In November 1996, a young writer named William Blacker, planning to travel to the wilds of northern Romania, wrote to Patrick Leigh Fermor for advice. Fermor, then in his seventies, replied:
Dear William — if I may make so bold —
I can’t think of anything more exciting than your imminent prospect — and well done starting in winter. (a) You have the whole world to yourself, and (b) inhabitants never take summer visitors seriously. Winter is a sort of Rite of Passage. Do take down any songs or sayings, above all descantice — spells, incantations, invocations, etc. I bet Maramures is full of them. Also, as much wolf and bear lore as possible — and remember, never drink rainwater that has collected in a bear’s footprint, however thirsty.
This jaunty note, now published in Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, edited by Adam Sisman, conveys so much of the “old boy,” as he himself might have put it: the generosity and enthusiasm, the arcane knowledge and irresistible wit. Fermor had by then been traveling and writing for almost six decades, and the letters gathered here span seventy peripatetic years, from 1940 to 2010. By turns gossipy, lyrical, profound, and dazzling, they carry Fermor’s voice so clearly that we seem to hear him speaking as we read. Not that we hear everything. Fermor admits to pruning his correspondence (“lots of things not for strangers’ eyes”), and Sisman has excised the more quotidian passages. Yet no letter seems incomplete. And thanks to Sisman’s astute selection and fine introductory notes, the volume’s gradually darkening mood seems to mirror Fermor’s ultimate journey from youthful exuberance to aged decline.
He began traveling in 1933 at the age of eighteen by walking from England to Constantinople, a trek that took a year and produced a trilogy — A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and The Broken Road (2003) — that remains one of the treasures of English travel writing. Never mind that The Broken Road was unfinished at Fermor’s death in 2011 (procrastination was a lifelong affliction) or that he inserted episodes from the 1980s into his odyssey of the 1930s (an “extremely immoral procedure” charmingly justified in a letter to a Hungarian scholar). Fermor’s true sleight-of-hand is his seemingly effortless ability to conjure up a place or person with astonishing clarity — a hillside at dawn, a garrulous stranger — while simultaneously revealing a world that is centuries deep. The breadth of his scholarship, so airily present and matched only by his curiosity, compresses time. In a 1948 letter to his then-lover Joan Rayner, for example, Fermor writes, “I knew a very old woman in Athens whose father had been alive when a Stylite was living on top of one of the pillars of Olympian Zeus.” (The Stylites being ancient monastic penitents.)
No penitent himself, Fermor occasionally retreated to monasteries to write, and that otherworld is as powerfully evoked in these letters as it was in his short book A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1957. Two masterworks followed: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), which chronicle Fermor’s travels in Greece, the country where he spent most of his life. And where he fought. Operating undercover alongside Cretan partisans during the Nazi occupation, Fermor’s most famous mission was the abduction of General Heinrich Kriepe, with whom Fermor was reunited in 1972 for a Greek TV documentary. “Tremendous singing, and lyre-playing and Cretan dancing,” after the filming, Fermor writes to a comrade’s widow, “all ending up pretty tight, and many tears being shed for old times’ sake…After all, the old boy hadn’t managed to do any harm in Crete before his capture and I always liked him… ”
He likes most people. In Northern Ireland in 1972 he spends a pleasant hour or so drinking with an Irish Republican Army spokesman (“Three dull thuds, two streets away, of exploding bombs”) before returning to “Blighty” for a weekend at Chatsworth, seat of Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. One of the Mitford sisters, “Debo,” was a lifelong friend, (their correspondence was published in 2008), and of her homey palace Fermor writes, “it’s wonderful what forgotten knitting and a couple of seed catalogues will do for a bust of Diocletian.” His world in such moments is English to the core, with a hint of P. G. Wodehouse: all weekend larks and biffing off to the country. Indeed, many of Fermor’s acquaintances could be characters out of Thank You, Jeeves: Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, fourteenth Baron Berners; Lady Dorothy “Coote” Lygon, daughter of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and so on. There’s Miss Crowe, a relic of British rule on Corfu, pacing her terrace, ” . . . stick in hand, only slightly stooping, and followed by a rippling wake of old and half-blind dogs.” There’s Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Lord Byron, sporting “a gigantic and very disheveled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails” and occupying a manor “as untidy as a barn — trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled ‘LD BYRON’S papers . . . in chalk.”
But the writer and the man revealed in these letters is no Bertie Wooster-ish dilettante. Though “never less than two years overdue” finishing a book, Fermor, we learn here, took his craft, if not himself, seriously; in one letter he identifies his literary flaws and in another speculates how screenwriting for a 1958 John Huston film might instill “lessons about concision and dexterity.” And while expert at “high-class cadging” of Italian villas and the like, he detests anything “smart” — the “revolting” Côte d’Azur, for example — and observes, after an evening on an Onassis yacht, that there is “something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich.” Fermor cannot be corralled, either by class or by place. Throughout his life, and throughout these letters, he strays. Into love affairs and across borders, enraptured by the ancient and the natural world — even when mortality looms. “We walked in the fields yesterday where we slid on the hayrick twenty years ago,” he writes in 1975 to Alexander Fielding, a constant friend since wartime. Joan Rayner, his wife and strength, drops dead in 2003 — “no pain, thank heavens, except for survivors” — and Fermor will live eight more years. In a 1948 letter to Joan, he had described waking from sleep “as easily and inevitably as the faint touch of the keel on the sand of the opposite bank.” Across the final page, that image seems to shimmer.