Keeping History Alive

On the Work of Patrick Leigh Fermor

“What a snare this traveling business is to the young writer. He goes to some blasted jungle or other and imagines that everybody will be interested in it.” 
— P.G. Wodehouse

In his 2020 book Human, Forever James Poulos describes how digital media is threatening humanity’s connection with history and asks how the last generation of non-digital natives is going to secure this connection for the sake of their sons. According to Poulos, the answer will need to be biographical. If we can no longer rely on the culture around us to safeguard our history, our past must be carried in the vessel of our own lives. But how should this be accomplished? 

The question brings to mind the life of the 20th-century English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Despite striking attributes – the kidnapping of a German commander, being labeled a “cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene” and occupying a position on 007’s own bookshelf – Patrick Leigh Fermor remains less well-known than he should be.

A classically educated polyglot who served in WWII, his main claim for fame today is literary immortality in the relatively niche genre of “travel writing” – a format which saw a golden age during the heyday of the British Empire. Leigh Fermor only wrote a handful of books: A chronicle of time time spent in the Caribbean; essays describing his stays in different monasteries; three letters from a trip through the Andes; two volumes detailing isolated mountain regions of Greece, and a novella about a party in the shadow of a volcano. A meticulous, slow-working prose stylist, each of his works stands out in its own way: illiterate goat herders, voodoo priests, and Greek Orthodox monks saving the world with their prayers all come alive in his writing.

Nonetheless, one project looms larger than all the rest. In 1933, at the age of eighteen, Leigh Fermor embarked on a journey by foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He reached Istanbul a year later, with his notebook filled with memories of lavish parties, hayrick rides, misunderstandings with border patrols, and other misadventures. These memories would serve as the foundation for the trilogy that formed the spine of his bibliography. 

The first volume, A Time of Gifts, wasn’t published until 1977, after forty years of conflict had changed Europe forever. This long gestation gave Leigh Fermor time to revisit the story from the other side of decades of experience and learning, and grow the story from a mere personal memoir into a eulogy for Europe itself, a last lingering look at the world that disappeared in WWII.

The book opens with a telling detail for anyone familiar with London. As Leigh Fermor’s friends drive through the rain to send him off on the banks of the Thames, they pass the chiming bells of St. Dunstan in the East End. Ten years later the church would be destroyed in the Blitz, with its walls left standing as a public garden: by the time Gifts was published, the bells had been silent for forty years.

Other vanished things fill the book’s pages. Leigh Fermor’s first stop off the boat was Rotterdam, under cover of night and hushed by snow. He wandered around the silent lanes in exultation, clinked a glass of schnapps with a pub owner arranging his glasses in glittering ranks, and finally stepped into the town’s timeworn medieval cathedral. As he stood on a chessboard of black and white flagstones, he permitted himself a brief fantasy of 17th-century Christians at worship, before heading down the icy road into Holland.

And he adds a note: “Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.”

Still, the tale’s melancholy grace is not a funereal lament. A Time of Gifts primarily recounts the author’s memories of hospitality and joy. His generous spirit spills over into eager tangents taken on both foot and on the page to drive home the understanding that neither our lives, nor our biographies, are entirely about us. 

Leigh Fermor’s boundless curiosity is perhaps his greatest asset. In the meditative A Time To Keep Silence, which chronicles his sojourns in a series of Christian monasteries, he expresses his skepticism about the consequences of a true encounter with the divine. Yet his writing describes the life of faith more vividly than many Christian writers dare. One especially evocative passage describes the spiritual warfare animating the holiest of places:

“Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrers, was rumored to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend… But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objective of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beast of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism.”

At times, the degree of detail becomes overwhelming. Leigh Fermor’s prose frequently drives readers to the dictionary to define words like “tatterdemalion” or decipher untranslated quotes in Latin. Of his sub-150 page novella The Violins of St. Jacques, one reviewer remarked: “It is madly, intoxicatingly overwritten but the sheer barbaric wealth of material in it would furnish a dozen ordinary novels.” But if Leigh Fermor’s sentences trend towards the ornate, this is because he is using them in a particular way: he wants to place us firmly where he himself has stood and marveled. 

Leigh Fermor’s sense of connection to history extends far beyond the 1930s. Civilization’s foundational texts served as his constant companions on his journeys. Lonely stretches of road were enlivened by impromptu recitations from Shakespeare and Chaucer, from Virgil and Homer, from modern English prose and from Latin poems. “Apart from their other charms, they were infallible mood changers,” he writes. A memorable anecdote from the kidnapping of German general Heinrich Kriepe – the full story occupies its own book – shows how classical texts speak across national cultures. As Leigh Fermor’s team escorts Kriepe through the mountains of Crete, dawn breaks on a snowcapped mountain, and the German begins to quote one of Horace’s odes to himself:

“Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”
(You see Mt Soracte shining white in snow)

Leigh Fermor picks up the next line of the poem, and takes the text to completion. There was a moment of silence, and then came Kriepe’s simple response: “Ach so, Herr Major.” 

Though Leigh Fermor lived into his nineties, he never finished revisiting his teenage pilgrimage to Constantinople. The third volume, The Broken Road, was eventually published posthumously in 2013 from an unpolished manuscript supplemented by excerpts from his diary. But no one ever truly finishes their own biography. 

Leigh Fermor lived his life by letting his readers experience times gone by instead of telling them what they missed. Today, as well, our disappearing culture deserves more than nostalgia. The path ahead is challenging. In the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, we see a glimmer of how the thread of history can be preserved for the next generation to carry down their own lonely roads.

David Rivers is a writer and filmmaker. He can be followed @TheNextMazer.

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