The Gift of a Great Observer

Just completed a biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper.  I had already read his book on Mani.  His prose is captivating and his insights on people and places unique.  Leigh Fermor shows the scholarship of an academic and the empathy of a professional ‘participant observer’.  I am thinking here of anthropologists like Herzfeld or Bernard.

At the age of 18, in 1933, Leigh Fermor set off, on foot, from Holland to reach Constantinople.  He travelled for two years across Europe with only his wits to see him through.  Four decades later he started converting his memories of that trip into a series of books, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and the unfinished The Broken Road.  They describe a mittel-Europa that perished with the war.  Only Bruce Chatwin leaves a comparable impact as a travel writer.

During the war, he worked for British intelligence and acted as a liaison with the Greek resistance.  He famously led the successful abduction of the commander of German forces in Crete in 1944.  The years he spent in Crete during the war fostered a strong bond with all things Hellenic.  He spent most of his later years in a house he built by the sea in Mani.  His intellectual curiosity and linguistic skill was matched by a true joie de vivre and a character trait the Greeks call leventeia (honour matched with daring and courage matched with a love of life).  Leigh Fermor had the love life of a rock star, the experiences of an action hero and an omnivorous lust for learning.  On all accounts he was the quintessential renaissance man.  His biographer does an excellent job of elucidating the humanity you can glimpse through his writing.

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