A Traveler's Tale: On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Leigh Fermor's writing career began more than fifteen years before his first book appeared. In 1933, at 18, he set out to cross Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. "I would travel on foot," he decided, "sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps." He reached Constantinople a little more than a year later, but the trip did not go exactly as planned. He did meet peasants and tramps, but he also befriended at least as many counts and slept in more castles than cowsheds. It also turned out that his destination wasn't the endpoint he thought it would be. From Constantinople he drifted toward Mount Athos and the Greek archipelago. When war broke out he served on Crete as a liaison officer in the SOE. "After the war," as Mosley explains in her introduction to In Tearing Haste, "wanderlust took Paddy to the Caribbean, Central America, France, Spain, Italy and, most often, to Greece," where he and his wife, Joan, built themselves a house in the early 1960s.
Leigh Fermor is invariably called a travel writer, often with an epithet involving the word "greatest" in some combination with "modern," "English," "postwar" or "living." The label isn't inaccurate, but it sells the work short. His books have created an undeniably literary genre that is distinctly his own—part memoir, part history, often lyrical, always precise. Reading a Leigh Fermor book, it is almost impossible to say what is most captivating: the companionable, erudite and witty narrative voice, the minutely rendered landscapes, the spelunking in historical labyrinths (typically guided by the alluring thread of etymology) or characters who invariably display more complicated human dimensions than those encountered in travel literature.
The overall effect is novelistic. In fact, his second book, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), was a novel, and this early foray into fiction, although less widely praised than his later books, reads in retrospect like an allegorical premonition of the work that followed. In the novel—which came on the heels of his account of a journey in the Caribbean, The Traveller's Tree (1950)—a young Frenchwoman who has traveled to an island in the Antilles to serve as governess to the children of a distant cousin falls in love with the life she discovers there, a world centered on a "happy, patrician, slightly provincial minority" in some ways similar to the lingering pockets of Central European aristocracy Leigh Fermor encountered on his walk in the 1930s. Then she sees the entire culture destroyed.
A volcano wipes out the island, but its cataclysmic eruption gives a rapid-fire fictional life—like the accelerated action of time-lapse photography—to the gradual historical change, usually for the worse, that Leigh Fermor's books are always reaching behind as they reconstruct a lost past. Other key elements of the later books are likewise anticipated by The Violins of Saint-Jacques. The novel opens on a note derived from the travel genre—"Little distinguishes the history of the small island from that of the other French Windward and Leeward Isles except that less is known about it"—and Leigh Fermor wastes no time in steering the narrative onto a track that would become familiar, turning to etymology (in this case the story of the island's name) to unlock the puzzles of the historical past. The narrator, nearly indistinguishable from the author's persona in the nonfiction books, meets the Frenchwoman many years later on another island (in the Mediterranean, as you might expect) and pieces together her peculiar history of loss over the course of several prolonged evening conversations supplemented by her old sketchbooks.
When the woman finishes her tale, the narrator tries to console her by explaining that fishermen in the Caribbean have told him they regularly hear the sound of violins rising from the channel where the island once lay. They don't associate the ghostly music with the island itself or know anything of the woman's story, but their legend reassures her that the world she knew, though obliterated, is not gone without a trace. The sentiment that suffuses The Violins of Saint-Jacques is one that recurs in Leigh Fermor's subsequent books—fascination with a world that has disappeared yet never ceased to exist at some submerged, or subconscious, level. Saint-Jacques is less Atlantis than Combray.
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A comparable atmosphere of nostalgia—whether for his own past or the fading history of a culture he's exploring—pervades Leigh Fermor's later writing, turning his books into "travel literature" as it might have been written by Proust (if Proust had gotten a good deal more fresh air and plenty of vigorous rural exercise). There is an elegiac quality, in particular, to the two volumes that are the touchstones of Leigh Fermor's career. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) describe the first two stages of the epic meander he took across Europe nearly half a century before the books were written. Near the end of A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor has traveled as far as the Danube, and he describes his impressions of standing on a bridge spanning a point in the river marking a border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The episode begins in the voice of an observant and literate young traveler describing the scene around him: "The masonry of the piers below sent green Ophelia-like tresses of waterweed swaying down the current. Upstream, the water broke up the reflected turquoise of a sky full of dishevelled cirrus clouds."
But as the young Leigh Fermor watches the river rush between the structure's girders on a journey that will eventually take it through the Iron Gates gorge on the lower Danube (where the second volume on his journey will wind up decades later), the narrative offers a glimpse of its double consciousness. With storks wheeling overhead in mid-migration and a crowd of people in the midst of their own lives "strolling and hobnobbing all along the waterfront," Leigh Fermor becomes overwhelmed by the fullness of the experience. "There was much going on: in the air and the sky on the river, along the banks; almost too much." It is as if the author has been overwhelmed by memory as he writes this passage. And it is his voice, the older writer's, that eventually emerges.
I found it impossible to tear myself from my station and plunge into Hungary. I feel the same disability now: a momentary reluctance to lay hands on this particular fragment of the future; not out of fear but because, within arm's reach and still intact, this future seemed, and still seems, so full of promised marvels. The river below, meanwhile, was carrying the immediate past downstream and I was hung poised in mid-air between the two.
The "fragment of the future" is a fragment of the past by the time Leigh Fermor gets around to telling the story, and it is a signal of his powers as an imaginative, rather than simply descriptive, writer that he is able to re-create—and inhabit along with us—the moment as it existed forty years earlier, with its poignantly transitional atmosphere only heightened by the retrospective nature of the endeavor. It's as if we feel the moment on the bridge because Leigh Fermor unmasks himself as the author in the present, looking back at the solitary image of himself in the past, so that the narrative hangs in midair, bridging the two points in time and charged with the mixed emotions of each.