Patrick Leigh Fermor on horseback at Baleni, Moldavia Photo: Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper (John Murray)
- Reviewed by Charles Moore
The single most famous story about Patrick Leigh Fermor is his kidnap of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete in 1944. The fugitive party of two British officers and three Cretans spent an uncomfortable night on the slopes of Mount Ida. As the dawn broke, and lit the mountain, Leigh Fermor heard the General muttering the first line of Horace’s Ode to Thaliarchus: ‘See, Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow.’
Leigh Fermor recognised the Latin, and quoted the rest of the poem. As he later put it, ‘…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’
This moment of ancient, shared civilisation overcoming a terrible present is a great theme. It is the subject, for example, of Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion, in which a French and a German officer on opposite sides in the First World War feel that they share what really matters.
Leigh Fermor’s long life (he died last year aged 96) was full of dash, variety and colour. He wrote beautifully, and entranced beautiful women. He was physically brave, and travelled widely, intrepidly and observantly. He was, in a self-taught way, learned, and a superb linguist. He could sing, dance, compose impromptu poetry and make everyone laugh. He and his wife Joan built a house in Greece of such character and interest that John Betjeman called it ‘a book in itself’.
He was a war hero and, like Byron, a model for many aspiring writers greedy to combine art and life, rather than choosing between one and the other. I knew Paddy a bit myself, and I have never met a man with more charm, by which I mean the ability to create in his interlocutor the feeling of pleasure and possibility. But was it all a grande illusion, a wonderful holiday from reality?
Artemis Cooper was a family friend of Leigh Fermor, and loved him dearly. This excellent, well-sourced book is sympathetic to him. But she is aware of how he could be painted differently, and states the case. Was he, for example, a show-off and a sponger (he was chronically short of money and depended heavily on Joan’s private income)?
Was he, as Somerset Maugham put it, ‘a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women’? Was he, both in life and art, a sort of Peter Pan, shying away from anything grown-up (such as fatherhood), always looking for a Wendy so that he could go on having smiling, heartless fun?
He was once asked to contribute to a book about great parties in history with the astonishing title of Memorable Balls: does the phrase fit the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor? There are certainly moments when it feels like it. The information that Joan used to give him cash so that he could visit prostitutes is one. So – though there is artistic reason for it – is his tendency to present the product of his imagination as fact. Some even argue that the famous kidnap was a piece of useless swagger – what Kreipe called a ‘hussar-stunt’ – which ensured that the Cretans, in reprisal, were treated even more bestially by the Germans.
One cannot ignore these criticisms, and Leigh Fermor felt them himself. Like many delightful, gregarious companions, he doubted whether he deserved to be loved. But, in Artemis Cooper’s convincing reading, he wins in the end….
Full review in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/charlesmoore/9593267/A-man-so-charming-he-won-over-his-hostage.html
Jan Morris on this biography of Patrick Lee Fermor in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/biographyandmemoirreviews/9650909/Patrick-Leigh-Fermor-by-Artemis-Cooper-review.html
Review in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/21/leigh-fermor-adventure-cooper-review
Obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/11/books/patrick-leigh-fermor-travel-writer-dies-at-96.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Wikipedia on Patrick Leigh Fermor: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/11/books/patrick-leigh-fermor-travel-writer-dies-at-96.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Buy this book: http://garrattpublishing.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=29