On June 10th, the world lost one of the greatest travel writers of all time… and one of my personal favorites. Although he lived until the ripe old age of 96, all those who knew him and loved his work, hoped against all hope that Paddy might just be the one person in the world to laugh death in the face and go on living.
A number of years ago, an author from New Zealand traveled to visit Fermor where he lived in the Mani area of Greece. In the article, she writes something that Paddy once said to the man from whom he bought his lovely land.
“You know we are very fortunate, we live in Kardamyli. We are fortunate – we have the mountains. We are fortunate – we have good food. We are fortunate – we have clean air to breathe. We are fortunate – we have the beautiful sea to swim in.” “Yes, Paddy, the mountains, the food, the air and the sea,” said the young man, nodding in agreement. And then Paddy said to him: “And for all these reasons and more, we may just forget to die.”
Unfortunately, as we are human, death claims us all. But what a life he lived; what adventures he took part in; what a world he saw! Once described by the BBC as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” Fermor was as renowned for his feats of derring-do as for his opulent prose. (from his New York Times obituary)
Fermor’s prose has few credible rivals. By all accounts, he was a precise and excruciatingly slow writer – still working on the last book of his trilogy about his 1933/34 journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople when he died (the first two of this series being his classic A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between Woods and Water (1986)).
In addition to the two volumes of his unfinished trilogy, Leigh Fermor’s published literary legacy includes his first book about island-hopping in the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), which first revealed the qualities readers would learn to expect from his books: sly humor, curiosity, wide-ranging social connections and sympathies, familiarity with arcane history and a dashing literary style steeped in the ancient writing of Greece and Rome.
Next to come was his absorbing short novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), set on a small island on the night it is destroyed by a volcanic eruption; his brief and exquisite collection of essays on Christian monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence (1953); two masterpieces about the life and history of Greece, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966); the radiant Three Letters from the Andes (1991); and then only various occasional pieces and introductions to other persons’ books, many collected in a volume called Words of Mercury (2003), as well as a separate volume of some of his letters.
Fermor also spoke Greek fluently and translated a number of Greek books into English, including The Cretan Runner (1955) and Forever Ulysses (1938). Because of his knowledge of the Greek language he fought in the Greek resistance to Germany during World War II, capturing a German general, a feat which later became the basis for the 1957 English film “Ill Met by Moonlight.”
He lived such a full life and, although he is now passed, he has left us with a great body of work… and what a ‘time of gifts’ he has certainly given to anyone who has read his books.