Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Gifts of Friendship

By David Mason

Letters and talk should always be free and reckless among friends . . .
—from a letter to Diana Cooper, February 25, 1980

Patrick Leigh Fermor, the writer and war hero who died in 2011 at age 96, was a figure from another world. He never lived among hypnotizing computer screens, “smart” phones, and other distractions, nor did he commute to an ordinary job or dwell in a suburb with children and pets. He never took a university degree yet was fluent in six languages, a veritable polymath, his brain stuffed with colorful arcana, including reams of poetry and decades of song. Though he was not a wealthy man, he lived a relatively unfettered life on his own terms—a rarity among people I have known. He was a walker, a swimmer, a bon vivant, and though he could be distracted by almost any social occasion, he also knew what Wordsworth called “the bliss of solitude,” not to mention long bouts of depression. I first met him in 1980, and saw him last in September 2010, less than a year before he died, and as much as he remained interested in goings-on around him he seemed less and less a man of our time, more a great character out of the past. Most trappings of our technological lives were invisible to him. I never saw him anywhere near a television set and he had only recently taught himself one-fingered typing as he labored to complete the third volume of his masterpiece.

Those books, beginning with A Time of Gifts (1977) and continuing in Between the Woods and the Water (1986), would be posthumously completed with The Broken Road (2013), edited by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, and the writer Colin Thurbon. They comprise one of the great literary memoirs in the English language. Because they detail a journey and an education—his walk from Holland to Constantinople in prewar Europe—they are reductively labeled “travel writing.” Calling Fermor a travel writer is like calling Proust a sous chef. Yet travel is one of his narrative modes. His first book, after all, was The Traveller’s Tree (1950), a now-dated account of Caribbean wanderings. The Caribbean was also the setting of his one novel, The Violins of St. Jacques (1953). He followed these with a short, exquisite book about monasteries, A Time to Keep Silence (1957), then plunged into two authoritative volumes about his adopted country, Greece. The first of these, Mani (1958) uses a narrow peninsula of the southern Peloponnese as a sort of microcosm, the way W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn sifts through real and imagined depths in a small corner of England. You can open Mani anywhere and find delectable writing. Here’s an early passage about the journey over the Taygetus mountains, which cut off Maniot villages from the rest of Greece:

On a narrow ledge that overhung this chaos we found a miraculous spring: a trickle of cold bright water husbanded in a little hollow tree-trunk lined with brilliant green moss. A wild fig-tree gesticulated overhead. Here, after many long draughts, we lay with our feet propped on boulders. While sweat dried in salty craters and our pulses gradually slowed down we watched the thin blue wreaths of cigarette smoke melt into the sky as speech came slowly back. These empty peaks, according to Homer, were the haunt of Artemis and of three goat-footed nymphs who would engage lonely travellers in a country dance and lead them unsuspectingly to the precipice where they tripped them up and sent them spinning down the gulf. . . . All at once a further wonder came to increase our well-being: a cool breath of wind.

Paddy, as his friends called him, was introduced to Greece in the 1930s, and knew the country intimately at a time before the prosperity and standardizations of the European Economic Community. Life in Mani was still imbued with superstitions and tribal prejudices, sometimes with beautiful folkways, such as his encounter in the mountains with two young girls who “see nothing but God” in the world around them. The book also alludes to deep divisions among the people as a result of the Nazi occupation and the Greek Civil War. Mani before Europe was in many ways similar to the Cretan culture Paddy had embraced when he fought with the resistance—his most famous and controversial exploit being the kidnapping of the German commander of Crete, Heinrich Kreipe. It was a world of fierce kapitánes, blood feuds, and isolated villages. Mani is the finger of mainland Greece that comes closest to touching Crete, and the flinty individuality of their people seems deeply related. I glimpsed that side of Mani too, pre-Europe, and can vouch that Paddy’s accounts are accurate, alive, attractive in their curiosity. One village friend of mine who read Mani in Greek translation called the book “Fantasía,” adding, “It is not realism, but something like a dream.” And so it is—the real thing. A work of literature.

Reading the new volume of Paddy’s letters, Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters (New York Review Books, 2017), expertly edited by Adam Sisman, is for me a personal as well as a literary experience. They contain some of the most ebullient writing you’ll find anywhere, yet I’m not sure that readers who aren’t already fans of Paddy’s prose will find them as entertaining as I do. Quite a few of them involve English social circles—Duff and Diana Cooper, John Julius Norwich, John Betjeman, Cyril Connelly, the Sitwells and Mitfords—that can seem as eccentric as Hobbits to American readers. But there are other recipients of letters—Greeks, Romanians, comrades from the war, film people, some of Paddy’s lovers, and his extraordinary wife, Joan—who bring out the full range of his actions and personality. Subtitled “A Life in Letters,” this book vigorously conveys that life lived on its own terms, the courage and dash it took to overcome the inertia of convention and make something entirely individual and rare. Paddy is often compared to Byron, not just for his love of Greece but also for his profligate energy and literary brio, even for his failure to finish a masterpiece. Yet he lived 60 years longer than Byron. He was a deeply loyal and devoted friend to different kinds of people. The qualities of love and affection found in these letters, like those he exhibited to his friends, were sweeter and far less egotistical than the Romantic poet’s. He did a damn good job of living and had great luck along the way, and this is partly what makes reading him so rewarding. In August 2010, just weeks before I last saw him, he was reading a little book about Proust, and scribbled in its pages a note of gratitude for his life, as if its elements, time-sifted, were glowing in whole sight and he had outlived regret.

* * *

Paddy’s loyalty to old friends is most moving in letters to Balasha Cantacuzène, the Romanian princess with whom he had fallen in love at age 20 while on his trek across Europe. The couple lived at her home in Moldavia, and also for a time in a little house near a watermill on the Greek mainland just opposite the island of Poros. When he wrote to her from that very spot in 1946, they had been separated by the war, and would be further separated by the Communist takeover of her country. Paddy’s attempt to recapture lost time in this letter is the very Proustian quality found in most of his writing (the bracketed words are Sisman’s):

My own darling,
The clock has suddenly slipped back ten years, and here I am sitting in front of our café in the small square, at a green-topped iron table on one of those rickety chairs. The marble-lantern, with its marine symbols—anchors and dolphins—is within reach of my arm; the drooping tree has been cut down. But the same old men, in broad shady hats, snowy fustanellas [skirt-like garments traditionally worn by men in southern Europe] and moustaches, sit conversing quietly over their narghiléhs [shisha pipes]. They all bowed and greeted me warmly, but soberly as if I had seen them only yesterday; my hand still aches from the iron grasp of Christo, the smiling Mongolian kafedzi [caféproprietor]—“Where’s Kyria Balasha? How is she?” they all cry.

. . . Loud shrieks of delight from Uncle Alcibiades’s daughter, married now. Best of all, three tall young men—guess who? Niko, Yanni and Andrea, and a strapping Tasso in his teens. Spiro is up at the mill, with thirteen-year-old Kosta and Katrina, and, isn’t it amazing?, ten-years-old Evtychia! Devout Marina is across the water at Galata, busy at her religious observances. Stop! Who do you think has just come and sat at my table, flinging an affectionate arm round my shoulders? Yanni, our boatman, who taught us the names of the winds, and always rowed us to Plaka.

The young man here called Andrea was still very much alive in 2002 when I visited the little taverna at Lemonodassos—a lovely name meaning Lemon-forest, which is exactly the magic of the place. He served me lemonade at one of his tables and I delivered Paddy’s affectionate greetings to him. The words for love and friendship perked up the old man, who scurried about, showing me the little house where Paddy and Balasha had lived, and a lamp Paddy had written by. I helped Andreas and his wife move a cleaned mattress into the house as they told me stories of the old days. I once met a monk Paddy had written about in his other Greek book, Roumeli, and it had the same curious effect of confirming a connection between words and world.

In the same long letter to Balasha, Paddy writes,

This is a kind and happy and simple corner of the world. All the misery and murder and pumpute [upheaval?] of the last seven years have shed themselves away like a hateful dream, and I am back for a few precious days in a glâbre [innocent], beautiful world inhabited by people like you. . . . I send you, darling, all this. We must continue to hide here sometime, and feel that love and friendship are something separate after all, impregnably so, from the passage of time and its horrors and cruelties and callousness.

It’s wishful thinking, of course, and Paddy already had plenty of reason to know it. Much of the world he cherished before the war had been bombed flat. Paddy’s war started with the British retreat from the overwhelming German invasion of Greece, a narrow escape from the Peloponnese, then the Battle of Crete in May 1941. Later he would twice parachute onto the island, helping to coordinate resistance among the mountain shepherds and kapitánes. His famous kidnapping of General Kreipe—detailed in books by W. Stanley Moss, George Psychoundakis, and a posthumous account, Abducting a General (2014), by Paddy himself—became part of the German rationale for reprisals, including the destruction of several Cretan villages and the execution of many civilians. Because of this, the adventure has often been viewed as a schoolboy prank gone bad. When I first knew Paddy, there were rumors about a vendetta against him by Cretans, even a story about one of his cars having been blown up.

The letters bring clarity to these events, especially another letter to Balasha written in June 1975, nearly 30 years after the one from Lemonodassos. By this time, Paddy had been living for a decade in the marvelous stone house he built south of Kardamyli, in Mani (where I would meet him five years later). His longtime partner, Joan Rayner, had been his wife only since 1968, and there had been other lovers along the way—their circle shrugged off most forms of conventionality—but he remained loyal, at least in letters, to his first great love:

I must tell you the recent happy ending of a long Cretan saga. In the summer of 1943, I had assembled about fifty Cretans in the north slopes of Mt Ida, most of them being hunted by the Germans, in order to take them by night marches to the S. Coast, for evacuation to Egypt by torpedo boat. There was a sudden false alarm of 300 Germans coming up the hillside. Everyone leapt to arms, I picked up my rifle—which was always unloaded, as I carried the bullets in a bandolier—shot the bolt back and forth and pressed the trigger—“easing the springs”, as they call it; and bang! Some students from Herakleion had been playing about with the weapons, loading, unloading, etc., and had left a round in the magazine. There was a cry. The bullet had struck my old friend and guide Yanni Tsangarakis, passing twice through his bent leg, striking a stone and ricocheting back and through his body. He died in half an hour, holding my hand—you can guess at the misery!—and we buried him there. I wanted to go back to his village in W. Crete, tell his older brother Kanaki what had happened, but couldn’t, because of the embarkation on hand; and all the other guerilla leaders said: “Leave it till after the war, say Yanni has left for Egypt, for the accident, by Cretan custom, could start a blood feud, and split the resistance movement.”

What follows reads like a story from Kazantzakis. The brother, Kanaki, seems to forgive Paddy, then changes his mind and declares a feud, which his son dutifully takes up. Paddy becomes both a hero and an enemy in certain parts of Crete. Fifteen years later, at a banquet in Rethymnon, he learns that Kanaki’s son is plotting to shoot Paddy as he leaves the party. Joan, whom Paddy writes “was marvelous,” stays with him as he leaves the party with “a neutral figure, head of a rival ‘clan’ or family, in whose company nobody can be shot without involving the whole tribe.”

They escape, and 15 years later Paddy gets more news of the vendetta. Now living in Kardamyli, he learns that Kanaki’s son, Yorgo, has a nine-month-old daughter, and has decided with that wild irrational justice of the Cretan mind that Paddy should be her godfather. The vendetta has been buried, and Paddy flies to Crete for the baptism:

There, waiting at the Herakleion airport, was Geo. Psychoundakis, Manoli Paterakis, a dozen guerilla chiefs, old Kanaki who had left his village, 7 miles to the west, for the occasion—now aged and infirm, booted, sashed, turbaned, stooping over a twisted stick; and Yorgo, a wild-looking chap of forty now, two front teeth knocked out, booted too. I was buried in whiskery and badly-shaven embraces for minutes on end; then I was whisked off to a banquet in the mountains, getting back to Herakleion in time to smarten up for the service; I’d decided to call the child Ioanna, in memory of Yanni, and because of Joan. So there I was, with this pink naked infant in my arms, flanked by a mass of my grown-up god-daughters from wartime baptisms, walking round and round the font, reciting the Creed, blowing away the Devil (“Ftou! Ftou! Apotássomai!”). . . . When I’d placed my new god-daughter, sumptuously clad now, in her mum’s arms and been kissed by my new god-brother Yorgo, Kanaki and several hundred other wartime brothers-in-arms from all over Crete, we all gathered at a taverna, where a table was laid for 300, suckling-pigs roasting, wine flowing, lyras, lutes, violins playing. It was a great banquet. I had to lead the dances (plenty of foot slapping!). Everyone was very happy, as it was the happy end of a miserable saga; all wartime Crete rejoiced. Yorgo my god-brother, said, as we sat, rather tight, with arms around each other’s necks, “God-brother Mihali, if you’ve got any enemy, anyone you want got rid of—just say the word, god-brother! You’ll have no more trouble!” I hastened to say that there was no one, absolutely no one!

It’s a typical story for Paddy, whom the Greeks always called Mihali, or Michael, Patrick not being an Orthodox saint’s name. It’s also a great story of the fierceness and generosity of Cretans.

* * *

Paddy had godchildren, but no children of his own, and the letters show him waking up to the fact that, in their mobile lives, “the sort of whirl I like to live in,” moving among houses of their friends until they built their own, he and Joan had left off having children too long. Joan was extraordinary, unfailingly kind to me over the years. She was wiser than Paddy, quiet to the point of self-effacement, and like him she had no interest in changing other people, but was curious to know who they were. Paddy describes her in a 1965 letter to Balasha:

She’s two years older than me, fair-haired, rather grave and beautiful looking, pretty shy, very intelligent, devoted to literature, music, painting—not as an executant—v. funny; beaucoup de race [“plenty of pedigree”], as they say, and much loved by writers, painters, musicians, poets etc. She was called Joan Eyres Monsell as a girl; rather short-sighted so wears dark glasses a lot of the time, so’s not to look it! She knows all about before we first met—about nineteen years ago, isn’t it extraordinary!—and specially asked me to send her love.

That last line is typical of Joan, who tolerated Paddy’s lovers over the years. She was kind to young writer-visitors too. I was 25 when I met her, and she seemed to live in a serenity beyond most human creatures. In the hayati, the little Turkish sitting area with windows facing the sea from the giant living room at Kardamyli, she often kept a chess game going. Over the years, I would visit whenever I happened to be in Greece, and if Paddy were in his study or out fetching the mail from the village, Joan and I would sit together over an ouzo and talk poetry. On the last day I saw her we talked about Yeats, which now seems especially appropriate—the great poet of youth and old age. I spent that afternoon walking and swimming with Paddy, then had drinks and dinner with the two of them and some friends, and the talk went late into the night. (I give a more detailed account of this night in my memoir, News from the Village. An old friend of Paddy’s asked him that night whether he had killed anyone in the war, and Paddy answered, “Don’t let’s talk about it.”) Joan had retired earlier, and when I went back to her bedroom to kiss her goodbye, the book of Yeats’s poetry sprawled open on the mattress beside her.

One of Paddy’s lovers was Ricki Huston, wife of the film director John Huston, with whom he had worked on a movie called The Roots of Heaven (1958). Some of the most entertaining letters in this book detail the hellish experience of making that movie in French Equatorial Africa, with Huston, producer Daryl Zanuck, and a cast including Trevor Howard, Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Orson Welles, and Eddie Albert. When I was in high school in Bellingham, Washington, by complete accident I watched that movie on a black and white TV and was spellbound, my budding environmentalism stirred by the story of rebels trying to save elephants from ivory traders. Just a few nights ago as I write this, I found the movie on YouTube and watched it again. Posterity has not been kind to it, but I was stirred all over again. Once you get past some very clunky writing in the early minutes, not to mention the impossibility of taking Herbert Lom seriously as a villain after seeing him in the Pink Panther movies, the film makes a real impression. Errol Flynn’s performance—his last—is quite moving, and Trevor Howard makes a dogged hero, snarling, “You can’t wipe out a whole race just to keep the world supplied with billiard balls and paper knives!” Howard’s moving speeches about friendship and the freedom and beauty of elephants express something of Paddy’s soul as well, and Flynn’s character even has a guerilla past, having fought like Paddy in the Balkans. Near the end of the movie Paddy himself dashes on-screen to deliver one line, and it’s wonderful to see him there, alive all over again. In his memoirs, Huston lamented that great writers like Paddy were incapable of writing good film scripts, but this one has a few good moments, and the film itself is not the turkey critics have sometimes taken it for. Thematically at least, it’s ahead of its time.

And it gives me a curious déjà vu sort of feeling to think I had loved that creaky old movie long before I met the man who wrote it. Later I became his neighbor. In 1981, I lived for six months in a little stone hut next to Paddy and Joan’s villa, on the point of land called Kalamitsi, south of the village. Paddy’s letters about buying the land and building the house move me because I lived on the acres he actually wanted to buy. When in 1962 he writes about “a long moonlight chat with old Angela Phikoura, the hut-dwelling old girl who lives on the spot,” well, I knew that hut, which was a ruin when I took it on. I limed the walls, painted the doors and window frames, put screens in, stuffed an old mattress with herbs and grass for sleeping, hung a cage to keep my food from the mice. I knew the same family Paddy tried and failed to get the land from. I’ve been back since Paddy’s death, and the hut is a ruin again, full of mouse droppings, with little evidence that an ardent young writer ever lived there.

These letters bring it all back, with meditations on war and peace, politics and love, the difficulty of writing. They make it clear that, despite his aristocratic manner, he was never a rich man. Living life on his terms was not a matter of having money, but of choosing not to betray his own nature. Of course, it helped to have so many friends in high places, but friendship was a part of him he couldn’t deny. His gregariousness was a vice that too often kept him from writing.

The last time I saw him, just weeks after he had written that note of gratitude inside a book about Proust, he spoke of “dear Joan,” who had died in 2003, as if she were just in the next room. I had come for lunch with a friend from my college, and Paddy told us to “Cuddle up”— patting the chairs next to his. When we left him to his afternoon siesta, he waved goodbye as if taking another journey and said he was going “into the arms of the appropriate god.” It’s the same voice—warm, precise, curious but living without expectations—that you can find in nearly every line he wrote.