Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is a straitlaced birth-to-death account of the life of one of the last century's most colourful figures.
Biography of legendary travel writer Patrick Fermor is tactful
Patrick Leigh Fermor:
Scholar, wanderer, war hero, prose stylist: Patrick Leigh Fermor was all of these things. In 1933, at the age of 18, he walked across Europe, from Holland into Germany, and then into the lands of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, experiences he would recount in two famed travelogues. During the Second World War, he orchestrated the kidnapping of a German general while fighting with the Greek resistance in Crete. At 69, he swam the Hellespont.
Impossibly handsome and charming, Fermor delighted in textures, experiences, scholarly flourishes. His writing is alive with sounds, smells and the crisp delineation of characters and landscapes.
There was more than a touch of Byron about Fermor (a quality noted by many others). Like the poet before him, Fermor was infatuated with Greece. Indeed, his love of Greek culture took him deep into the some of the country's most forbidding worlds.
Fermor's life was encrusted in legend. He so memorably burnished the outlines of his life in his own writings, a biography seems almost superfluous. But Artemis Cooper's fine study of one of the 20th century's greatest travel writers gives the lie to that claim.
He lived until he was 96, had countless friends and moved in smart circles. The swirl of parties and women is dizzying, and a little repetitive at times.
Cooper herself was close with Fermor, and she does not deeply examine certain moments in his life - she is tactful, for example, about his eccentric marriage - yet she has written a solid, well-researched biography that will stand as a notable supplement to Fermor's own writings.
For all his gifts and abundantly blessed long life, Fermor found writing a devilishly tortuous process. Writing demanded focus, solitude, concentration; but there was always so much living to do. His own perfectionism slowed him down. It would take him nearly 40 years to put the European walk into book form. When A Time of Gifts (1977) arrived at his publishers, it was practically scarred - endlessly revised, corrections scrawled in red ink, additions pockmarking its margins - from Fermor's labours.
Cooper goes gently on her subject throughout. She is generous, even in pointing out the fabrications of the European travelogues. But to score Fermor for making up facts is to be too literal minded. Fermor wanted to evoke a mood, a place, a setting; and to do this he had to rearrange and replace. In certain instances, he did not want to give offence.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is a straitlaced, mostly conventional birth-to-death account. Cooper puts Fermor in his proper context. If he was prone to a melancholy restlessness, Fermor enjoyed a rich, adventurous life. Some of his anecdotes may read too good to be true, but who would wish it differently?