I met him only once.
It was 21 years ago, in Athens, Greece, on the occasion of a speech he gave growing out of his wartime exploits as a British special agent serving with Greek resistance fighters in German-occupied Crete.
At the time of the talk he was a world-famous author, traveler, and cultural and historical polymath. And what should have been, for me, the pleasure of a long-anticipated conversation about his singular brand of literary magic turned instead to dismay and embarrassment on my part and obvious anger on his over a question I had put to him.
His name was Patrick Leigh Fermor. According to the people closest to him, the failure of the late war hero and travel writer known familiarly as Paddy to complete the third and final memoir of his extraordinary mid-1930s walk across Europe was for decades a gnawing source of pessimism and wounded pride.
The author had set out as an 18-year-old schoolboy to make the journey — from the Dutch coast to Turkey — but it was not until some 40 years later that the memoirs would begin to appear. “A Time of Gifts” was published in 1977 and “Between the Woods and the Water” in 1986. They won immediate acclaim. The New York Review of Books, for example, praised the works as incomparably “vivid, absorbing, and beautifully written.”
On the night I met him, Leigh Fermor, a brilliant prose stylist yet notoriously slow writer, was widely rumored to be struggling to finish the third volume of the trilogy.
As we chatted over drinks at the end of his talk, I asked how he was getting on with it. His response was immediate and explosive.
“Oh, don’t ask me that!” And he turned on his heel and stalked off.
I was aghast not so much at his reaction to what I had said as at my inexcusable want of tact. I had caused pain to this remarkable man.
We know now that the writing Paddy had done on volume three had not even come close to achieving a publishable manuscript. For as hard as he had tried — and as old age, debility and a crippling case of writer’s block held him in their grip — the task confounded him.
Paddy died in 2011. He was 96.
Two books tell the story of Patrick Leigh Fermor and of the last leg of that celebrated trek — what commentators invariably refer to as Paddy’s Great Walk but which he himself offhandedly dismissed as The Great Trudge.
The first is Artemis Cooper’s handsomely crafted biography, “Patrick Leigh Fermor,” published in Britain in 2012 and a year later in the U.S. In it, Cooper relates the life of a trim, square-shouldered, curly-haired adventurer of enormous charm and courage.
She had known Paddy for most of her life. She admired him as an author whose books on travel — particularly his works celebrating an enduring love affair with Greek culture, language and landscape — were triumphs of 20th century literature and scholarship. But at no time does she let her personal friendship and affection for Paddy blunt a balanced portrait of a sometimes moody, sometimes depressive, sometimes bumptious character addicted to women, alcohol, endless talk and round-the-clock partying.
“He had always resented going to bed,” writes Cooper “[He] revelled in the smoky world of tarts and nightclubs, all-night cafés, seedy bars and chance encounters.”
Paddy was also afflicted by an almost pathological need for distant travel. As Cooper makes clear, he was essentially rootless. He wrote his books in getaways that ranged from Greek islands and French monasteries to a clutch of English country hotels and private estates. In late middle age he built the only home he would ever possess, in a shaded olive grove overlooking the sea in his beloved Greece.
The second of the two recent works is the one that Paddy on his own was unable to finish. Assembled and published posthumously from existing manuscripts and diaries by biographer Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, it tracks the conclusion, in 1934, of his European ramble. The book appeared in 2014. Its title is “The Broken Road.”
While lacking some of the youthful exuberance of Paddy’s first two memoirs, the final volume is told in the author’s distinctive voice. He continues his trek as the traveler and observer we have come to know — historian of art and architecture, geographer, antiquarian, ethnologist, speaker of Balkan languages, scholar of classical literature. Above all, he continues as a peerless story teller.
“‘The Broken Road’ may not precisely be the ‘third volume’ that so tormented him,” note his literary executors, “but it contains at least the shape and scent of the promised book.”
Still, of all Paddy’s writing, it is a much earlier work, “Mani,” that strikes me as his most personal and idiosyncratic. A dazzling account of a season of travel in a remote corner of southern Greece, it wonderfully captures the spirit of place: a bare, desolate upland terrain peopled by a breed of dark-visaged relics of ancient Sparta.
The book also traces Paddy’s lifelong quest for order and tranquility in a career of frenetic wandering. Order and tranquility, however, are oxymorons. They are attributes he rarely attained. In a revealing passage of longing for an irrecoverable past, he takes the reader with him on a Zen-like jaunt among the “smashed and scattered masonry” of antiquity.
“A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek temples,” he tells us.
“As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of troubling thoughts and anxieties. …
“Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance and is painlessly replaced by an intimation of …simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent … suggestion that the whole of life, if it were to unfold without hindrance or compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be limitlessly happy.”
(Alan Littell is a longtime contributor to the Times Herald. He lives in Alfred. Note: All of the books mentioned in this piece as well as others by Patrick Leigh Fermor are still in print. They are available in larger bookstores and on Amazon.)