For those with means enough and time, summer is the season for both leisurely journeys and languid afternoons spent in the company of a good book.
One of the greatest accounts of an extended journey ever written was penned — literally, he wrote longhand — by Patrick Leigh Fermor, a travel writer relatively unknown in the United States, but revered in his native Britain. “A Time of Gifts” (1977) is the initial part of an intended trilogy, describing the first third of a walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, a distance of about 1,800 miles, from the North Sea coast to the Iron Gates of the Danube on the border between Romania and Serbia. The second installment of the trilogy, “Between the Woods and the Water,” was published in 1986. It seems now that the final third may never appear, as Leigh Fermor died on June 10 at the age of 96. (However, his official biographer, Artemis Cooper, has dropped one or two enticing hints about the existence of some form of manuscript.)
Leigh Fermor’s passing came as a great sadness to many, and the world seems a poorer place without him. But his death concluded a long, remarkable and extraordinarily eventful life. “Ripeness is all” has seldom seemed a more appropriate epitaph. Expelled from school for being, in the words of his headmaster, “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” he set out on his epic walk at the age of 18. It was 1933, and Hitler had just come to power in Germany. Part of the impact of “A Time of Gifts“ stems from the reader’s understanding that it describes a continent at the edge of a precipice. Occasionally, there are premonitions of the coming darkness — in Munich, for example, where Leigh Fermor encounters some rowdy Nazis in a beer hall — but for the most part, the book is the work of an omnivorous intellect, enraptured by the culture and history of the Old World. Leigh Fermor travels light, with just a few letters of introduction and copies of Horace’s “Odes” and “The Oxford Book of English Verse” in his rucksack. Borne along by the strength and exuberance of youth, he sleeps in barns and monasteries, as well as in some of Europe’s grandest castles and palaces. His eye for fine detail and talent for unexpected and fascinating digression have seldom been equaled.
Leigh Fermor arrived in Istanbul in 1935, and promptly fell in love with Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian aristocrat said to be descended from the 14th-century Byzantine emperor, John VI Kantakouzenos. They lived together blissfully for the next four years, initially sharing an old water mill in Athens with a view of the Saronic Gulf and the island of Paros. This period engendered Leigh Fermor’s lifelong passion for Greece, and the idyll was ended only by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Having enlisted in the British Army, Leigh Fermor was swiftly recruited into the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine unit formed to conduct guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. Owing to his ability to speak fluent modern Greek, he was parachuted into Crete to organize resistance to the Nazi occupation, and for two years lived in the mountains with the Greek partisans, disguised as the shepherd Michelis. It was during this period that he successfully abducted the German commander, General Kreipe, an escapade later made into the movie “Ill Met by Moonlight,” in which Leigh Fermor is played by Dirk Bogarde.
After the war, Leigh Fermor divided his time among the smarter salons of London, a house in Greece, and extended periods of travel. His first book, “The Traveller’s Tree” (1950), was an account of a journey through the Caribbean islands, and he subsequently wrote a novel about the West Indies, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques” (1953). But for the next 60 years, Greece was the spiritual center of his existence. There, he lived with his wife of 35 years, Joan Monsell, in a stone house surrounded by an olive grove near Kardamyli, a remote port on the coast of the Mani, the central peninsula of the Peloponnese. He built the house himself over a number of years, while simultaneously becoming a leading scholar on the history of the Byzantine Empire and writing his most notable books, among them “A Time to Keep Silence,” “Roumeli” and “Mani,” the latter a wonderful account of travels by mule and on foot around the wilder parts of his adopted home.
Leigh Fermor’s love for Greece and the Greeks knew no bounds. He adamantly refused to refer to Istanbul as anything other than Constantinople, and his hero was, naturally, poet and philhellene Lord Byron. (In imitation of Byron, he swam across the mouth of the Bosphorus, but unlike the poet, he encountered a Soviet submarine in the middle and nearly drowned!) Those fortunate enough to be invited to dinner at his home in Kardamyli encountered a man of astonishing charm and a consummate storyteller. He also had an ability to sing Greek folk songs, glass of red wine in hand, that inevitably reduced even the least susceptible members of his audience to tears.
Patrick Leigh Fermor was a great man and a great writer — and we could all wish to live so well and so long. In his memory, I intend to reread his two best books, “Mani” and “A Time of Gifts,” and can think of no more delightful summer companions.