|Patrick Leigh Fermor in Ithaca, 1946; from An Adventure by Artemis Cooper Photograph: (Handout)|
I have been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor this autumn. After finishing A Time of Gifts on Cortes Island last month, I'm absorbed in Between the Woods and the Water. The books are narratives of Fermor's famous walking trip from Holland to Constantinople, in 1933, age eighteen.
(Volume III of the walk-book had not appeared when Leigh Fermor died in June 2011, at the age of 96, and people feared it never would. But he had been working on the manuscript of A Youthful Journey until weeks before his death, and last spring it was published in the US (by NYRB Classics) as The Broken Road. The title was not his—Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron, PLF's literary executors, chose it as a way of indicating that it is not “the polished and reworked book he would have most desired,” though Artemis Cooper insists that The Broken Road is nonetheless “vintage Leigh Fermor”
Written nearly half a century after the journey, the books are a palimpsest of memory, literature and learning. A long-lost Europe is encountered through the sensibility of an bold 18-year-old adventurer and refracted through the learning and experience of a much older man who has led an extraordinary life. (A major in the Irish Guards in WWII, PLF was also an SOE operative, and famous for kidnapping a German general on the island of Crete.)
Over the last couple of years I've been lucky enough to teach at Colorado College. My English Department colleague, the poet David Mason, knew Paddy Leigh Fermor well: Mason's book News from the Village is largely about their long friendship. The paragraph below is excerpted from Mason's Wall Street Journal piece written after PLF's death.
"Never inclined to introspection, Paddy was endlessly curious about the world, and that curiosity distinguished his life and writing from our confessional age. He insisted that the reference library be near the dining-room table for consultation during mealtime arguments. Once, as he recounted in his lecture, The Aftermath of Travel, he started researching "the distribution of crocodiles on the Upper Volta River, where I had never been or ever wanted to go. I took down the right volume of the Encyclopedia, but must have opened it at the wrong page, for three weeks later I had read the complete works of Voltaire, but I still knew nothing about the distribution of those crocodiles..."
Thanks to Nikolaus Hansen, who has forwarded a photograph of Patrick Leigh Fermor playing croquet with his German publisher, Sabine Doerlemann.