For the past few weeks my Kindle fare has come largely from the pen of Patrick Leigh Fermor, hereafter for the sake of brevity PLF. My first introduction to his work took place about five years ago when I read A Time of Gifts, his extraordinary recounting of travel as a teenager across a Europe that has long since disappeared. Quite apart from the brilliance of the writing itself — PLF is a prose stylist of the highest caliber — I was struck by the charmed nature of his life. As a narrative voice he guides us through landscapes and cultures like Gandalf leading the Merry Company along the road to Rivendell. In A Time of Gifts the self he describes at a distance of decades seems to be cut from the same cloth as Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. He bounds along his path and finds good magic at every turn. I can’t think of a better example of a charmed life.
I’ve also been reading for the first time PLF’s Mani and Roumeli, his travel books on the Mani Peninsula in the Peloponnese and on northern Greece respectively. The PLF doing the writing is fully adult now and has under his belt quite a history, as those familiar with his biography well know. His idyll in Central Europe as a dashing young thing was dashed to bits by the outbreak of World War II. During the war he undertook feats of daring that earned him the reputation of a war hero. Thereafter he cast about for a good while until he began travel writing, his first major success being the travelogue on the Caribbean entitled The Traveller’s Tree. The books on Greek travel followed, then came the books that rocketed him to National Treasure status: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the first two books of his trilogy about youthful travels on foot across Europe. PLF wrote a lot of material for the last book of the trilogy but never completed it during his lifetime. The material has been pulled together by one of PLF’s biographers, Artemis Cooper, and by Colin Thubron, whose star also rose due to travel writing, athough he’s written plenty of fiction, as well.
The purposes of setting the record straight were gently served by Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF published in 2012. It’s on my reading list but I’ve not gone through it yet, I’ve just read the reviews from across the pond and the odd few that showed up in the States. It’s definitely on the to-read list. Cooper provides some needed counterweight to the apotheosis that PLF has undergone, in part even during his lifetime. I’m not surprised to learn that the persona his writing presents differs from his life record. Isn’t that usually the case? You don’t put out the dodgy bits for public consumption, not back in the day, in any case. You only do that if you’re a mixed-medium artist and currently exhibit in the Tate Modern. Then no holds are barred LOL. But that’s a different story and we shouldn’t get distracted. 🙂
The pivot word in all of this is “charm.” It’s a double-edged sword when you consider it in all its aspects. Charming people can do uncharming things and exhibit personality traits that offset their charm, sometimes to the point that they cause the charmer to seem more a mountebank. What I’ve gleaned from the reviews of Cooper’s biography of PLF is that the truth of the life reads as something considerably less charming than the legend. That PLF was an exceptional person is certain. That the exceptional person he was had his stuff together is quite another matter.
I recently wrote a post on the British author Rebecca West in which I said that I don’t want to know the details of her biography because it will precipitate a crisis between my high estimation of her writing and distress at the life she actually led. The same dynamic operates with Cooper’s biography of PFL since even the reviews of it show the clay feet of the Greek god that PLF has been made out to be. Even while reading the books about his teenage hike I recognized that things were not quite on the up and up. I can read Brideshead Revisited without batting an eye, but the reek of the toff that PLF’s narrative emits put me off when it became clear that he was going to spend most of his time swanning about with the failing aristocracy of Mitteleuropa. PLF was not to the toff manor born. Not a bit of it. But his narrative describes his absorption into that darkening demimonde as though it were as natural as the attraction between iron and magnets. PLF’s massive charm was the operative element, of course — and his good looks, too, no doubt, since everybody loves a gilded youth, especially one from Merry Old with the look of the Cambridge fresher about him.
All of us have some variance between public persona and private self. Personas go hand in hand with being social beings since society has expectations and rules that no private person in his or her right mind would impose. How we negotiate those rules and expectations has a lot to do with the persona we end up projecting to the outside world. If one is also a writer, then the proof of the persona pudding is what ends up on the published page. In that regard PLF comes away crowned with laurels. No less a travel writer than Jan Morris weighs in on that point in the introduction to A Time of Gifts:
Envy is the writer’s sin, as everyone knows, but there can be few writers in the English-speaking world who resent Patrick Leigh Fermor’s preeminence as one of the great prose stylists of our time. He has no rivals, and so stands beyond envy.
Small wonder there was a bit of apotheosis going on during his lifetime. Having that sentence pronounced on one’s writing by the likes of Jan Morris is like getting two thumbs up from the Pope for being holy.
Travel literature is still literature, however, not just a bullet list of places seen and things done, otherwise it would be deadly boring. Boring does not sell books. The question revolves around how much charm exists in the presentation and its merit relative to the “literature” part as opposed to the “travel” part of the authorial agenda. When I first started reading PLF it didn’t occur to me not to rely on him as a reliable travel narrator. I was after good writing, period, full stop, and oh boy did I find it in A Time of Gifts. It’s like stumbling into the middle of Rivendell, as I said above. There are no elves, true, but with a single wave of the wizard’s wand the characters presented could easily be transformed into the genuine article. After finishing the book on the first read I didn’t much care whether PFL had presented me with reliable facts about the countries traversed. After living with the book for some years now I wouldn’t trust it for any kind of facts, really, not even those of an autobiographical nature. That makes it no less lovely, just less about reality than about personal narrative.
The narrative really operates like fiction by creating a world that existed for the most part in PLF’s head. I say that because I know full well that iu 1933 someone like me, even at the tender age of 18, would have spent a good deal more time sniffing the scent of the smoke from the political house that was already on fire. If what you’re after is the insight of a young Englishman into the effects of the discombobulation of the Weimar Republic as he stomps across the territory of its inhabitants, you’re SOL. PLF dismisses such concerns with a phrase about not being politically-minded at the time. So we stand forewarned: seek not truth here, fair reader, seek only pleasure. Tom Bombadil isn’t going to clue you in on the headlines or launch into a discussion of the political consequences of war reparations. That’s not his job. Likewise our gilded youth tramping across Germany and Austria never says a word about hyperinflation and the Nazis he comes across are just more grist for the narrative mill. We are in Rivendell, not the real world, and it’s an enormous great romp. No need to think of Mordor or Dark Lords, just put them out of your mind — that’s exactly what the author did. Just be aware that PLF’s version of reality is going to be contradicted by any historical account of the period you consult. Bad stuff was going down.
In point of fact PLF’s narrative could more easily have taken place in 1833 than in 1933 based on the nature of the experiences he relates. The narrative achieves that retrograde sense by relying exclusively on the interpersonal, an arena in which PLF indeed has few peers, consummate charmer that he was. The interpersonal focus removes the need for any historical verisimilitude in order to maintain the credibility of the narrative. We don’t ask ourselves what the toilet paper is like in Rivendell or if the elves pay high income taxes. Such things have no place in our agenda of delectation. Our usual standard of belief is charmed out of us from the outset by the ravishing language which is PLF’s wizard spell. Before you know it you’re enchanted and thoughts of Nazis and hyperinflation disappear. What a charmer he is, our PLF. Nobody holds a candle to him.
All this charm depends, of course, on PLF’s insatiable curiosity about and interest in people. I remember very clearly reading about one encounter that left me dumbstruck at the crass disparity between PLF’s experience and what mine would have been in the same situation. On the road from Melk to Krems along the Donau in Lower Austria he ends up overnighting in the house of an elderly widow in Mitterarnsdorf, a constituent community of Rossatz-Arnsdorf with a current population of — wait for it — 163 (info here). The host is Frau Oberpostkommandeurs-Witwe Hüber, whose husband had been a postmaster. After swanning about in the castles of elderly counts who take their leave of the company at bedtime by kissing the hands and then the cheeks of wife and daughters — the old “küss die Hand, gnäd’ge Frau” business for which Austrians of the Habsburg Empire were famous — PLF ends up smack dab in the middle of the middle bourgeoisie. But no matter, the same sparkle of enchantment overlays everything, bringing all under its spell:
She was between sixty and seventy, rather plump and jolly, with a high-buttoned collar and grey hair arranged like a cottage loaf. The photograph of her husband showed an upright figure in a many-buttoned uniform, sword, shako, pince-nez and whiskers that were twisted into two martial rings. She was glad of someone to talk to, she told me. Usually her only companion in the evenings was her parrot Toni, a beautiful and accomplished macaw that whistled and answered questions perfectly in Viennese dialect, and sang fragments of popular songs in a quavering and beery voice. He could even manage the first two lines of Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter, in celebration of Marlborough’s ally, the conqueror of Belgrade.
But his mistress was a born monologuist. Ensconced in mahogany and plush, I learnt all about her parents, her marriage and her husband, who had been, she said, a thorough gentleman and always beautifully turned out … One son had been killed on the Galician front, one was a postmaster in Klagenfurt, another, the giver of the parrot, was settled in Brazil, one daughter had married a civil engineer in Vienna and another — here she heaved a sigh — was married to a Czech who was very high up in a carpet-manufacturing firm in Brno … I soon knew all about their children, and their illnesses and bereavements and joys. This staunchless monologue treated of everyday, even humdrum matters but the resilience and the style of the telling saved it from any trace of dullness. It needed neither prompting nor response, nothing beyond an occasional nod, a few deprecating clicks of the tongue, or an assenting smile. Once, when she asked rhetorically, and with extended hands: “So what was I to do?,” I tried to answer, a little confusedly, as I had lost the thread. But my words were drowned in swelling tones: “There was only one thing to do! I gave that umbrella away the next morning to the first stranger I could find. I couldn’t keep it in the house, not after what had happened. And it would have been a pity to burn it …” Arguments were confronted and demolished, condemnations and warnings uttered with the lifting of an admonitory forefinger. Comic and absurd experiences, as she recalled them, seemed to take possession of her at first, with the unsuccessful stifling of a giggle, then leaning back with laughter until finally she rocked forward with her hands raised and then slapped on her knees in the throes of total hilarity while her tears flowed freely … A few minutes later, tragedy began to build up; there would be a catch in her voice: ” … and next morning all seven goslings were dead, laid out in a row. All seven! They were the only things that poor old man still cared about!” …
It goes on for another full page. This seemingly minor episode revealed to me the mechanism underpinning PLF’s entire trajectory as a narrator. He hoovers up experience of all sorts like a black hole and from that singularity emits a jet of recollections transformed into elemental particles moving at relativistic speed. In the situation described above my response would be quite different: “Just. Shoot. Me. And for God’s sake be quick about it.” That no doubt explains why I’ll never be a famous travel writer. 🙂
What PLF has done with Frau Hüber he has, one eventually realizes, done with everybody. How else do you end up with Rivendell while stomping your way across Germany and Austria in 1933 with Hitler on the make? It’s a welcome transformation, let me hastily add. The unadorned article would be as bathotic as filling out an accident report. The transformation calls into question the reliability of the narrator only if one takes travel writing to be something necessarily based in fact. What PLF delivers in the passage quoted above is not fact but rather a story. Stories have completely different criteria for reliability, being relative to the source personality, not to some established body of objective fact. Who’s going to call you out on an experience that happened over 40 years before it found its way to pen and paper? Not Frau Hüber, that’s for sure. She’s dust along with the entire Kaiserlich und Königlich/Belle Époque world through whose death rattles PLF wanders so cheerfully.
As someone in his late teens and early twenties PLF’s penchant for finding fading aristocrats and garrulous widows to sponge off on his circuitous route to Constantinople is hardly offensive. Since he manages to pull off the toff act with such panache one feels he deserves a pass on the objection that he might be putting on airs. He was being supremely himself, that’s the charm element. He can never be accused of being disingenuous, he’s as WYSIWYG as can be. When he becomes older, however, what works for the late adolescent sits a bit more skewed on the attention. Were one to stick entirely to PLF’s published works one would never know about this dodgier side of his long life — being supported by his wife, essentially, even to the point of her handing him cash after dinner out so he could get himself a hooker later. Progressive! Especially in that day and age. Cooper’s biography brings these facts to consciousness gently, I think, but they reinforce the general impression one gets from reading PFL’s books that there’s a good deal of spin going on. Once again, if you take travel writing as literature, spin is just part of the gig. It’s what writers are all about. They’re not supposed to be the Encyclopedia Britannica. That angle is also covered so the charm has full effect. The extent of PLF’s erudition comes through loud and clear. One would never know on the showing of the text itself that one isn’t dealing with a D.Litt. (Oxon.). Hats off to him for that accomplishment, which he achieved by dint of his own rapaciousness for knowledge and his own efforts to collect and assimilate it.
The mechanism I described above of taking experience and transforming it at the quantum level has one major flaw: if you start with poor material the transformation can only result in a less than scintillating jet coming out of the authorial singularity. I became aware of that circumstance as I worked my way through Mani, PLF’s book on the southern Peloponnese — an area of Greece he made his own by settling there and building his house in Kalamitsi, a village just outside the town of Kardamyli (about 22 miles south of Kalamata of olive fame). At the time he made his voyage into the deep Mani — the tail end of the peninsula, a kind of no-man’s-land no Greek would think of visiting — the native inhabitants were on a perfect par with the Sicilian peasants Danilo Dolci describes in his remarkable book Sicilian Lives. The parallel struck me forcefully over and over again as I read PLF’s description. Dolci describes shepherds who have never learned to count past ten, people whose opportunities in life are so limited they have never been outside a radius of 10 miles from where they were born. I have no doubt there were people like that in the deep Mani, as well, so backward and barebones was life in that stony place.
But rather than present the inhabitants of Mani on their own terms as Dolci does for the Sicilians he knew, PLF’s quantum transformation machine kicks into full operation. An empty village square with heat waves rising off the paving stones from the noonday sun eventually collects a group of villagers who through PLF’s lens turn out to be enchantment itself. I don’t doubt for a moment that he’s relating a genuine experience and that he took great pleasure in hearing the village stories and being cautioned about the people in the next village over, who would rob him blind if given half a chance. As in the case of the loquacious Frau Hüber, however, I know I’d fail completely to reproduce his enchantment in that place, in that situation. After the first warning about sitting too long in the shade giving you warts I’d have my walking stick in hand and a fare-thee-well on my lips. Been there, done that, homey don’t play that no more. Thanks so much.
PLF’s trek through northern Greece is described in Roumeli, including the astonishing region of Meteora with the monasteries on top of rock columns like big fingers sticking up into the sky (info here). This book showed me the raconteur side of PLF that I’ve often read about in reviews and articles. Life of the party, always good for a story, bursts out singing folksongs in six languages, can’t drink him under the table, that sort of thing. Sure enough, right at the outset what seems an entirely too fortuitous sequence of events finds him invited to a village wedding in an ethnic minority enclave where both the stories and the booze flow freely. The ethnic angle provides an entree for scholarly research and reportage of an intensity that reminds one of a dog worrying a bone. No rock shall go unturned in the effort to ferret out the historical complexities and mysteries of the Sarakatsani. What befuddled scholars in PLF’s day and sent him digging and delving for months we may now pluck as low-hanging fruit from Wikipedia here. I know — a Google search seems somehow anticlamactic, but times change. We’re so awash in facts these days it’s hard to be mysterious about much of anything anymore.
Both Mani and Roumeli have the same engaging prose style for which PLF is justly famous but they make much less forceful an impression than the books about the teenage hike across Europe. Why is that? I think because the focus is not on PLF himself. If we consider the matter carefully, without prejudice or prejudgment, we can see that PLF is in point of fact an infinitely superior iteration of Frau Hüber, regaling us with stories in so seamless a fashion we couldn’t get a word in edgewise if we tried. He was exactly that sort of person in the flesh, a raconteur extraordinaire, and people love a raconteur because it’s like a private stage show if the storyteller is really good. PFL was extremely good, so the witnesses tell us. He was in fact a much more interesting person that the peasants he wrote about. His trilogy about his teenage hike, written in his 60s with hardly any of his notes from the time, makes that clear. He speaks best from his own center of experience, even if he’s just making stuff up — which, as Cooper’s biography reveals, was sometimes the case.
It all works because PLF was a figure larger than life. It’s true to say that they don’t make ’em like that anymore — the world that made such figures possible has vanished. It’s impossible to imagine in this day and age a teenager wandering across Europe into the likes of the Balkans and ending up with a Byzantine princess for a girlfriend. Where are the mobile apps and the Instagram posts? Where’s the GPS? No need to take notes, just use the voice recorder on your phone. Oh and by the way, there isn’t any aristocracy in country estates all along the route anymore, the Communists got rid of all that, so you’re on your own, babes. Border crossings are likely to be a bit dodgier, as well, especially if you’re headed into southern Central Europe. The modern practicalities put the proper perspective on things and show just how much the experience PFL had as a young man is irretrievably gone. That adds a poignancy to his narrative for me, since what he describes sounds wonderful. What a pity it’s gone with the wind and what good luck he had to be in on it before it disappeared forever.
The upshot of all this comes down to putting PFL into his own category and celebrating his merits while nodding deferentially to admission of his flaws in the interest of veracity. Since he’s a historical figure now I have no problem accepting that he was a flawed giant. It’s all part of the charm, really — everyone loves a bit of a rapscallion, it’s a part of the larger than life character that seems appropriate, almost necessary for a figure like PLF. It works because his life bears scant resemblance to the experience of those of us who lead ordinary, workaday lives. PLF was never in that category for very long, it was a container too small to hold him.
Part of his charm was also an inordinate stroke of good luck — for eample, in finding a partner who was both well-heeled and willing to support him in all ways while accepting him as he was, in having among the grand of the land good friends who happily forked over time and money to keep him rolling, in having robust health that even many decades of heavy drinking and puffing never undermined. These things can’t be reduced to any personal strategy or characteristic on his part beyond sheer good fortune. His charm certainly had a part to play in their emergence in his experience but he inhabited a world in which such things were readily available, like iron filings to his magnetic self, so it was luck as much as any active quality of his that brought good fortune his way, since there was in those days plenty of luck to be had. The supply has dwindled considerably with the passage of the years.
I find it ironic that one of the people who cobbled together the last volume of the teenage hike trilogy is Colin Thubron. I’ve read his travel writing, as well — most recently Shadow of the Silk Road. This is no Tom Bombadil singing while striding across the Shire, oh no. It’s a recouting of travel I recognize from my own experience on the ground. I too have been on crowded trains with chickens hanging out the window while people asked me questions like “How much money do you make?” Thubron is of my own era, a product of the same repertoire of possibilities I inhabit myself, despite his superiority as a writer and the greater access to experience his status affords him. Not even the likes of Thubron can suspend modern reality. He remains a mirror, not a transformation machine that gobbles up experience and gives it back to us wrapped in magic. That’s exactly as it should be. That’s the way the world works now. The changes were going on all around PLF as he stomped his way down the Danube but he paid them little attention. Even after he jumped in with both feet as a soldier in WWII his writing remains centered in worlds of the past, remnants of the good old days in out-of-the-way places. I can only perceive that world as an outsider since it has long since disappeared. When I read Thubron, however, I’m on exactly the same page and know precisely whereof he speaks.
My appreciation of PLF’s works seems to me at times fraught with the tacit undertow he drags along with him from his biography and historicity, but in the final accounting it’s his nature shining through his prose that wins the day. He could have written about something completely different — books on, let’s say, being a misfit in the English public school system, or living the Bohemian life in Shepherd’s Market in Mayfair with the remnants of the Bright Young Things — and my appreciation of him would be undiminished. When push comes to shove I don’t read PLF to gain insight into the experience he describes, I read him for the sheer excitement of the language he uses and for the stimulation of his enormously energetic and erudite company. In that regard he offers his readers what he offered to his friends — himself. How good of him to make all us readers part of his circle of friends. That’s a special gift from any author.