Monday, August 4, 2014

Boundless Curiosity: A Great Travel Writer

To be a great travel writer, you need, first of all, great material. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose life of adventure made him one of the major travel writers of the 20th century, found such material on the road, where he discovered his career almost by accident.

Fleeing an unhappy life in England at the age of 18, he set out in 1933 for a walking tour of Europe, from Holland through Germany, into the Balkans and Greece, ending in Istanbul.  Along with way, he became a self-taught master of several languages and a self-educated cultural historian who saw that his unique experiences could provide material for books. So he created his own literary career.

Paddy Fermor, as he was known to everyone, was a romantic adventurer who was curious about everything, incapable of being bored, as he repaid his many hosts along his youthful journey with songs and stories, talking long into the night.  Some people eventually found him a bit of a show-off, Artemis Cooper says in her superb biography of Fermor, but the ladies loved this handsome, talented fellow who charmed shepherds and gypsies as well as Eastern European nobility, who opened their castles to him.

A  vagabond, he often slept in barns or monasteries or in open fields, weather permitting, but he was the type of guy who always made his way to the  top in any society, despite his ragged clothes.  With letters of introduction, he found his way into Mount Athos as well as into a ball at the British embassy in Athens, where he met a Romanian princess, with whom he lived for several years.

One reviewer (Barnaby Rogerson) says that Paddy was a consummate freeloader who paid for the chance to stay with counts and barons in their hunting lodges with his great energy and talent for song, dance, poetry, talk, and other men's wives. But Paddy was a great reader, too. He mastered French, Romanian, and Greek along the way and ended up living in Greece; during the Second World War, he became famous as the leader of a the group that abducted a Nazi General on Crete and spirited him away to Egypt.

I was fascinated by Fermor's account of Germany in 1933, when people even in the smaller cities he visited were clicking heels and giving Nazi salutes within months of Hitler's take-over of the country.   Although sometimes taking a train or boat, he mainly walked from place to hilly place, finding refuge where he could. His hosts generally found him a charismatic talker who saw conversation as an art, and he remained friends with many of the people he met along the way. 

His journey goes from isolation and poverty--he lived on practically nothing and had no money to repay anyone--to luxurious accommodations. Once, after an isolated spell in the Carpathian mountains, he meets a rabbi who speaks only Yiddish, then spends the night with a man who owns a dancing bear that he holds onto all night as they try to sleep.

In Vienna, he resorts to selling pencil sketches door to door to earn a few shillings; in Hungary, he meets a Count who reads Proust; and so it goes, with nubile girls, noblemen and swineherds as companions. He recites Shakespeare in German, memorizes Latin, Greek and French poetry, which he recites at the end of long dinner parties.

Above all, he notices the details of things and describes them memorably. based on his notes, Fermor later writes A Time of Gifts, A Time to Keep Silence, The Broken Road, and ten other books of memoirs and letters, recounted in what is at times a formal style that favors Latinisms ("penumbra" is a favorite word) that today's readers might find quaint. Of course, the world he describes is long gone--all the more reason his work is so fascinating and valuable.

The energy and curiosity of Paddy Fermor is boundless, as is his love of people and language. He is one of those born storytellers I would love to have met: he made his life into a work of art.

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