His books are inspiring, thrilling memoirs that inspire others to similar feats of travel and insight.
When Patrick Leigh Fermor was 19 he decided, having nothing better to do, to walk alone from London, along the Rhine, down the Danube, to Constantinople, now Istanbul. This was in 1933, ten months after Hitler's accession to power, through a Europe soon to disappear.
Years later Leigh Fermor pulled out his battered old notebooks and wrote two books about the trip, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The first was written in 1977, the sequel eleven years after that. Both have become true classics.
A high-spirited 19 year-old sets out across Europe, but it’s his 63 year-old future self who tells the story. Youth transformed by maturity, experience enlightened by scholarship, impulse tempered by reflection. In these books there is more than one kind of time, more than one state of mind. Fermor blends his selves with grace and intelligence.
From A Time of Gifts "Often, half in a bay of the mountains and half on a headland, a small and nearly amphibian Schloss mouldered in the failing light among the geese and the elder-bushes and the apple trees...Those buildings looked too forlorn for habitation... But, in the tiny, creeper-smothered windows, a faint light would show at dusk. Who lived in those stone-flagged rooms where the sun never came?"
Fermor on the Baroque: "Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of artificial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus..."
Walking lonely stretches in the dead of winter Fermor amused himself by reciting aloud the Latin poets or Shakespeare. At one point a peasant woman walked out of nearby woods with arm loads of kindling. Hearing the strange words she dropped everything and flew back into the forest.
Fermor concludes A Time of Gifts standing on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary: "Close behind me, girls in bright clothes were hastening excitedly across the bridge, all of them carrying bunches of water-lilies, narcissi, daffodils and violets... I found it impossible to tear myself away from my station and plunge into Hungary. I feel the same disability now; a momentary reluctance to lay hands on this particular fragment of the future; not out of fear, but because, within arm's reach and still intact, this future seemed, and still seems, so full of promised marvels."
Fermor served as an irregular in the British Army in Greece during the Second World War. Living as a shepherd in the mountains of Nazi-occupied Crete, his small group captured the German general in charge of the island and conveyed him to British forces in Egypt. For this exploit and for his later writings Fermor was medaled and later knighted.
Over the years Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote a number of books, some set in Greece, all in his uniquely elegant style. This month, obituaries published all over the world praised both his courage and his creativity.
Newly reprinted this year, the story of that Cretan adventure:
Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, with an Afterword by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paul Dry Books paperback $14.95. ISBN 1589880668. Stanley Moss was the other British officer on this raid.
A summary of the thrilling story of the General's kidnaping told in the New Yorker in 2006: but to read the entire article you will have to register with Highbeam Business...
Fermor’s walk from London to Hungary:
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Jan Morris. New York Review Books paperback $16.95. ISBN 1590171659.
Hungary to Constantinople:
Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Jan Morris. New York Review Books paperback $15.95. ISBN 1590171667.
Words of Mercury is an out-of-print anthology of Leigh Fermor's writings. Many copies are available, mostly in Canada and the UK. Try Addall You can read a review here.
Fermor on the pleasures and rigors of monastic life: "In the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual, and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world."
A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Karen Armstrong. New York Review of Books paperback $12.95. ISBN 1590172442
Christopher Hitchens in Slate