Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Second Thought

Among people who care, I may be the only one who has what they used to call "a minimum high regard" for Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I had thought of writing a few unkind words around the time of his death earlier this year and decided there was just no percentage, but reading Colin Thubron's appreciation in the current New York Review of Books convinces me that I was right the first time.   On sober second thought, I'm still convinced that Leigh Fermor is just an awful avatar of the culture of his time and generation, and I'm surprised more people don't notice.

I'll give Thubron this.  He says: "When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers ... "  Somewhat grudgingly, I'd even have to admit that "[a]mong these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory."

So far, okay, if not exactly "so good."  As it happens I've read a few (hardly all) of the people Thubron must have in mind when he writes like this, with degrees of acceptance one would have to count as "varying."  I'm a great admirer of Norman Lewis' Naples '44 (thanks, Michael)  which I've long thought one of the best pieces of nonfiction to come out of World War II.  I treasure my hard-come-by copy of Rose Macaulay's Pleasures of Ruins (thanks, Taxmom).     If Thubron will relax his definition of "travel writer" to include some novelists, then I'd like to make room for Paul Scott of the Jewel in the Crown tetralogy and Olivia Manning of the Levant Trilogy (I haven't read its companion Balkan Trilogy).  On the other hand, I've more and more come to see T. H. T.E. Lawrence as largely a fraud, perhaps an emanation of the febrile brain of Lowell Thomas.

But all of these--the good and the awful--like it or not, know it or not, they all start from the same point of departure: they are all children of privilege, who gallivant around the planet secure in warm glow of the British Empire which provides them at worst with passports, with favorable exchange rates, with friendly embassies, with all that emoluments that bathe their travel experience in the effulgence of solace, even sweetness.

That might be why the novelists come across best.  The novelists more than the travel writers seem able to achieve a degree of detachment and self-awareness that makes them stand more solidly on the shelf (I suppose if you extend your catch to the likes of V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux, you can see this detachment as it turns rancid, but that is rather far afield for the moment).

In any event, I can't think of anyone in this genre whose work seems more swaddled in innocence than Leigh Fermor, and I don't mean innocence in the nicest way.  Leigh Fermor reminds me of nobody so much as Peter Pan with his cheerful nonchalance, leading his admiring band in search of mermaids and pirates and all the time refusing to grow up.

I don't think this is anywhere more obvious than in what I suspect are his most popular books--A Time of Gifts and Between Woods and the Water--his "accounts" (if that is the right word) of his ramble through Europe at the bottom of the depression.  Fans love to tell you how entranced they are by his youthful exuberance and good cheer-as Thubron calls it, "the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent."

But what nobody seems to want to come to terms with is that this is not the record of a youthful ramble.  Leigh Fermor didn't publish the first of his memoirs until nearly 45 years after the actual trip.  It is far from clear exactly when he wrote what, but there are powerful reasons to believe that virtually every word is a reconstruction, the product of his ripened late-middle age, in which his youth is only a shadow.

"His urge to desccribe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one," says Thubron.  Quite true.  but: 

He was revisiting the youthful persona with  the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged (my italics).  Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him.
It is hard to know what to make of this assessment, although Thubron seems to offer his insights with no independent evaluation.  But of course the difficulty is that Leighh Fermor is not unchanged because he cannot be unchanged.  Even if he still bears a "boyish innocence" he is no longer a boy and, like it or not no longer innocent.  The best he can hope for (by his own lights, at least) is to be a 60-plus who struggles to present a persona of boyish innocence  in spite of all that life may or may not have tried to teach him.

Thubron doesn't seem to grasp that point. More important, Leigh Fermor himself doesn't seem to grasp the point.  I scarcely understand how he can be so blind to himself but this may be a mere failure of imagination on my part. Perhaps he is that blind; if so, then all the more reason why he just gives me the creeps.

I could go on at length, but let me limit myself here to just one more episode in Leigh Fermor's life: the famous (I would rather say "notorious") episode when he and some comrades kidnapped a German general on Cyprus.  Leigh Fermor and his enthusiasts have always treated it as the high point of his career--daring, exciting, romantic, and above all "literary"--Leigh Fermor and the general shared a taste for Horace in the original Latin.

Even the slightest scrutiny makes it clear that the whole adventure was a fantastic cock-up: an escapade of absolutely no military merit that impelled the Germans into savage reprisals against an innocent native population.  Some have noted the fact of the reprisals; one who should  know better says "But the brutality of the combat doesn't negate that moment of civilized gallantry at Mount Ida."  Codswollop.  Given the utter absence of any worthwhile military purpose, the reprisals entirely negate Leigh Fermor's little prank.  And that, I guess, is what gets me: not the prank itself (hey, a lot of bad things happen in war) but that Leigh Fermor and, what is perhaps worse, his enthusiasts, never saw it that way.


Ken Houghton said...

T. E. Lawrence, no?

Buce said...

Yes, not D.E. Lawrence. Man, I need a proofreader.

Buce said...

Oh, and thanks.