have despaired at ever finishing the journey as the author came close to the century mark. But I read in one of the articles upon his death that the draft was complete, at least, and Leigh Fermor's editing underway. So perhaps before too long we may see Patrick Leigh Fermor finally reach Byzantium.

I myself have some travel writing to catch up with - I've been to Bulgaria and Sweden in the last month and I set out (via train) for the Hook of Holland myself tomorrow for a weekend exploring the Netherlands with Dutch friends. I still haven't gotten around to writing an essay about the small but beguiling country of Luxembourg, which I visited in February. But maybe I will someday.