Patrick Leigh Fermor, RIP

I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s name in a book by Robert Kaplan, probably Eastward to Tartary or maybe Balkan Ghosts. It was a passing mention, but later Fermor resurfaced in my favorite magazine, a 2006 profile by the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane. 

Still, I didn’t make time until last year to read one of Fermor’s books — the first of his memoir of walking across Europe in the 1930s, A Time of Gifts. It’s a magnificent book, so good that I don’t know why I haven’t dived into all his others. Perhaps anticipating how great they will be is keeping me from taking the plunge.

Fermor died last week in England. Below, I’ve collected some quotes from the various obituaries and tributes (links at the bottom):

The couple’s tables, in Mani and in Worcestershire, were reputed to be among the liveliest in Europe. Guests, both celebrities and local people, came to dine with them. The journalist and historian Max Hastings called Mr. Leigh Fermor “perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time, wearing his literacy light as wings, brimming over with laughter.”

The Independent:

After the war, he became assistant director of the British Institute in Athens. A colleague recalled the songs and laughter emerging from his office, which was a magnet for Cretans looking for a job. His boss sent him on a lecture tour to get him out of the way, which proved a success and took him all round Greece. This was the first of many journeys taken with Joan Rayner, a tall, blonde intellectual he had first met in Cairo. Daughter of the first Viscount Monsell, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty in the 1930s, she was widely travelled and a talented photographer.

The Telegraph:

Critics legitimately doubted how such details could be remembered more than half a century later (especially since Leigh Fermor had lost some of the diaries he kept, although he often gave proof of having an exceptionally retentive memory). Yet the accuracy or otherwise of particular incidents was beside the point. Leigh Fermor’s achievement was, like Proust, to have rendered the past visible, and to have preserved a civilisation which had since been swept away like leaves in a storm. The books are also a brilliantly sustained evocation of youthful exhilaration and joy, and perhaps the nearest equivalent in English to Alain-Fournier’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Le Grand Meaulnes.

The Guardian:

According to his biographer Artemis Cooper, the story of Leigh Fermor’s first expedition contains “very little analysis, it’s purely the beauty and the romance”.

“They’re very much books about memory,” she said. “They’re written by a man of 50, looking back at a boy of 18, evoking the joy of travelling while young – that amazing, honeyed time.” Although he had a visceral dislike of nazism, she continued, he wasn’t interested in the political turmoil sweeping through Europe in the 1930s. “He’s looking beyond reality to an idealised version of Europe without frontiers, seen through the eyes of painters such as Vermeer, Breughel and Altdorfer.”


After fighting against the German forces then sweeping through Greece and the Balkans, he was posted to occupied Crete in 1942. There, for two-and-a-half years, he organised resistance to the 22,000 German troops occupying the island. Disguised as a shepherd, he directed an operation to capture the island’s military commander, Major General Karl Kreipe. After snatching the general and hijacking his staff car, Leigh Fermor and his British and Cretan comrades drove through the capital city, Heraklion, successfully negotiating 14 checkpoints on route.

Max Hastings in The Daily Mail:

The writer Lawrence Durrell memorably described how Paddy once visited his villa in Cyprus: ‘After a splendid dinner by the fire he starts singing — songs of Crete, Athens, Macedonia. When I go out to refill the ouzo bottle, I find the street completely filled with people listening in utter silence and darkness. Everyone seems struck dumb. ‘One said: “Never have I heard of Englishmen singing Greek songs like this!” It is as if they want to embrace Paddy wherever he goes.’

Jan Morris writing in The Guardian:

In war as in peace, he was one of a kind. He went to no university, but he was one of God’s own autodidacts, with a prodigious gift for languages and a fascination with the most intricate, subtle and sometimes obstruse constructions of historical learning. Partly because he chose to live for much of his life in the southern Peloponnese, he was especially good at relating modern to ancient worlds, so that travelling with him, if only on the page, was like simultaneously travelling through several ages.

Harry Mount, writing in The Telegraph:

He is a lesson to all travel writers. It’s not enough to travel; you must be a writer, too.

The Washington Post:

His books, composed in a striking, original prose style, led British author Jan Morris to pronounce Mr. Leigh Fermor “beyond cavil the greatest of living travel writers.”

Colin Thubron in the New York Review of Books:

This points to a curious vacuum in Leigh Fermor’s entire oeuvre: evil is absent. It is as if his long sojourn in rural Greece after World War II had protected him from the complications of a more jaded and cynical world, and his temperament had found its perfect subject in a return to remembered boyhood in all its bravado and trust.

Just as his Greek villagers or the cowled enigmas of the Normandy monasteries are revealed as unfailingly kind and courteous (and the more eccentric, the better), so the denizens of his Transylvanian castles conform to the boy’s expectation of them. Their aristocratic inhabitants, for all we know, may have been riddled with neuroses and family feuds. But under Leigh Fermor’s affectionate pen they are splendid forever: the young women are beautiful and witty (he fell in love with one), the men are dashing, effortless shots and equestrians, or charming scholars.

It is a beguiling picture: a prelapsarian world sweetened by memory, perhaps, and by the author’s genial nature. For certainly that innocence did not belong to the continent Leigh Fermor was crossing, which had suffered an atrocious war only fifteen years before. It lay rather in the vision of the gifted youth who, ashplant in hand, went striding into his own Europe, and who would bring it back at last, still rich and vivid, after half a century.

Anthony Lane on

On the other hand, there are grounds for the tempering of grief. First, Leigh Fermor had not been well, and his sufferings are now at an end. Second, we can turn afresh to his books, and reflect not just on the wealth of his prose but on what an accomplished enjoyer he was—a rarer species than you might think, among writers of the recent past. I have never encountered a less complaining soul. Third, his existence had been, by any standards, not just a full one but also laughably long, given how often, and in what alarming circumstances, it had seemed in imminent danger of being cut short. But the riskless life—and this is not the least of the lessons that he bequeaths us—is hardly worth living, as I tried to suggest when I wrote about Leigh Fermor for this magazine, in 2006.



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