A lifelong love of Greece recalled

After the war, and his brief Caribbean sojourn, Fermor realized that his love of Greece had tied him forever to the country’s fortunes. He lived for a time on Evia, then Ithaca and Hydra. Soon afterward he began his travels in the far corners of the Greek mainland, which led to the publication of his two masterpieces: «Mani» and «Roumeli.» Accompanied by the photographer (and his wife-to-be) Joan Rayner, Fermor set off with this goal in mind: «To situate and describe present-day Greece of the mountains and islands in relationship to their habitat and history.» Despite having been warned not to attempt to penetrate into the Deep Mani, Fermor and Rayner defiantly set out on foot and mule, bus and caique in search of an authentic Greek world. The Mani was a strange, combative place, to be sure. Most people lived in pyrgi, stone towers that were more fortress than domicile, but it was fantastical at the same time, rich in history and bravery (no part of Greece played a more conspicuous and valuable role in the War of Independence). With its code of honor and hospitality, its love of freedom, the Mani was also pulsing with life, colorful in speech, custom, ritual and superstition. The book that came out of this expedition into the heart and soul of the Mani became an instant classic. Similar praise was bestowed on «Roumeli,» Fermor and Rayner’s portrait of the northeast corner of Greece, including Mesolongi where Lord Byron (one of Fermor’s heroes) fought and died for Greece, when it was published eight years later. Whether writing about the sarakatsans, the nomadic shepherds, «self-appointed Ishmaels,» who inhabited the mountaintops, speaking in a secret tongue, or the origins of the local Karaghiozi puppet shows, or the Meteora monasteries, or the «stone-age banquet» (celebrating an arranged marriage) to which they were invited, Fermor’s prose shines and shimmers like beaten gold. In November, 2004, the British Guild of Travel Writers concurred, bestowing on Fermor its Lifetime Achievement Award. Fermor won another important prize in 2004: a second Gennadius Trustees’ Award for his support of things Greek. At the ceremony in Athens, the previous recipient of the award, writer/translator Edmund Keeley, said, «I look upon Mr Fermor as one of my first mentors, a man of letters who taught me, perhaps more than any other Philhellene, the best way to write about the second country we have both come to love and to celebrate in our work.» In a recent essay, Fermor admitted that much of what he first encountered and experienced in Greece has disappeared: «Progress has altered the face and character of the country,» he commented. And as for tourism, »it destroys the object of its love.» That said, Fermor still continues to write about Greece. In his 90s, living alone in the pyrgos he built in the Outer Mani – Joan died in 2000, of injuries suffered in a fall – he toils away on the final book of his Hook of Holland to Constantinople trilogy, the one that deals with his first years in Greece, working from notebooks, maps and memory. In a way Fermor is a chronicler of a bygone age, a rememberer of things past. The Greece he reveres may have died but he battles with the last strength in him to keep its spirit alive.