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I Would Like to Have Been Him, Part 2

Patrick Lee Fermor (1915-2011)

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

A long time ago—certainly before I moved my blog to WordPress—I wrote about Sir Richard Francis Burton, how I would like to have lived his life.(I’ll look it up for you and re-post it sometime in the next week or two.) The other person whom I admire so much that I would like to have been him is Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor. Both were knighted; both were world travelers; both had superb intellects; and both were superb writers.

At the age of eighteen, Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, starting from Holland and ending up in Constantinople. Most of his trip was covered by two volumes he wrote years after the fact: A Time of Gifts (1977), covering from Holland to the Hungarian Border, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), covering Hungary and Romania. When he died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 96, he will still working on the third volume. I was heartbroken at the loss, feeling I would never find out how his trip ended.

Thanks to his good friends Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron—himself no mean travel writer—the third volume has finally come out. It bears the title The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (2013). Fortunately, enough of the text is pure Fermor, which is quite a complement. Take this passage, for example, describing Romanian Orthodox art:

I was fascinated, and slightly obsessed, by these voivodes and boyars as they appeared in frescoes on the walls of the monasteries they were always piously founding — crowned and bearded figures holding up a miniature painted facsimile of the church itself, with their princesses upholding its other corner, each with a line of brocaded, kneeling sons and daughters receding in hierarchical pyramids behind them. Still more fascinating, later portraits,hanging in the houses of their descendants—some by unknown local artists who travelled through the principalities early in the nineteenth century—showed great boyars of the princely divans, men who bore phenomenal titles, most of them of Byzantine origin, some of them Slav: Great Bans of Craiova, Domnitzas, Bayzadeas, Grant Logothetes, hospodars, swordbearers and cupbearers, all dressed in amazing robes with enormous globular headdresses or high fur hats with diamond-clasped plumes, festooned with necklaces, and jewel-crusted dagger hilts.

What a whiff of Eastern Christianity is in this passage from pages 183-184! It is typical of Fermor’s obscurely beautiful lists that can pop up anywhere in the text.

As if his travel and writing were not enough, Paddy Fermor was a legitimate war hero. During the Nazi occupation of Crete, as a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), he helped organize the Greek resistance and carried off the German commandant, General Heinrich Kreipe, over several mountain ranges to a waiting British submarine. At one point, the captive Kreipe was so impressed by the scenery, that he quoted some lines by Horace in Latin. Fermor finished the quote, also in Latin, at which the astonished Kreipe could only mutter, “Ah, so!” Fermor commented that both he and Kreipe had “drunk at the same fountains” of learning.

Other books by Fermor include the following titles which I have read:

  • The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953)
  • A Time to Keep Silence (1957)
  • Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958)
  • Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966)
  • Three Letters from the Andes (1991)

All are travel books except the first, which is a novel. The only book of his I have not yet read is The Traveller’s Tree (1950), about his sojourn in the Caribbean. Also well worth reading is his wartime colleague W. Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight: The Abduction of General Kreipe (1950). Most of Fermor’s books are available in attractive paperback editions from the New York Review of Books.