I had other intentions for this column, and I am entirely unprepared for the change in direction I have elected to take. I have just moved houses, I have to catch a plane, and I scarcely have time to compose my thoughts. So I write in perilous haste. But I have no choice, at least emotionally speaking. What has made my well-laid plans gang so suddenly aglae is my discovery this morning (15 June) that my favorite living writer is, in fact, no longer living.
I cannot really call the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor “untimely,” since he was 96 years old, and for nearly that entire generous span enjoyed almost offensively good health. He even retained his remarkable good looks to a point so late in life that it verged on mockery of those of us cast in a more ordinary mold. Still, his demise came too soon for many of us, if only because it cruelly confirms something we have known in our hearts for some time: that we will likely never see (at least, not in its finished form) the third volume of his magnificent trilogy recounting the journey he made on foot, when only eighteen years of age, from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn of Constantinople. By the end of volume two (1986’s Between the Woods and the Water), he had reached only as far as the “Iron Gates” between Yugoslavia and Romania.
He made that trip in 1934, just as Europe was gathering its energies for its last and greatest orgy of internecine slaughter and casual atrocity, and the first volume of the set (1977’s A Time of Gifts) affords glimpses of Nazis and German nationalists; but the real matter of the book is a young man’s great adventure through the “evening lands” of Europe, and his sentimental education far from the safe ports of childhood. Both volumes are among the most evocative (and, some have unfairly suspected, most richly embroidered) memoirs ever written in English; and they, along with the rest of his books, will endure as some of the finest examples of English prose at its most buoyantly, joyously, and whimsically unrestrained.
That journey, however, was not the most picaresque episode in Leigh Fermor’s long life. While he was serving as an intelligence officer in Nazi-occupied Crete, where he fought alongside the Greek resistance, often in the garb of a local shepherd, he and the equally daring William Stanley Moss (who recorded the story later in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor) managed to abduct the commander of the German garrison on the island, General Karl Kreipe, in his own car, drive him through roughly two dozen checkpoints, and then force-march him through the Cretan wilds, over the top of Mt Ida, to the coast where a motor boat was waiting to spirit him away to Cairo.
To this day, the event is recalled with some wonder in Crete. Some of the older inhabitants of the island tend to think of it as more a foolish escapade than a heroic coup, inasmuch as the response of the garrison was one of typical German delicacy: the orderly massacre of several villages. But the abduction was, in any event, a palpable blow against the occupying forces.
The “scene” from the story that many of us think most memorable, however—recounted later by Leigh Fermor and corroborated by others who were present at the time—was that of General Kreipe, gazing up at Ida’s peak, beginning to recite Horace’s ode “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte . . .”, only to have Leigh Fermor pick the poem up from there and quote it to its end. There could scarcely be a more poignant or grimmer commentary upon Western civilization at the moment of its final collapse.
In any event, with Leigh Fermor’s departure, we have probably seen the last of a rather bizarre and glorious tradition of British “travel writing” (a strangely inadequate designation, really) that stretches back as far as Alexander Kinglake, and whose exponents in the last century included T.E. Lawrence, Eric Newby, Robert Byron, Wilfrid Thesiger, Norman Douglas, Freya Stark, and (a distant and inferior specimen of the kind) the younger Evelyn Waugh.
Leigh Fermor was, like most of the rest of that crew, something of a Bohemian, but he definitely fitted into the more daring and dashing set of them, along with Thesiger and Lawrence; still, he also had something of Newby’s wry wit, he was every bit as much an aesthete as Byron, and his style as a writer surpassed even Douglas’s in sheer opulence.
He was also a man of boundless erudition: a classicist, a linguist, an historian, deeply and broadly read, widely and wisely traveled, with impeccable taste in literature and the arts. As it happens, his formal education was of the most irregular and intermittent kind. He was sent as a boy to a “progressive school” (which was something of a nudist colony), had a good private tutor for a while, got himself expelled from Canterbury’s King’s School, was drummed out of Sandhurst before beginning studies, and never attended university. And yet few men of his time could match him for breadth of learning.
Early on in life, he acquired a passion for Greece and all things Byzantine (in part, under the influence of Robert Byron). He even celebrated his twentieth birthday by staying at the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mt. Athos, and his book Roumeli includes some of the most illuminating writing on Orthodox monasticism in English. (Even Leigh Fermor’s close friends seem uncertain whether he had any particular religious convictions, but he definitely had a fascination with the monastic life.) And for a great deal of his life, he kept his home in southern Greece.
In the end, Leigh Fermor will chiefly be remembered for his prose, which has few credible rivals in modern English letters. He was an exacting and excruciatingly slow writer, by all accounts. He could polish a single sentence obsessively, draft upon draft, for months on end. Nothing went to print before it met his highest standards, which were already far higher than most of his contemporaries could hope to achieve. He also spent a great deal of his life living rather than writing. The result is that, when one adds up the sum of his published works, one sometimes cannot help but feel he was a little parsimonious towards his readers.
In addition to the two volumes of his unfinished trilogy, Leigh Fermor’s published literary legacy includes his splendid book about the Caribbean islands, The Traveller’s Tree (1950)—a book admired by, among others, James Bond, at least according to Live and Let Die; his absorbing short novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), set on an island rather like Martinique on the night it is destroyed by a volcanic eruption; his brief and exquisite collection of essays on Christian monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence (1953); his two masterpieces about the life and history of Greece, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966); the radiant Three Letters from the Andes (1991); and then only various occasional pieces and introductions to other persons’ books, many collected in a volume called Words of Mercury (2003), as well as a separate volume of some of his letters. That, if my memory serves, is the whole corpus. Perhaps the third volume of his trilogy may yet appear in some form; some other pieces may be rescued from some meager hidden archive. But even then, taken all together, it will never fill a shelf on even a very narrow bookcase.
It is enough, though, to secure Leigh Fermor’s posterity.
My books are still for the most part packed away in countless unmarked boxes, so I can adduce none of the long, glittering samples of his prose with which I would have liked to adorn this tribute. All I will say in ending is that you should read all his books if you have not yet done so. The man is excellent company on the printed page (and was so, it is generally reported, in person). But, more to the point, he was one of the greatest masters of English of our or any epoch, and any literate person who speaks the language really ought to know and to love his work.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.