Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Reader's Appreciation

One writer who certainly did not need 250 pages to answer the question “Why read?” was Patrick Leigh Fermor, who passed away this June at age 96 and who, with a mere sentence or exactingly crafted phrase, could provide any sentient reader a compelling, unequivocal answer. On a single page Fermor could encapsulate as much elegance, passion and life as most writers manage to fit into a lifetime of writing. And if ever there were a monument to affirm the value of education, erudition, intellectual curiosity, and rationalism, it is the body of work Fermor left us, including, one eagerly hopes, at least another book to come, given reports of a draft manuscript that may at last bring to a close the journey to Constantinople on which he set out by foot from the Hook of Holland in 1933 at age 17 and, in the written record of his adventure, had yet to reach. I came to news of Fermor’s death the same way I came to his works: late. And while I know him only through the several books of his that I’ve read, the debt I feel to those works and to the person who wrote them is beyond measure. They opened for me entire worlds, and stand as a testament to the profound possibilities that life – and the life of the mind - can offer. Over the past two months I’ve felt increasingly remiss about letting go the passing of a writer so important to me without making some gesture of acknowledgement and gratitude. I can almost certainly best accomplish this by directing anyone still with me to the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog, where Tom Sawford has done a tremendous job in drawing together a great number of memorials and reminiscences that testify to Fermor’s remarkable life. By way of a more personal commemoration, I thought I'd embark on another of Fermor’s books, and chose his Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese for Fermor’s obvious love of the region.

I’d heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor for years, but only last year finally decided, on a whim, to pick up A Time of Gifts. Having fallen under its spell, I quickly moved on to its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, and then to A Time to Keep Silence. I’ve saved a few of his books for later, confident of the rewards they’ll inevitably provide and hesitant to get through all of them too quickly; riches like these need to be relished and given the patience they seem to gently request. Fermor’s writing - vastly informed and capacious, poetically keen, lyrically rapturous, of an astonishing linguistic agility and versatility - surpasses genre. His works are not just travel, history or art history, anthropology or sociology, not even what today might fall under the opaque rubric of “cultural studies.” They possess a literary quality that’s almost novelistic, with careful structuring, compelling narrative propulsion, memorable characters and a sense of forward movement marked by growth and expansion. Their attention to rhythm, meter, sound and structure can be as concentrated as that of serious poetry. Searching out a copy of Mani for a friend after having finished it myself, I found Fermor’s travel works both in the travel section of the bookstore and, as though they had migrated there on their own power, filed under “Fiction.” The store had plastered a sticker on the back of the NYRB copy I purchased categorizing it as “Travel Essay” - but calling Mani a mere travel essay is a bit like calling the Winged Victory of Samothrace a mere slab of rock.

Fermor’s accounts plunge one into realms that to outside eyes probably would have appeared exotic enough when he traveled through them, but which now, through the alchemy of time, exist in large part only as fictions, as jewel-like glimpses of disappearing or now bygone people, places and experiences.  It strikes me as perfectly congruent that Fermor wrote the preface to the English translation of Miklós Bánffy’s great Transylvania trilogy, as he shares with Bánffy a curious temporal distance from his subjects. A Time for Gifts, the first volume of Fermor’s 1933-36 journey from the Netherlands to Constantinople, saw publication in 1977, more than 40 years after the journey itself, just as Bánffy’s strongly autobiographical work, covering the first few years of the 20th century, was not written until the 1930’s. This distancing in time adds to an unearthly earthiness in these books. The places and people they describe, as palpable as in the best literature, at the same time appear as though viewed through a glass – though certainly more lightly than darkly, particularly in Fermor’s sun-drenched Mani, where he explores the people, geography and history of this wild, remote, southernmost peninsula of the Greek mainland – the place he chose to make his home for much of the rest of his life.

I can think of few other writers who have been so successful in stealing so much from time.  In recording aspects of the world in the process of their dissolution and/or disappearance, Fermor somehow manages to pin and hold them in abeyance, much as cold matter physicists have been able to stop and hold light for nanoseconds (this acute attention to the moment is helpfully underscored by Fermor’s having lovingly given a descriptive heading to each page of Mani[i]. Beyond this powerful immediacy and vitality in his accounts, the rich history that he provides to bracket his personal experiences lends a an acute and pervasive awareness of time’s erasures, as in his preface to Mani, where he offers this partial justification for the book: “…between the butt of a Coca-cola bottle and the Iron Curtain, much that is precious and venerable, many living mementoes of Greece’s past are being hammered to powder. It seems worthwhile to observe and record some of these less famous aspects before the process is complete.”

Yet, not content to simply rail against the ravages of time, Fermor balances his disappointments with a sanguine and broad view of change. One senses in everything he writes a vital acknowledgment of the brevity of individual lives in the context of great movements of history, as well as an effusive delight in the intellectual challenge of tracing the tiniest of details back to their remote origins, in part to unsettle their sense of permanence, as, for example, in his gentle rebuke in Mani of those who would see the Greek language purged of its foreign influences, as it would dishonor history and “rob the rich spoken tongue of much of its stimulus and bite” (a point of view that might be stressed to language purists everywhere).  Fermor’s task, as he seemed to see it – “observing and reporting” – took the long view. I don’t know enough about his convictions to ascertain whether anyone might characterize this perspicacity and deep, respectful engagement as religious. His sojourns in monasteries detailed in A Time to Keep Silence suggest an attraction to the concept of spiritual retreat and development, but he seems to have spent this time in them largely out a desire to write in solitude, partly out of his unquenchable curiosity, and, at least in small part, as sober respite from his adventures. In any case, Fermor clearly felt towards the righteousness of the world’s religions much as he felt about linguistic purism, and repeatedly expressed a wistful appreciation of the old polytheistic worlds that were generous and receptive enough to welcome and incorporate other gods and beliefs, as opposed to a less morally accommodating monotheism he described in Between the Woods and the Water as being as inseparable from strife and conflict as “stripes from a tiger.”

One of the attractions to Fermor’s writing is his uncanny ability to create impressionistic passages, sentences and phrases stunning in their precision and bewitching in their beauty (not to mention – and I don’t think I’m being too unreasonably hyperbolic here - a capacity arguably unmatched by any English writer since Shakespeare of gleaning out of individual words unexpected facets and nuances of meaning). Even just the opening pages of Mani offer an abundance of such phrases, as in these few examples:

The sauntering loops of the Eurotas had shrunk now to a thread whose track was marked by oleanders opening cool green sheaves of spiked leaves and pretty flowers of white and pink paper over little more than the memory of water: a memory whose gleam, through the arid months to come, would keep their bright petals from languishing.

Wine-heavy sleep soon smoothed out these wrinkles of perplexity.

Felons on invisible treadmills, our labour continued through viewless infernos like the taste-shoots of lime-kilns…

A faint tinkle of bells from the abyss told that faraway goats were shaking off the mesmeric stupor of midday.

Fermor could also inject a remarkably subtle wit into his elegant sentences:

As the Taygetus range towers to eight thousand feet at the centre, subsiding to north and south in chasm after chasm, these distances as the crow flies can with equanimity be trebled and quadrupled and sometimes, when reckoning overland, multiplied tenfold.

Besides his precision of language, other aspects of Fermor’s erudition, so sharp and wide-ranging, inspire wonder at how he managed it all: his seemingly miraculous ability to keep centuries of historical family names at his fingertips; the comprehensiveness of his probing intelligence, equally adept, for example, at comparative studies of Byzantine ikons as at describing the glories of Mediterranean gastronomy; the dazzling ekphrasis, in one passage after another, of his appreciation of works and genres of art ranging over so many diverse styles and periods (I hope I don’t sound ungrateful in expressing a personal wish that such a prodigious mind and heart could have lived to explore still other corners of human experience; recently reading an amply fascinating account of late 19th and early 20th century archeological explorations of China’s Silk Road [ii], I nonetheless found myself wondering, with no small sense of loss, at what Fermor could have done with such provocative historical material). Yet at times, Fermor’s passion for the mind also carries him on fantastical elaborations almost exactly opposite to the dense, exactingly researched investigations of history, art history, and genealogy that mark so much of his writing, such as in the lengthy section of Mani that comes off as an extemporaneous, multi-page improvisation on the migrations of the world’s birds (birds often seem to invite Fermor to take off on wild flights of fancy; I can’t help but wonder whether his account of an old man in the village of Layia finding a quail tagged with “42, Rue Lenormant, Paris” is either an inside joke or pure invention, since I can find no reference to any such street ever existing in Paris).

At times his appreciation for an artwork, a person, a place or even some abstract element also inspires these free-form riffs, saturated with the sheer joy of literary invention and expression (every time I read him, I find myself compelled to copy down some such passage just for the pleasure of it):

The air in Greece is not merely a void between solids; the sea itself, the houses and rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it with diamond rings or be grasped in handfuls, tapped for electricity, bottled, used for blasting, set fire to, sliced into sparkling cubes and rhomboids with a pair of shears, be timed with a stop watch, strung with pearls, plucked like a lute string or tolled like a bell, swum in, be set with rungs and climbed like a rope ladder or have saints assumed through it in flaming chariots; as though it could be harangued into faction, or eavesdropped, pounded down by pestle and mortar for cocaine, drunk from a ballet shoe, or spun, woven and worn on solemn feasts; or cut into discs for lenses, minted for currency or blown, with infinite care, into globes.

But the marvels of Fermor’s language aside, what makes his work so rich and affecting is the manifest, deeply genuine interest he conveys in not just the human experience, but also in human beings individually. His profound respect for and interest in others – be they rich nobles or poor fishermen, be the occasion a ceremonial dinner in a palace or the asking of directions from a young girl tending goats on a mountain path – comes across with a tremendous property of dignity, a recognition in each encounter of the mutual sharing of an unprecedented and never to return again moment of humanity amid the great sweep of history. All of Fermor’s meticulous intellectualism, his adventuring and his devotion to service, seem in him not points of pride, but rather an expression of a grand responsibility towards life itself, a firm, almost devotional stand against the indifference he viewed as “a sign of brutishness and a denial of human feeling.”  Though Fermor is no longer with us, his time of gifts appears nowhere near its end; like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, it promises to keep providing, offering the limitless pleasures and insights of reading a deep and generous mind, and reminding us that the effort to travel, to explore, to acquire knowledge of history, literature, languages, art, diplomacy and wit, and above all, of people, is not an end, but rather a means for participating more profoundly in, and sharing to the utmost with others, the marvels of the world in which we find ourselves.

[i] The NYRB edition of Mani preserves this pleasant feature; it’s a shame, though, that NYRB was unable also to preserve the wonderful black and white photographs taken by Joan Fermor that feature in the original edition of the book.
[ii] Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk

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