The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

An Unmapped Life

Artemis Cooper
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
(New York Review Books, 2013)

A few years ago, as a college student studying abroad, I spent some time backpacking through Western Europe. I slept on a rooftop in Greece, climbed cliffs that loomed over sleepy fishing towns, and sped across international borders on overnight trains. Though the experience was formative, exhilarating, and eye-opening, it was not quite life-defining. And my journey, though peppered with whim and a flare for the unexpected, was nonetheless well-trodden, pieced together with the help of a handful of popular guidebooks. Europe had been settled, mapped, and thoroughly explored long before my arrival.

This was not the case, however, for Patrick Leigh Fermor, the subject of the recent biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper. A writer, soldier, Grecophile, self-taught scholar, and a brilliant and charismatic conversationalist, Fermor—or Paddy to friends and Cooper—was a man who made a career for himself out of the travels of his youth. And his Europe, unlike mine, was an unfettered playground, teeming with uncertainty, waiting to embrace a vagrant scholar like him.

Written with a gently playful tone that does not attempt to heroicize its subject, the biography sets out to contextualize the life of this lesser-known British literary figure. Though the book struggles for the first quarter, leaving the reader questioning why she is following a seemingly aimless youth through childhood and early adulthood, Cooper ultimately manages to endear the reader to Fermor, skillfully teasing out the radiant personality of a man so full of life and adventure that one can’t help but admire him. Tracing the journey that eventually led Fermor to write his two best-known books, A Time of Gifts (1977)and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), as well as smaller projects, including Abducting a General, Cooper brings her subject to life, and in doing so paints a portrait of Europe as it heaved through two World Wars.

Born in London to British parents who were living primarily in Calcutta at the time, Fermor was entrusted in infancy to a family living in the English countryside, while his mother and sister made the perilous journey back to India. He spent the first five years of his life cavorting with peasant children, climbing trees, and making it home for dinner when he could. His life as he knew it was interrupted in 1919 when World War I ended, and his high-fashion mother and older sister came to retrieve him, introducing him to a life of proper schooling. Perhaps it was the freewheeling nature of his earliest years or maybe it was simply his insatiable spirit, but Fermor did not take well to school. By 18, he had failed or been kicked out of so many schools that he was left with little choice but to join the army. By this time, his parents had divorced, and his father, a brilliant scholar and scientist from whom Fermor was always distant, was deeply disappointed in him.

But Fermor didn’t want to enlist in the army, a career for which he felt ill-suited. And so, mired in the depths of despair, he came up with a lark of an idea: he would walk across Europe, from Holland to Constantinople. In 1933, with just a small amount of pocket change and arrangements to receive supplements in four-Pound increments along his journey, he set out on the adventure that would alter the course of his life.

The book follows Fermor’s adventure through Europe—a loping and charmed engagement that landed him in the homes of countless ambassadors, dukes, and estranged princesses. Navigating Europe at a time when a traveler was a welcome surprise, Fermor, though virtually penniless, traveled comfortably, keeping a series of notebooks that would eventually be used as fodder for the books that would define his career. He visited wealthy families for long stretches of time, devoured their leather-bound libraries, and steeped himself in the language and culture of the place. His endless curiosity and love of conversation made him a welcome guest in most homes, and he quickly found a lifestyle that suited him perfectly.

His first stint abroad ended abruptly several years later when England declared war on Germany. With Britain in need of soldiers, Fermor enlisted immediately and was eventually posted as an intelligence officer in Greece. There he aided the Allied forces, most notably with the capturing of a German general, a feat that made him notorious in Greece after the war. He spent the rest of the war primarily in Greece and Egypt, the second major adventure that would define his life’s path.

Drawing on Fermor’s notebooks, letters, and published books, Cooper brings to life a character who was at once a hopeless wanderer, a dreamy writer, and a man far ahead of his time in many ways (among other things, he flouted traditional education, slept around freely, and lived with his wife for decades before marrying her). Though Fermor eventually became a respected writer in Britain, his writing always favors drama over style. In A Time of Gifts, he reflects on the moment before he crosses the Hungarian border: “I found it impossible to tear myself from my station and plunge into Hungary. I feel the same disability now: a momentary reluctance to lay hands on this particular fragment of the future...this future seemed, and still seems, so full of promised marvels.” In A Time to Keep Silence, pondering life in a monastery (a locale he frequented as he found it a suitably quiet place to write), he wondered, “Can so many human instincts be seized like a handful of snakes, tied up in a sack, and locked away, alive and squirming for a lifetime?”

Cooper met Fermor as a young girl at her grandmother’s house in Greece, and the fascination that she must have felt for him then seeps into the pages of her book. Fermor lived what can best be described as an authentic life, one dictated largely by his own whims, and one that took him on an endless string of adventures well into old age. Though his writing will in all likelihood never be canonized, his work nonetheless stands as an intimate portrait of one man’s life, and a testament to a Europe in transformation that we can only dream of today.


Abby Margulies

ABBY MARGULIES is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues