A chronicler of a bygone age a rememberer of things past

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor today is both an exhilarating and depressing experience. Exhilarating because of the depth and brilliance of his prose, depressing because the Greece he portrays so memorably has been hammered to dust by the march of time. Fermor, who was knighted in 2003, is best known in Greece and in his native Britain, where he was born 92 years ago. «The Traveller’s Tree,» published in 1950, dealt with the journey he made around the Caribbean islands in 1947-48. It won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature, and established him as a writer of note. His next two books were «A Time to Keep Silence» (1952), which described his stay in various European monasteries, and «The Violins of Saint-Jacque» (1956), a novel. A decade later, he published two books on Greece, «Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese» and «Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece,» which quickly earned him a reputation as the pre-eminent non-native writer on 20th century Greece. Fermor’s attachment to Greece goes deep. His first experience of the country dated back to 1933, when, as a rebellious and untamed 19-year-old, he dropped out of Sandhurst and set out on a walking tour of Europe whose eventual destination was Constantinople. Envisioning himself as «a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots,» he embarked, in midwinter, on a journey that eventually spanned three years and took him through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and, eventually, Greece. Remarkably, Fermor did not write about his picaresque adventures in pre-war Europe until many years later. «So when ‘A Time of Gifts’ appeared in 1977 and ‘Beneath the Winds and the Water’ in 1986, the life of the mid-30s that he described had been utterly destroyed,» his biographer Artemis Cooper has noted, «and much of the land he had walked over was in the grip of communism for years. Yet his memory recreated this world with an astonishing freshness and immediacy, and recaptured the young man he was then: full of curiosity, optimism and joy in the vibrant diversity of the world.» The concluding volume of Fermor’s trilogy is scheduled for publication (by John Murray Ltd) in early 2007. Fermor made it to Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935, and then crossed south into Greece. He spent time in a monastery on Mt Athos, got caught up later in a Royalist vs Republican battle in Macedonia, arriving finally in Athens, where he met the great love of his life, the Romanian Balasha Cantacuzene. They went to Poros and lived together in an old watermill, where he wrote and she painted. When the money ran out, they retreated to her decaying family home in Baldeni, Moldova. Fermor described his life there in an essay published in «Words of Mercury»: «Snow reached the windowsills and lasted till spring. There were cloudy rides under a sky full of rooks; otherwise, it was an indoors life of painting, writing, reading, talk and lamp-lit evenings with Mallarme, Apollinaire, Proust and Gide handy; there was Les Enfants Terribles and Le Grand Meaulnes and L’Aiglon read aloud; all these were early debarbarizing steps in beguiling and unknown territory.» Fermor was not quite the barbarian he fancied himself. Despite having rejected higher education, he was already something of a self-taught polymath. He spoke five European languages and was knowledgeable about art, history, architecture, geography, sociology, religion, fashion, etymology, cartography, heraldry and many other subjects, all of which he had absorbed through voracious reading. As he wrote for «The Pleasure of Reading» (ed. Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury, 1992): «When the miracle of literacy happened at last, it turned an unlettered brute into a book-ridden lunatic,» he confessed. «Till it was light enough to read, furious dawn-watches ushered in days flat on hearth rugs or grass, in ricks or up trees, which ended in stifling torchlit hours under bedclothes.» (1) Willard Manus is a freelance journalist who lives in the US and spends time in Greece.