If Artemis Cooper’s book was a novel rather than a biography, you’d never believe the story.
Born in London in 1915, Patrick Leigh Fermor - Paddy to family and his legions of friends - was arguably the greatest travel writer working in the English language in the 20th century. Insatiably curious about other cultures, his ornately elegant writing style reflected his fascination with languages, and particularly their etymology. Fluent as a speaker and reader in eight languages, Fermor was a cultural magpie, delighting in the shiny, the rare and the unique.
But Paddy Fermor was no donnish wordsmith. He was a decorated war hero for orchestrating the abduction of a German general from the island of Crete in 1944. He took part in the last cavalry charge to take place on the European mainland. A renowned ladies’ man, he had a prolonged affair with a Hungarian countess, and yet, craving solitude, was often to be found holed up in remote monasteries. He wrote a novel as well as his travel books, found himself the subject of a blood feud vendetta on Crete, swam the Bosphorus in his sixties as a homage to Lord Byron, and lived the life of the renaissance man to the full.
When he died last year Paddy Fermor was mourned equally in England and Greece, although the most common reaction to the news of his death was, ‘Has he finished the third volume?’
Born into a reasonably prosperous middleclass family, Paddy was expected to achieve a respectable education and become an engineer, lawyer or doctor. Instead the young boy found himself expelled from a number of schools, as his fizzing imagination and irrepressible spirit refused to conform to rules and regulations. A magnet for trouble, he was a sponge for poetry and literature, for history, geography and philosophy. At the age of 18, living a dissolute ‘miniature Rake’s Progress’ in London as he waited to join the army at Sandhurst, he was struck by a fantastic notion: he would walk across Europe, from England all the way to his beloved Greece.
Setting out in December 1933, Fermor tramped across the continent against a backdrop of rising Fascism, walking through Holland and Germany, down through Hungary and Romania, and on through the Balkans to Constantinople. In the first book recounting his travels, A Time of Gifts (1977), Paddy tells how he would sleep in a hayrick one night, a castle the next, as he marched from Holland to Hungary. The second instalment, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), follows on as Paddy walks deep into the Balkans, and the third instalment - well, we wait still.
Long before A Time of Gifts was published, however, Fermor had established himself as the pre-eminent travel writer of his generation, with his debut The Traveller’s Tree (1950) an insightful account of Caribbean cultures, and the twinned Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) both fabulous accounts of life in the Greek Peloponnese. His feeling for the Greek character was honed by his wartime experiences as a SOE operative, when he parachuted onto Crete and spent years behind German lines liaising with the local resistance groups, or andartes, an experience that culminated in the storied account of how Paddy led the abduction of General Kreipe in 1944, at the time a propaganda coup for the Allies. Dirk Bogarde played Paddy in the film made about the abduction, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957).
Artemis Cooper is a family friend of Paddy Fermor, and knew him as a young girl. If the book reads in large parts as a breathless Boy’s Own adventure tale - indeed, it is subtitled ‘An Adventure’ - she can hardly be faulted, given the extent to which Fermor spent his life constantly in search of the next challenge, the next curiosity. By the same token, the book is more biography than it is hagiography. The fabled account of how Fermor took part in the last cavalry charge on European soil, for example, is here presented more as a story about how a precocious teenager took advantage of his gracious host while in Hungary, and stole a horse so that he could gallop along at the ragtag end of the charge. Fermor’s womanising is not glossed over, and neither are the consequences, particularly in terms of how it impacted on his long-suffering life partner, the Honourable Joan Rayner (there’s also an extensive quote from a funny but revolting letter from Fermor about the latest invasion of pubic lice).
Cooper also digs into the legend of Fermor’s time on Crete, raising questions about the practicality of the famous abduction of General Kreipe, especially given the German penchant for ruthless reprisals against the Cretan population. She also details how Fermor wasn’t universally revered among the Cretans, due to the fact that he had accidentally shot and killed one of the andartes during the war. On a return visit long after the war, she writes, Paddy would be received with great celebration in a village, while those who maintained the blood vendetta waited beyond the village borders, guns cocked.
The man who emerges from the pages of Cooper’s biography is without doubt a fascinating one, a flawed, brilliant throwback to the warrior poets of yore, a man of letters and a man of action. It’s a page-turning story right to the end, although it’s arguable that Fermor is such a ripe figure for biography, his life so dense with incident and adventure, with contrast and contradiction, that simply listing the bewildering number of his various accomplishments soaks up all Cooper’s time and effort. Beautifully researched, particularly in terms of the way Cooper points up the discrepancies between Fermor’s actual experiences and the poetic way in which he renders his memories, this biography is a solid addition to the canon of work which exists on Fermor. It may not provide very much in the way of startling new revelations for Fermor fans, but it’s an outstanding introduction to the man’s life and writing for those who have yet to make his acquaintance. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.