Xenophilia is as English as Stilton. Despite a reputation for insularity, no other nation has produced so many writers who have immersed themselves in other countries. From Borrow to Lawrence, Byron to Auden, the list is impressive. In one of the wonderful letters quoted in this perceptive, haunting and highly readable biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor called living in England ‘like living in the heart of a lettuce. I pine for hot stones and thorns and olive trees and prickly pears.’ In the opinion of his biographer Artemis Cooper he had an ‘entirely European sensibility’. In the house he built in the mountains of Mani in the Peloponnese, between olive groves and the sea, however, he sometimes missed London.
This is a book about the use and operation of charm, written, as Victorians might have said, by One Who Knew Him Well. Artemis Cooper defines his charm as a combination of ‘happiness, excitement, youth, good looks, eagerness to please and an open heart’. She might have added skill with languages and a driving literary and historical curiosity, not always apparent in the works of Norman Douglas, the Italophile travel writer to whom he was sometimes compared. At least ‘eight languages existed in his head in a state of perpetual acrobatics’. His high spirits — he once described himself as being ‘in a coma of happiness’ — and kind-heartedness helped him to understand other countries — to get under their skin — at least as well as more cynical writers.
A casual remark — ‘castles were seldom out of sight’ — expresses one effect of his charm. After 1934, aristocratic acquaintances entertained and housed him as he walked or rode along the Danube, across the Hungarian plain and into the mountains of Transylvania, on the travels described in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Wherever he went, arms opened, barriers fell. He ended up in the embrace of Balasha Cantacuzene, descendant of a princely dynasty, living in a manor house in Moldavia. He left in September 1939 to join the British army.
He had chosen well. Diaries, papers and letters recording his journey, lost by Harrods Depository, in his words ‘ached liked an old wound in wet weather’. Throughout the horrors of war and communism, however, Balasha Cantacuzene guarded a ‘green diary’ which Paddy had left behind in 1939. She returned it at their last meeting in 1965. It was invaluable for writing Between the Woods and the Water.
‘Useless as a regular officer, but will serve the army well in other ways,’ a perceptive commanding officer wrote of Paddy in 1940. Among other feats, our hero delivered, for interrogation in Cairo, a German general whom he had captured in Crete. After 1944 he lived, mainly between Athens and London, in an Anglo-Greek world as distinctive as the Anglo-Florentine world of the 19th and 20th centuries. He particularly enjoyed the ‘louche and delinquent’ dockside tavernas of the Asia Minor refugees in Piraeus.
One of his girlfriends called him ‘the most English person I have ever met’. Perhaps because of his security about his identity, he could step out of his English skin. In the 1950s he supported Greece over ‘the Cyprus question’. In contrast, his fellow Anglo-Greek Lawrence Durrell, who called him ‘the most enchanting maniac I’ve ever met’, was compared to a Gauleiter by the poet George Seferis for working for Britain in Cyprus.
The books started to appear: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), which includes an enquiry into the clash between the ‘Hellenic’ and the ‘Romaic’ aspects of Greece, between private ambition and wider aspiration, which would interest European bankers today. But it was A Time of Gifts (1977), about his walk across Europe, that made him famous. He was admired in the countries about which he wrote, as well as his own. Not for him the horrors of academic publication, where ‘a few experts stand to attention and salute in half a dozen periodicals; an art historian presents arms here and there. And the rest is silence.’
This is not just the life of a charmer. It is also a book about the process of writing. Cooper, whose admiration does not blunt her critical sense, shows how Paddy blurred the frontiers between truth and fiction. Imagination often replaced memory. In parts of some books he was ‘making a novel of his life’.
His style — described by Cooper as ‘sumptuous, precise and acute’ — was all the more enjoyable for its contrast with the bare prose of postwar Britain. Farewells were ‘shattering deracinations’. In Germany there was ‘hardly an interprandial moment’. The account of Germans eating and drinking in the Munich Hofbrauhaus is a tour de force, over several pages:
Their voices, only partly gagged by the cheekfuls of good things they were grinding down, grew louder, while their unmodulated laughter jarred the air in frequent claps. Pumpernickel and aniseed rolls and pretzels bridged all the slack moments, but supplies always came through before a true lull threatened.
Inevitably there were snipers on the sidelines. Dismissing him from the British Institute of Athens, Steven Runciman complained of ‘Paddy’s little irregularities’: too many parties, too few repaid loans. ‘A middle-class gigolo for upper-class women’, was the verdict of Somerset Maugham.
Indeed this biography could also be a handbook on how to live with a writer. Joan Eyres Monsell, whom Leigh Fermor married, took and labelled photographs as a visual reference for his books. She read them once a year, and was generous with her money. As she put down a handful of notes when leaving a restaurant, the immortal words — ‘here you are, that should be enough if you want to find a girl’ — were overheard by a friend.
Paddy’s only novel, The Violins of Saint Jacques (1953), is one of his finest works. Brilliantly plotted and playfully written (tree roots are ‘like dancing partners in a waltzing forest’), at a faster pace than later books, it is a portrait of a vanished French colony, Saint Jacques des Alises, ‘the glory of the Antilles’, in 1900. It is also a novel of aristocratic decline, which anticipates aspects of Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy and Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It describes the impact on a private love affair — between a Count’s daughter Josephine de Serindan and the governor’s son Marcel Sciocca — of the political feud between French royalists and the Third Republic. It culminates in one of the most dramatic ball scenes in an English novel, which ends in an eruption: ‘It looked as if the volcano was conspiring with the Count to add lustre to his rout.’ In the end, with ‘a deafening clap of thunder as if the world had been blown in two’, the volcano destroys the island. All that remains is the sound of violins, heard every carnival from beneath the waves.
All Leigh Fermor’s books are love letters to foreign lands — Caribbean islands, France, Austria, Hungary or Greece. The loss of his projected books on Crete and Romania is, for admirers, a tragedy. Hopefully it will soon be mitigated by the publication of more letters, his portraits of friends, and his 1963 account of ‘A Youthful Journey’ from Orsova to the Black Sea.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012