Artemis Cooper has authored and edited 12 books. Her most recent work, “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” examines the life of the travel writer and Cretan SOE resistance fighter. The book was selected by the New York Times as one of 2013’s “100 Most Notable Books of the Year.” It was also a nominee for Waterstones Book of the Year. Patrick Leigh Fermor – “Paddy” to his friends and devotees – spent the last decades of his life living in Kardamyli in the Mani before his death in 2011 at the age of 96.
What’s your travel experience in Greece? Do you prefer any particular region?
I hardly know Greece at all – I have never traveled north of Athens, and the only part of the Peloponnese I know is the Mani. I do love that region, it still feels so remote and untouched. And I am sure that even if I traveled to every corner of Greece (which I would love to do) I would never come across a beach as beautiful as the one below Paddy’s house at Kardamyli.
In “Cairo in the War,” “Paris After the Liberation” and “An Adventure” you touch on figures that have been central to your own life. What are the challenges associated with that kind of historical retelling?
Figures, known or unknown, are fine – nothing very hard there. You just tell that bit of their story. As for history, the most important thing there is to get the facts straight. The real challenge with “Cairo” was the structure – that really was a brute. “Paris” was modeled on “Cairo,” in so far as you take a city over a period of a few years – but within that time frame you’ve got lots of different things happening, at different times, in different parts of the city. The difficulty is to weave them into a cogent narrative. That could be by theme, but I think there has to be a chronological element or you lose the narrative drive – and if you lose that, you are in danger of drowning in a mass of detail.
How would you characterize Paddy’s writing style? Where did it come from? Where do you see it going in contemporary letters?
Paddy’s style is inspired by many writers, but I’d say the most important are Norman Douglas, from whom he learnt the great art of digression (I find him unreadable, but Paddy thought “Old Calabria” was the best travel book ever written). Marcel Proust, who explores the nature of memory: Almost all Paddy’s books are about memory, in one way or another. Walter Pater, for imagery. All the Romantic poets, most of whose works he knew by heart, for their knowledge of rhyme and alliteration and the music of words. And Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French writer who taught Paddy a lot about Catholic monasticism, and mysticism – he is very present in of “A Time to Keep Silence.”
Where do I see all that going now, in contemporary letters?
Absolutely nowhere. Very few writers still read so widely and keep so much history, literature and cultural knowledge in their heads – now we just look it up on Wiki, but we should never mistake mere information for knowledge. Also, the general trend – what is admired – is not an elaborately discursive style like Paddy’s, but something spare and gritty, that says as much as it can in as few words as possible. Many people have told me that they find Paddy’s books dense and overwritten, full of purple passages and packed with visual descriptions and historical digressions that they think they don’t need. But when “Mani” came out, in 1958, no one found it particularly challenging.
In “Roumeli” (1966) Paddy laments the emergence of a new Greece:
“Economists rejoice, but many an old Athenian, aware of the havoc that tourism has spread in Spain and France and Italy, lament that this gregarious passion, which destroys the object of its love, should have chosen Greece as its most recent, most beautiful, perhaps its most fragile victim. They know that in a few years it has turned dignified islands and serene coasts into pullulating hells. In Athens itself, many a delightful old tavern has become an alien nightmare of bastard folklore and bad wine.”
It’s almost ironic that he became a magnet for this kind of tourism later in his life. The Greece Lonely Planet guide recommends a visit to his house in Kardamyli. How did he react to all that?
I heard a story about John Craxton, who did the cover for all Paddy’s books – and he also did a map for “Roumeli,” which came out in 1966. Craxton had put in all the villages Paddy had mentioned in the text, and was very annoyed when Paddy started moving them or taking them out altogether. Craxton complained that what Paddy was doing would make the map inaccurate, but Paddy said: “Don’t you see? I don’t want anyone to find these villages, or they’ll be ruined!” Of course he regretted the tidal wave of tourism, but he also saw that it had brought prosperity and opportunities previously unimaginable.
What’s the current state of the Kardamyli residence?
The contents have been inventoried and removed to safety, and sooner or later work will start to replace the shutters and window frames. Otherwise the house is in good repair, and it is cleaned and maintained regularly by Elpida Beloyannis, who was Paddy’s housekeeper. In the fullness of time the Benaki [Museum in Athens] plans to make it into a center for literary and academic endeavor, as Paddy and Joan wished… but it will take time. A lot of time.
Did Paddy ever support a Greek political party? His books can be frustratingly apolitical, but you may locate certain leanings in “Mani” and “Roumeli.” A fascination with royalism, romanticizing Greek irredentism…
Paddy was totally apolitical; and beyond a visceral hatred of Nazism and communism. I suppose you could say he was an instinctive conservative and royalist, yes. He was very careful never to express a political opinion in Greece, because fundamentally he never relinquished his English identity, and he didn’t see Greek politics as being any of his business. He lived in the Mani as an Englishman: The Times was delivered daily, and much as he loved all Greek food and wine he could not do without his tea, marmalade, whisky, Marmite and digestive biscuits.
How do you think he would dissect the current Greek fiscal crisis? Did he offer any thoughts on it before he died?
I am so glad he never really hoisted in how dire the situation was – by 2008 he was almost blind, and his world had shrunk to his books and his few remaining friends. If asked, I think he would have said that he had absolute faith in the Greek spirit: They had endured and overcome the Nazis, and this crisis too will pass.
You’re now the authority on all matters PLF. Is it a mixed blessing? How do you reassert your own voice in all of this?
Oh no, the blessing is utterly unmixed and I love every moment I’m talking about Paddy. I’ve given dozens of talks about him, and had no trouble asserting my voice at all – in fact it gets stronger every time.
Plans for the future?
Oh yes, but I’m not going to do any more on Paddy: I think it’s time I left the field for others. His papers are all in the John Murray Archive in the National Library of Scotland, and many people will be working on them and writing books about him in the years to come. As for me, I am writing the authorized biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, a wonderful novelist who sadly died two days ago. She led an extraordinary life, and I’m really excited to be working on such an absorbing project.