I must have first read a novel by John Fowles back in the mid-70s. It would have been The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first time I ever encountered the tricks of construction and perspective that have since become common currency among postmodernists, though they have seldom been done better. Then, later, I picked up a paperback of the revised edition of The Magus before it was officially published, which gave that magnificent novel an illicit thrill to my younger self. Since then I’ve become, inevitably, a fan of his work. (Though not unquestioning: The Aristos is unreadable, and Mantissa is self-indulgent.) Now there’s The Journals, Volume One (Cape, 2003), which takes us from Oxford in the late-40s to Lyme Regis in the mid-60s. Right from the word go he is clearly a man determined to be a writer (and very sure of his own talents), but we are three-quarters of the way through the book abefore he finally manages to sell The Collector to Tom Maschler at Cape, and when the diaries end he has just sold The Magus, though it hasn’t yet appeared.
He comes across as arrogant, often uses the word ‘priggish’ about himself (with some justification), behaves at times abominably towards his wife Elizabeth, and spends an awful lot of time bemoaning the fact that no-one recognises his genius. And yet, in flashes, genius is there. The writing, rather mechanical and uninvolved before, suddenly comes alive in the early 50s when he goes to Spetsai for two years to teach (the setting, eventually, for The Magus). His observations of nature are superb; his comments on the passing political and artistic scene amount to little more than a grumpy old man avant la lettre; and the life story of grinding poverty and sudden wealth would in most people be uninteresting. But this is a large book that I read remarkably quickly for me. I’ve never yet read the journals or letters of a favoured writer that did not reveal feet (and often shins, knees and thighs) of clay; but they also reveal what makes him a writer I so love to read.
As for Patrick Leigh Fermor, I first encountered his work in the late 70s when a book club had a special offer on A Time of Gifts. I was enchanted by this story of a 19-year-old who, in 1934, set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, and who, as the journey went on found himself taken up by the last pre-war remnants of the landed aristocracy of central Europe. The story, continued in Between the Woods and the Water but still not completed, is a fascinating glimpse of Ruritania. And it was marked by a precise, old-fashioned writing style that was clearly in love with words, and a way of capturing the social and cultural context of everything he saw. It turned me, for a while, into a fan of travel writing, so that when I started reviewing professionally I often found myself doing travel books until I discovered how rare were Leigh Fermor’s particular skills. (It was a long time after I fell in love with his writing that I discovered it was Leigh Fermor who kidnapped the German general on Crete, the true story behind Ill Met By Moonlight.)
Now there is an anthology, Words of Mercury (John Murray, 2003), that includes extracts from his various books, but also various articles, book reviews, letters etc that have not been collected elsewhere. It’s like sinking into a hot bath of words, wonderful, rich, idiosyncratic, vivid, colourful, enchanting. He is, of course, a dreadful snob, dropping names like Louis MacNeice and Nancy Mitford as if everyone had them coming round to tea. And the precision of his writing, the formality of it, feels more old-fashioned than ever; it’s almost impossible to read without affecting a crisp, upper-class accent. Yet he clearly has an enviable ability to get on with everyone he meets: there is a glorious description of a night he spent in a cave with Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen, with bottles of raki going round and wild music and suggestive dances.
If you’ve never read Leigh Fermor, then you’ve never discovered what good travel writing is all about. This is a brilliant introduction.
First published at Livejournal, 2 February 2004.