Thursday, June 16, 2011

Literate Traveler

Patrick Leigh Fermor

My spirits, already high, steadily rose as  I walked.  I could scarcely believe that I was really there; alone, that is , on the move, advancing into Europe, surrounded by all this emptiness and change, with a thousand wonders waiting." (A Time of Gifts, p 23)

PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR, who died last week at age 96 at his home in England, was one of the great travel writers of the twentieth century.  I knew of him from his two great travel books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  But there was more to the man than these books. 
Robert Kaplan, writing in the New York Times, commented that,
"At first glance, Fermor seems a throwback to the age of derring-do imperialists like T. E. Lawrence. But he did not simply glorify king and country; rather,  he combined the traits of a soldier, linguist and humanist, and he appreciated history and culture for their own sake even as he used that wisdom to defend civilization. In today’s world of overly specialized foreign-policy knowledge, in which military men, politicians and academics inhabit disconnected intellectual universes, we need more generalists like Fermor."
This speaks to the larger achievements of the man beyond literature.  Yet, for many, it was through literature that Patrick Leigh Fermor became a friend and beloved author.  The London Telegraph expressed these thoughts in their obituary,
"His most celebrated book told the story of his year-long walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul in 1934, when he was 18 and the Continent was on the verge of cataclysmic change. His account of his adventures was projected as a trilogy, of which only the first two parts have so far been published, A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water nine years later.
The journey was a cultural awakening for Leigh Fermor that bred in him a love of language and of remote places and set the pattern for his future life."
This is the author that I encountered when reading these two books.  It was his charm and learning that became immediately evident through his ability to sketch a landscape, limn a portrait, and through his way with words bring the past to life.  His encounters with individuals were vivid as he traveled through the heart of Europe, up the Rhine, down the Danube and beyond into the past of a countries that were once part of the most powerful Empire in the west.  In the second volume he delved deeper into the former Hungarian empire and depicted the impressive plains and forests as well as the great Hungarian novelists like Banffy and von Rezzori.  I look forward to reading further in the works of Patrick Leigh Fermor and salute his achievements.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York Review Book Classics, 2005 (1977)
Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York Review Book Classics, 2005 (1986)

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