Patrick Leigh Fermor seems to have led a charmed life. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, after living an unorthodox life on his own terms. Leigh Fermor was a war hero, serving as an intelligence officer on Crete and operating throughout Greece during World War II. He now is best known as a travel writer -- indeed, his [b:A Time of Gifts|253984|A Time of Gifts|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1321602492s/253984.jpg|2636997] is one of my favorite books of all time. In this affectionate biography, Artemis Cooper uses letters and interviews, publications and journal entries, to describe Leigh Fermor's life in all its complexity, conflict, and joy. This biography is likely to be of interest to readers who already love Leigh Fermor's writing, but it may also bring new readers to his work.
Leigh Fermor was born in 1915 in London to Lewis Leigh Fermor, a respected geologist working for the English Civil Service and stationed in India, and Æileen, a free spirit who loved theatre and socializing, but who chafed against staid expectations for behavior. Paddy-Mike lived the first years of his life separated from his parents and older sister, Vanessa as we has brought up by the Martin family in Northamptonshire, to protect him from possible attack by the Germans. By all accounts, this was an idyllic period in Leigh Fermor's life, but it ended when his mother brought him to live with her in London. He was not yet five.
Leigh Fermor's parents were profoundly incompatible, so they separated and later divorced. Leigh Fermor's youth saw him veering between two extremes: a bright boy with an impressive memory and a talent for languages and history, who was also undisciplined and unwilling (and perhaps unable) to abide by rules. He loved socializing, acted without thinking of consequences, and generally let his high spirits move him to act. As a result, he had difficulty remaining in any one school for longer than a few terms. By the time Leigh Fermor turned 18, his future was in doubt. He was in debt from living a wild social life, he had no degree and no prospects for an academic or a professional future, and his lack of discipline made a tenure in the army questionable at best. Cooper traces these aspects of Leigh Fermor's personailty not only in his youth, but throughout his life. The contrast between his meditative, scholarly inclinations and his adventuresome, exuberant spirit remained a constant.
Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor
At this point, Leigh Fermor developed his plan to walk across Europe, from Holland to Constantinople. The prospect excited him -- the chance of adventure, the promise of meeting new people, the opportunity to see places he had read about in history texts and works of literature, and the ability to make his own decisions about where to go and what to do. He got some funding to help him outfit himself for life as a wanderer, made arrangements to receive his allowance in intervals on the road, and set off on December 8, 1933. The first stage of this journey later was retold by Leigh Fermor in [b:A Time of Gifts|253984|A Time of Gifts|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1321602492s/253984.jpg|2636997], while stage two is related in [b:Between the Woods and the Water|293207|Between the Woods and the Water|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320564549s/293207.jpg|807394]. (A posthumous volume collecting Leigh Fermor's writings about the final stage of the journey is set to be published in Spring 2014.)
Cooper draws heavily on Leigh Fermor's writings to tell of his travels during this period, but she also provides some additional perspective. She cites on interviews with Leigh Fermor to indicate places where he fictionalized some events. She explores the gaps between 18-year-old Leigh-Fermor's rudimentary understanding of politics and his later recognition that these political blinders made him miss many crucial details relating to the rise of Nazism in Central Europe. She later traces the difficult publication history of these volumes, as for anything that Leigh Fermor wrote. Paddy was often plagued by writer's block, He wrote very slowly, and often was distracted when he was writing. Decades after his walk through Europe, he was overwhelmed by the success of [b:A Time of Gifts|253984|A Time of Gifts|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1321602492s/253984.jpg|2636997] and [b:Between the Woods and the Water|293207|Between the Woods and the Water|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320564549s/293207.jpg|807394]. Cooper's biography provides insight into this aspect of Leigh Fermor's life, particularly as she quotes from correspondence between Paddy and his publisher.
Princess Balasha Cantacuzène
Cooper also provides insight in Leigh Fermor's life after the walk. She details his relationship with Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, a Romanian painter whom he met in Athens, and with whom he lived for years until the onset of Wrold War II. She describes his work in World War II, when he worked as a British Intelligence Officer, focusing especially on work with the Cretan Resistance Movement. His journeys through Greece and his language skills made him a valuable officer, as did his ability to forge strong relationships with people from different cultures. Leigh Fermor achieved fame for leading a successful operation to kidnap a German general on Crete. Cooper describes not only this action, but also its afterlife, including some controversy over different versions of events, and what happened when Hollywood took interest. Greece remained an important part of Leigh Fermor's life until his death. He visited often, wrote two well-received travel books ([b:Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese|766421|Mani Travels in the Southern Peloponnese|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1343686627s/766421.jpg|780647] and [b:Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece|766415|Roumeli Travels in Northern Greece|Patrick Leigh Fermor|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1343686844s/766415.jpg|752486]), and later designed and built a house there.
Moss, General Kreipe, and Leigh Fermor on Crete
For a long period of time after WWII, Leigh Fermor lived a hand-to-mouth existence. A constant in his life was Joan Rayner, whom he met just after World War II, and who was his longtime partner, and later his wife. In Cooper's portrait, Rayner emerges as a fascinating figure: calm, quiet, practical, intelligent, beloved by her close friends, and, according to Cooper, happy for Leigh Fermor to engage in affairs and spend considerable time away from her. As depicted by Cooper, theirs was not a conventional relationship. Using personal correspondence and interviews with friends. Cooper shows the depth of their mutual love and respect for each other. I would have liked more focus on Joan throughout the biography -- or, perhaps, for someone to write a biography of her. She appears as a self-contained person, someone who valued a spiritual, emotional and intellectual connection with Leigh Fermor far more than any physical relationship. She also was widely-traveled, a skilled photographer, an intelligent person with many gifts and a quiet confidence in herself.
Joan Leigh Fermor
In the end, Cooper presents Patrick Leigh Fermor as a three-dimensional figure, a man whose gifts and flaws shaped his life. He veered between depression and exhilaration throughout his life, but consistently viewed himself as profoundly fortunate. He lived outside of convention, on his own terms. Cooper does not gloss over his flaws, but explores them with sensitivity and balance. I emerged with a better understanding of his life, and a new foundation from which to approach his writings which I have not yet read.