Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Hero Sings Himself

by Eric Byrd

[the heroic] outlook which regarded action as the main end of life and attached to it an ideal which demanded that a man must make the utmost of his body and his mind.

C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience

Productimage-picture-the-broken-road-393Incomplete and unfinished at Fermor's death in 2011, ending mid-sentence hundreds of miles from
Istanbul (Constantinople he always called it), destination of the famous walk the eighteen year old began in Rotterdam in 1933, the manuscript of The Broken Road was knit together by his biographer Artemis Cooper and the writer Colin Thubron. The draft title of this review was “Patrick Leigh Fermor at Journey's End” – but I realized that was pat, a cheap nod to the posthumous publication, and what is more, false to the story the book tells – the story of a beginning. This last volume of the trilogy has all the freshness and exuberance of the two previous books. It shows Fermor at the end of his peculiar education – the history of Europe studied in huts and in castles, in folk example and in manor archives – and poised on a long life of further adventure. In The Broken Road he enters the Balkans, and the Greater Greek world that would become the focus of his linguistic and ethnopoetic passions, the stage of his military heroism, and his permanent home.

A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) are famous for the digressions in which Fermor, if, say, recollecting a visit to a gallery, climbs into the portals of pictures and stalks around the sitters and figures, drawing elaborate reveries from costume and mien; or if on the march, he drops back, lets the rucksacked youth recede a little down the road, and conjuring from an adult erudition fills the foreground with phantom processions: the migrations of tribes and tongues, nomad cavalcades, royal progresses, coronations and beheadings, triumphs and massacres, the lugging of siege trains toward Vienna.

The best digressions of The Broken Road unfurl in Bulgaria – over a mosque, and over a complex of ruined Slavo-Byzantine churches. Karlovo's Muslims call up the pageant of Ottoman conquest – “Anatolian infantry, wild Asian troops of horse, Bedouin cavalry, mounted archers from eastern deserts, contingents of Albanians, Tartars and Tcherkesses, Negroes from Africa and, under their strange emblems and their fan-plumed helmets, the Janissaries” – which winds down to quiet scenes observed around the mosque. His host the hodja sits “cross-legged and absorbed in prayer,” raises his hands, “his palms uppermost, on either side of his body for a few seconds, as though he were offering a light and invisible gift.” Fermor naps and wakes at sunset to the hodja calling from the minaret: “The last hoop of the prayer had expanded to infinity. The famous words faded from the air and from these infidel mountains. The parapet…was empty; the invisible muezzin was already halfway down his dark spiral.”

Word of the murals of Tarnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the dominant Balkan kingdom of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, its Czars “rivals and imitators of the Byzantines,” caused Fermor to break his easy southward track to Istanbul and turn north, up and over the Balkan Mountains. In Tarnovo he made friends with a grocer's son, a fiery nationalist student, and together they climbed to a windy ridge planted with the monastic mementos of the Bulgar Czars. Loitering in the churches, they craned their necks “to peer into the pictorial vaults and cupolas and domes” at the haloed ranks of “prophets and paladins and anchorites and holy men and headsmen” who stared down with “a thousand unblinking eyes.” Suddenly “the dim light of this vaulted world of interlocking haloes grew dinner still” – a storm arrives, rages, and passes. Fermor and his companion stepped out from the shelter of a twelfth century porch to see the Tarnovo's “amphitheater of hills” rinsed of late summer's haze and dust. The stones gleamed like mineral nuggets, the dun ploughlands were a “deep chocolate,” and the bushes and flowers and herbs, having shaken off their “long trance,” released “a confusion of scents” which roved the air.

The bravura passage we miss is a description of Istanbul – a capriccio of Constantinople's ruins. Fermor's route through Rumania and the Balkans, lands in which Wallachian princes, Moldovan voivodes, Bulgar Czars and Serb Krajs had once created “miniature, semi-barbaric replicas of Byzantium,” was full of heralds of Constantinople like the frescoes of Tarnovo. But his time in Istanbul is documented in six short diary entries appended to the incomplete main manuscript. And Cooper cannot enlarge much upon the diary's account. He was there for most of January 1935. He was again “taken up” by an elegant consular circle. He failed to look up Thomas Whittmore – the American Byzantist he met in a Sofia café among a group of cultivated Bostonians that Fermor said looked like they “belonged much more to the deck of an Edith Wharton yacht or to the cypress-walk of a palazzo in Henry James that to this hot little Balkan capital” – who was at the time uncovering mosaics in the Haghia Sophia.

I like to imagine him taken up by the trilogy's culminating noctambulistic smart set, the highest-spirited and most sensuously erudite of the entire journey: after a day lazing in the host's library, hungover yet casually assimilating the corpus of orientalisme, especially relishing Gautier's and Nerval's accounts of the city, he joins and exhorts whiskey-sprung, lantern-lit hijinks in the spooky corridors and vast vaulted magazines of the ruinous seaward walls. He drinks raki with boatmen and learns their songs. Watches a yalı burn to the ground. Dines standing at a fish vendor, loiters on the Galata Bridge, leans from the rails, entranced by ferry traffic as night falls, and Süleymaniye silhouetted on its hill. And I imagine the purple patch he might have based on that unearthed stretch of mosaic pavement – a mythological bestiary, griffons, centaurs, mixed with touching realistic scenes of hunting and husbandry – that once linked the ruined Seaside Palace to the unreachably buried Great Palace (it's under the Blue Mosque). Or the prose poem he might have made of the church of the Holy Savior in Chora, the jewel of Byzantine churches, its interior a glorious mosaic cinema of the genealogy, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it was the repository of the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, which monks carried along the Land Walls during the final siege, to inspirit defenders. Neither the pavement nor the church had been excavated in 1935 – but this was a flight of fancy anyway.

* * *

Productimage-picture-patrick-leigh-fermor-an-adventure-362Cooper's chapters on World War Two and the immediate postwar Greece are the book's most illuminating. Though denied his first wish, a commission in the Irish Guards, Fermor's assignment to the Special Operations Executive and occupied Crete called on his characteristic powers. He was allowed to design and orchestrate reckless and sophisticated feats. His charm, resourcefulness and linguistic abilities were invaluable for cultivating Cretan resistance leaders and disaffected Italian officers. His flair for costume and clowning came in handy when he had to disguise himself as a shepherd – complete with cork-blackened moustache and eyebrows – and in the famous abduction of General Kreipe: during the hair-raising drive through twenty-two German checkpoints in the hijacked car, with Kreipe bound in back, Fermor was in the passenger seat wearing the general's cap pulled down low. At the last checkpoint before the friendly mountains he had to irritably growl “Generals Wagen!” to cow a sentry who looked ready to check papers.

It was important to him that the Cretans had held off the Ottomans for two centuries after the fall of Constantinople – and there he was, fighting another invader alongside proud mountain men whose homeland he would later describe, in Roumeli (1966), as “an epitome of Greece,” where “Greek virtues and vices, under sharper mountains and a hotter sun, reach exasperation point.” Roumeli contains a beautiful recollection of SOE and resistance fighters sheltered in caves. The illiterate shepherds intone the Erotokritos, the seventeenth-century Cretan-dialect romance “a thousand lines longer than the Odyssey,” and Fermor dozes, and wakes further along, to find Erotokritos “in yet another encounter with the Black Knight of Karamania.”

In 1946 he took a post at the British Institute in Athens. A colleague recalled that he was not at work very often – “and when he was he seemed to be throwing a party, sitting with his feet on his desk and entertaining a stream of Cretan visitors.” He was of more use in the field, speaking to packed halls about the war. The fame of his exploits and the esteem in which the Cretans held him led an American officer to declare Fermor “the best bit of propaganda [the British] have got” in a Greece rapidly sliding towards civil war. Fermor's returns to Crete were strenuous itineraries of festive reunion, shadowed by a blood feud: the nephew of a fighter he had killed in an accidental shooting appeared, with rifle and binoculars, in the hills above one of the visited villages.

In Cooper's account of this time many of the Mediterranean-minded English writers appear. Of Fermor C.M. Bowra had nothing to say beyond the obvious (“unfit for office work”), and the slanderous (in a waspish epigram he called Fermor Princess Cantacuzene‘s gigolo). Lawrence Durrell, then based on Rhodes, visited the ruins of Kameiros with Fermor, his wife Joan and his SOE comrade Xan Fielding (to whom the “Introductory Letter” of A Time of Gifts is addressed). After a day of guano-spotted and cobwebby crawls through the ancient sewers, and nude posing on sacrificial altars and atop wobbly Doric columns, Durrell wrote Henry Miller that Fermor was “a wonderful mad Irishman,” “quite the most enchanting maniac I've ever met.” Cyril Connolly appears twice, at first deeply depressed, in love with Joan, and later on his deathbed, and passes unquoted, though his line from The Unquiet Grave, “The civilized are those who get more out of life than the uncivilized, and for this we are not likely to be forgiven,” echoes through the book.

Of course Byron looms. Cooper calls Fermor a direct descendant of the Philhellenes, “those passionate young men from all over Europe” who took up the struggles of an idealized Greece “with copies of Byron in their pockets.” A generation earlier Rupert Brooke had also set out for Istanbul, as an officer in the Gallipoli Campaign, or as it was known in 1915, the “Constantinople Expedition.” Fated to sicken before the landings and be buried under a pile of rough marble in an olive grove on Skyros, Brooke while he lived was thrilled by the prospect of crossing storied seas to fight in the Homeric Hellespont, possessed by a dream of war Alan Moorhead likened to “a Grecian frieze, the man entirely heroic and entirely beautiful, the best in the presence of death.”