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Patrick Leigh Fermor?s enviably colorful life took off when in 1934, at the age of eighteen, he decided to walk across Europe. In just over a year he had trekked through nine countries and taught himself three languages, and his enthusiasm and curiosity for every kind of experience made him equally happy in caves or country houses, among shepherds or countesses.
At the outbreak of war he left his lover, Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, in ...
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s enviably colorful life took off when in 1934, at the age of eighteen, he decided to walk across Europe. In just over a year he had trekked through nine countries and taught himself three languages, and his enthusiasm and curiosity for every kind of experience made him equally happy in caves or country houses, among shepherds or countesses.
At the outbreak of war he left his lover, Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, in Romania and returned to England to enlist. Commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, he became one of the handful of Allied officers supporting the Cretan resistance to the German occupation. In 1944 he commanded the Anglo-Cretan team that abducted General Heinrich Kreipe and spirited him away to Egypt.
A journey to the Caribbean, stays in monasteries, and explorations all over Greece provided the subjects for his first books. It was not until he and his wife had moved to southern Greece that he returned to his earliest walk. In these books, which took many years to write, he created a vision of a prewar Europe, which in its beauty and abundance has never been equaled.
Artemis Cooper has drawn on years of interviews and conversations with Leigh Fermor and his closest friends, and has had complete access to his archive. Her beautifully crafted biography portrays a man of extraordinary gifts—no one wore their learning so playfully nor inspired such passionate friendship.
“Artemis Cooper’s excellent biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, fills in the details, corrects errors and makes clear that Paddy — as he was always known — often conflated incidents or fudged details in his writing, sometimes for reasons of art, sometimes to protect a friend or a woman’s reputation.” —The Washington Post
"Surprise is the keynote of the best travel writing. The travel writer should be knowledgeable but not an expert, open in mind and body to the unforeseen twists of serendipity. But what we most require from travel writing... is that elusive quality Nick Carraway defined as 'romantic readiness.' Few 20th- century figures combined these traits in a more appealing package than the English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.....Now Artemis Cooper has written an affectionately intimate, informative and forgiving biography...."— Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review
"This engaging work sheds light on the life of one of Britain's greatest travel writers, with particular detail on his time in Greece, his war escapades, and his struggles with writing. Recommended for lovers of armchair travel and those who enjoyed Sir Patrick's own writings. "— Library Journal
“Artemis Cooper has done a brilliant job of piecing together the shards of evidence about this glamorous but elusive writer, who seemed not to be able to resist mixing fact and fiction in his own life story.” —John Eliot Gardiner, The Wall Street Journal
"A fondly admiring account of the English wayfarer captures his enormously infectious spirit...A solid biography that should introduce more readers to Leigh Fermor's work." —Kirkus Reviews
"In her arresting biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, an ever-curious travel writer known for experiencing locales at ground- level, Cooper, studies a man determined to see the world firsthand, with interviews from family and friends, rare letters, and diaries....Nostalgic and expertly written, Cooper fleshes out Fermor, a man who boldly traveled a world on the edge of catastrophe, which he explained in his writing to a faithful readership." —Publishers Weekly
One of The Independent’s “50 Best Winter Reads”
Short-listed for the inaugural Waterstones “Book of the Year”
“Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last year  at the age of 96, was one of the travel-writing greats, a war hero who related his journeys as a young man through Europe in classics such as A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Artemis Cooper draws on years of interviews with the author and his friends in this much-anticipated biography.” —The Guardian
“He lived an inspirationally heterodox life that combined adventure and reflection in unique measure. His story has hitherto been known only in parts, and mostly through the refractive prism of his own telling. At last his biography has been detailed in full, in Artemis Cooper’s tender and excellent book. Reading it is an odd experience: there is the melancholy of having one’s hero humanised, joined with renewed astonishment at the miracle he made of himself.” —The Guardian
“Artemis Cooper’s funny, wise, learned but totally candid biography reveals Leigh Fermor to be an adventurer through and through. The artifice of effortless gentility is blown away and Paddy is revealed as a much more interesting character, a fascinatingly self-made and self-educated man. He is also placed in the pantheon of literary liggers, a consummate lifelong freeloader, a prince among sponge-artists, which he paid for with his unique energy, talent and enthusiasm for song, dance, talk, memorised verse, drink and other men’s wives.” —The Independent
“A captivating biography.... It is not easy writing a biography of someone who has poured so much of his own life into his books, but Artemis Cooper has done a brilliant job. The story rips along, as Leigh Fermor’s life did, with friends and lovers, books and journeys and parties, all milling and jostling around him in a noisy and joyous throng. And in the quieter moments we are left with something far more enduring: a man for whom the world was endlessly fascinating, and who found that he could recreate for his readers with carefully crafted words the same wonder that it gave him.” —Philip Marsden, The Daily Mail
“It is not easy to convey the flavour of a man whose fame to a large extent rests on his ebullient personality and conversation but Ms Cooper succeeds admirably in this readable and entertaining book.” —The Economist
“Artemis Cooper’s fine biography gives colour and substance to the adventure, and a delicate, sympathetic portrait of the man who made it his life.” —The Scotsman
“A perceptive, haunting and highly readable biography.” —Philip Mansel,The Spectator
“Leigh Fermor was funny, learned, sexy, irrepressible, flawed yet much loved, remarkable and, at times, brilliant —not unlike this book.” —Anthony Sattin, The Guardian
“Cooper’s book is the perfect memorial to this remarkable man.” —William Dalrymple, Financial Times
“Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s, swam the Hellespont, captured a German general, wandered the Caribbean, befriended everyone of consequence and wit, and wrote about it all in some of the most elegant, sinuous prose of the century. His friend Artemis Cooper has written the biography his singular life richly deserves.” —The Daily Beast
“Happy the hero who, after a lifetime of glorious achievement, in death finds a biographer worthy of his memory. Patrick Leigh Fermor...has been so widely celebrated in print, in film and in legend that the task of writing another 400 pages about him would seem, as he might himself say, Sisyphean. Artemis Cooper, however, rolls the immense boulder with an apparently effortless grace, and makes this marvellous book less a mere life story than an evocation.... He is justly commemorated in this magnificent biography, and will surely be remembered for ever as one of the very best of men.” —Jan Morris, The Telegraph
Of all the valiant deeds, curious events, and exotic circumstances recounted in Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, one aspect of Fermor's life fills me with particular wonder. It is not Fermor's kidnapping of the German commander in occupied Crete in 1944, his careless, accidental killing of a friend, or his walk across Europe in the 1930s. These actions are arresting enough, but it is our hero's gift for extracting boundless hospitality from well-born, well-housed strangers wherever he went that I find phenomenal. How did he do it? It's not as if he were well connected by birth or went to precisely the right schools — he was, in fact, expelled three times from those he did attend, and he didn't go to university at all. That ineffable thing, a magnetic personality — an amalgam of good looks, a knack for camaraderie, and genuine curiosity — seems to have been key, though his winning ways were augmented by a facility with languages, a gift for song, and, it must be said, a certain shamelessness. It was the young Fermor's talent for living off the landed that launched him into the life of the traveler and thence to travel writing, the calling for which he was unquestionably born.
Patrick Leigh Fermor's father, himself the son of a clerk, was a geologist in the Indian Civil Service, while young Fermor's mother was the daughter of a prosperous slate and stone merchant in India. Fermor's sense of entitlement seems to have come from her, a woman who claimed (without proof) to have sprung from a line of Irish Counts of the Holy Roman Empire and who had a tendency to add distinguished- sounding names to her own. Considering herself a cut above her husband and, indeed, above her own true station in life, she craved festivity and society (though not necessarily that of her children) and had theatrical appetites and literary ambitions. She and Fermor's father eventually lived apart. But what was bad news in the mother translated into infectious high spirits, a quenchless appetite for adventure, and literary élan in the son.
In 1933, at eighteen years of age and not knowing quite what to do with himself or his future, Fermor seized upon the idea of walking across Europe. His father agreed to allow him £4 a month for the purpose, and so off the young man went on a journey that took from December 1933 to January 1935, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as he persisted in calling Istanbul out of fealty to the past). From there he went on to Greece, acquainting himself with a country he came to love above all others and which, soon enough, served as the theater of his war. It later became a source of sorrow during the Cyprus crisis and, later still, his home for some years. The trip had a further momentousness in that, as he traveled, he became a witness to the first foul bloom of Nazi ascendency in Germany. As it was not until 1977 that Fermor's account of this part of his journey, A Time of Gifts, was published, that book may have profited a little from hindsight. Still, it is clear from Cooper's considered description of Fermor's encounters that the manifestations of the Nazi spirit, the vulgar posturing, bellicosity, Hitler worship, and anti-Semitism, were repellent enough to him at the time even without knowing where they would ultimately lead.
After the great cross-continental trek, Fermor kept on the move. He became tangentially involved in a minor Greek revolution; spent time in monasteries, for which he had a strange attraction; and fell in love with a woman sixteen years his senior, traveling with her and living for some time at her family estate in what was then called Rumania. He looked to translation work as a source of income — for the future, that is. For the present he seems mostly to have lived as a guest. As such, he was, as Cooper puts it, "perhaps more inconvenient than some. He burnt holes in the sheets with his cigarettes, drank a lot, and the clothes and books he borrowed were left lying about." Most people, Cooper tells us, liked him; some couldn't stand him. One such, many years later, was Somerset Maugham, who called him "that middle-class gigolo for upper- class women."
Fermor finally returned to England in 1937, mistress in tow, and devoted his energies, or so it seems, to knitting himself into a glittering fabric of social connections: European royalty, British blue-bloods, Hon.s, Bart.s, and Sitwells. In fact, if there is anything that made me weary in this book, it is the parade of names and nonstop upper-class romps, no doubt the result of the author herself being, to spell it out, the Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune Beevor, granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper, who has already written about these characters in her earlier works. Here is what I am talking about: "One spur to completing [Fermor's] work was the prospect of joining Diana Cooper, who had been lent the Eros II: Stavros Niarchos's second-best yacht, that is, with a crew of eight to take Diana and her friends anywhere she wanted to go. For this Diana had to thank her friend Pamela Churchill, who was having an affair with Niarchos (after her break-up with Elie de Rothschild and before her marriage to Leland Hayward.)" This, for me, does not have quite the grab of swimming the Hellespont or translating P. G. Wodehouse's "The Great Sermon Handicap" into Greek, matters that made for considerably more enjoyable reading.
Fermor eventually returned to Greece and Rumania, but, in late 1939, Britain's declaration of war brought him back to England, where he eventually found a place in the Intelligence Corps. At this point the book becomes wonderfully exciting as a most resourceful Fermor ends up in Greece, working with the Resistance. His exploits culminated in the famous abduction of General Kreipe, the details of which I shall leave for you to enjoy on your own.
After the war, Fermor met his future wife, Joan, who supported him financially and whom he loved dearly; though, in what used to be considered upper-class British tradition, neither he nor she expected or practiced constancy. Fermor's ceaseless and wide-ranging amours give rise to the book's funniest passage, a letter from an exuberant Fermor to a woman who accused him of bestowing a colony of crabs upon her — a passage I find I cannot bring myself to quote, masterpiece of comic prose though it is.
Letters and journals aside, writing was a laborious process for Fermor. As Cooper shows, he struggled painfully to finish his books, though there is no sense at all of that strain in the finished works. They are written with brio, filled with wit, color, and scenes evoked as from a dream — Bavarians gluttonizing at the groaning board, Caribbean islanders practicing voodoo, the aftermath of volcanic eruptions. Fermor's pen is a magician's wand. This, however, leaves his biographer in a bit of a fix: When it comes to describing her subject's adventures and travels, she cannot better the master. But if Fermor's style is intoxicating, as ingeniously suggestive and steeped in historical vision as it is descriptive, his reports of his travels are not what one might call impeccably factual. He could embellish them with hindsight, combine real people into one hybrid character, and trim the facts to fit a good (or self-serving) story. Cooper sets the record straight in numerous instances, making her book, in my opinion, a necessary and cheerful companion to Fermor's works, whose veracity I have, at times, doubted.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers