Patrick Leigh Fermor is rapidly turning into the sort of writer who is more prolific in death than in life. Between his first book, The Traveller’s Tree in 1950 and his death in 2011 he produced ten books, four of them in the first decade. But after Roumeli in the mid-60s the gaps between books grew ever longer, and there are numerous reports of publishers and commissioning editors tearing their hair out trying to extract something, anything from him. It is notable that the last three books published in his lifetime were all at least partly the work of someone else. Three Letters from the Andes (1991) was precisely that, three long letters that he had written during a visit to South America some years before and that someone else shaped into a book. Words of Mercury (2003) was a collection of previously published pieces edited by Artemis Cooper. And In Tearing Haste (2008) is a collection of the letters PLF and Deborah Devonshire exchanged throughout their long friendship, again put together by someone else.
Yet since his death three books have appeared under his name. The Broken Road is the long delayed concluding volume of his trilogy begun with A Time of Gifts, but it took two people to wrestle the different bits of it into a whole. Then there was Abducting a General, also constructed from different sources, which was PLF’s account of the famous exploit where he abducted a German General from Crete during the latter stages of the Second World War. And now there is Dashing for the Post, another collection of his letters, for PLF was a great letter writer, often at the expense of any other writing – many of the letters contain apologies for not finishing the next book, or more often describe how he’s writing this letter instead of working on the book. He had procrastination down to such an art that it must be in some way admirable. In the same posthumous timespan, by the way, there is also Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF, and there are apparently two collections of his letters in Greek (though I have no idea if there is any overlap between these and the two collections we have in English).
I latch on to these books for reasons that are at best curious, and that I need to re-examine with each new volume. You see, the more I find out about him, the less I like him. I think I would have hated him in person.
He was, to start with, the most terrible snob. Practically the only people mentioned in any of these letters are rich, famous or titled, preferably all three, though they are always referred to familiarly by their first name or, more often, a nickname. The only people noticed in these letters who do not fall into one of these categories (other than the handful of local people who cook or clean or garden or build for him at his home in Greece) are Cretans. His time in Crete during the war was a mythic time when everyone was a hero, and ever afterwards he is lauded or feasted or cheered or made the godfather of every single Cretan who ever lived, or at least so we must assume from these letters. To be honest I prefer the naked snobbery of the rest of his letter to the sense of bathing in glory that emerges every time he mentions Crete.
Then he was a persistent freeloader. For most of his live, until his wife received a legacy that allowed them to build their own home in Greece, other people seemed to exist primarily to provide him with free accommodation. He is forever moving from stately home to castle to someone’s country cottage or Mediterranean retreat, and there are lots of letters basically saying: I’m looking for somewhere to stay for a few weeks, any recommendations.
He was a philanderer, having a string of affairs with rich and beautiful women (John Huston’s daughter for one) whom he invariably treated badly. There are any number of letters here that are apologies to women he has treated appallingly; the apology often coming after a long description of some wonderful adventure he’s just had where everyone he met loved him, the apology itself being phrased in such a way that it is easy to miss. And all the while he’s putting off the patient Joan, his constant companion for some 20-odd years before he finally agreed to marry her in the late 60s.
And he was an egoist. The letters are full of reports of how everyone was enchanted by his dancing until dawn, how he entertained the company with his wonderful renditions of obscure folk songs, how he exchanged erudite jokes, often in Latin or other languages. Anyone who works so tirelessly to be the centre of attention must be tiresome indeed.
Ridiculously, the one person in all of this that I cheered was William Somerset Maugham. PLF once got himself invited to dinner at the great man’s home in the South of France and made some artless joke that imitated Maugham’s stammer. At the end of the evening, the only time that Maugham spoke directly to PLF, he said: You’ll be staying in such-and-such a room. I won’t see you at breakfast, you’ll be gone by then. I wonder how many others wanted to say the same thing to the insufferable PLF yet dared not?
And yet, despite all of that, I read his books, his letters, avidly, not because of the writer but because of what is written. For a start his prose is wonderful: honed, beautiful, vivid. I aspire to write so well. Everybody should. But it is not just that he is one of the finest prose writers of his age, what wins you over is the elan, the vigor, the enthusiasm with which he writes about everything. You hate the fact that he goes fox hunting, yet you love his enjoyment of chasing across the countryside on horseback, or his sly delight in slipping away from the pack for a moment to visit an old Devon churchyard where he finds the grave of T. Cobley, within an easy horseride of Widdecombe Fair. (Of course, he then has to describe how he entertained an appreciative house party by singing Widdecombe Fair in Italian …).
The trouble is, of course, that there is easy erudition (on display, for instance, in a long account of his search for a pair of Greek slippers once owned by Lord Byron), but there is also showing off (quotations in a multitude of languages taken from a host of obscure poems). It was clearly part of his self image that he had read absolutely everything; whether he had or not isn’t actually that easy to tell.
Yet the landscape is always so sharply, described. Late in the book he describes taking a wrong turn as he scrambled alone down a Greek mountain, and every spiny bush, every jagged rock has its own emotion. Everything from damp English countryside after rain to the glare of the sun off the Mediterranean to a Greek cafe under the shade of an old plane tree. It all startles and delights: you can tell how much it means to him because he conveys that pleasure and wonder and sensory overload as few other writers I have ever encountered.
I read these books because I have to. As I open each new book I want to hold my nose over the writer in order to plunge into the writing.