Prose For The Road

Reviewing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s posthumously published The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, Daniel Mendelsohn samples the charms of the man “considered by some to be the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century”:

The author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following. It has more than a little in common with the “centrifugal lambency and recoil” he found in Central European design, the “swashbuckling, exuberant and preposterous” aesthetic that he so extravagantly admired in a picture of Maximilian I’s knights, which he came across one night while leafing through a book on German history in the luxurious apartment of a charming girl he met and ended up staying with in Stuttgart. (The strange new city, the chance meeting, the aesthetic reverie, the hints of money and eros: this would prove to be the pattern of the young man’s progress across the continent.)

It is indeed odd that, among the many classical authors to whom Leigh Fermor refers in his writing—none more famously than Horace, verses of whose Soracte Ode the author found himself swapping, in Latin, with a German general he had kidnapped on Crete during World War II, a famous incident that was later turned into a film starring Dirk Bogarde—Herodotus does not figure more prominently. There is no writer whose technique Leigh Fermor’s more closely resembles. Expansive, meandering, circular, it allows him to weave what is, after all, a relatively straightforward tale of a youthful backpacking hike into a vast and highly colored tapestry, embroidered with observations, insights, and lessons about the whole panorama of European history, society, architecture, religion, and art.

When Leigh Fermor died in 2011, David Bentley Hart paid enthusiastic tribute to his writing:

He was…a man of boundless erudition: a classicist, a linguist, an historian, deeply and broadly read, widely and wisely traveled, with impeccable taste in literature and the arts. As it happens, his formal education was of the most irregular and intermittent kind. He was sent as a boy to a “progressive school” (which was something of a nudist colony), had a good private tutor for a while, got himself expelled from Canterbury’s King’s School, was drummed out of Sandhurst before beginning studies, and never attended university. And yet few men of his time could match him for breadth of learning.

Early on in life, he acquired a passion for Greece and all things Byzantine (in part, under the influence of Robert Byron). He even celebrated his twentieth birthday by staying at the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mt. Athos, and his book Roumeli includes some of the most illuminating writing on Orthodox monasticism in English. (Even Leigh Fermor’s close friends seem uncertain whether he had any particular religious convictions, but he definitely had a fascination with the monastic life.) And for a great deal of his life, he kept his home in southern Greece.

In the end, Leigh Fermor will chiefly be remembered for his prose , which has few credible rivals in modern English letters. He was an exacting and excruciatingly slow writer, by all accounts. He could polish a single sentence obsessively, draft upon draft, for months on end. Nothing went to print before it met his highest standards, which were already far higher than most of his contemporaries could hope to achieve. He also spent a great deal of his life living rather than writing. The result is that, when one adds up the sum of his published works, one sometimes cannot help but feel he was a little parsimonious towards his readers.

Dreher recently discovered Leigh Fermor as well, and offers similar praise, especially for his A Time of Gifts. Check out his excerpt-heavy posts on the man here, here, and here.