I love to read and one of my favourite type of books is a good biography. Nowadays it seems everyone who farts is having a book written about them or writing a book about themselves but every now and again I come across a gem.
I had never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor-or Paddy as he was universally known though his life spanned nearly a century up until June 2011 when he died at the age of 96.
Paddy made his name as a travel writer. His first trip was a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople(as it was then known)in 1933. He explored Bulgaria and Greece. He settled in Rumania with his lover, Balasha, before the war separated them for good. He was based in Cairo during the war and then on Crete as a Special Operations Officer where he cooked up a plan to kidnap a German general to raise awareness of the Cretan resistance. The kidnappers and the General were reunited on television in 1972.
After the war he continued to travel and to write accompanied by a lover or some of his myriad friends for Paddy made friends easily and kept them too. He eventually settled in Greece with his life partner Joan Rayner but continued to write and to travel nearly to the end.
Paddy was a man of extreme charm and curiosity and though some people did not take to him, many more had nothing but good to say. He was fascinated by different people and cultures and languages and he had massive knowledge on a huge array of subjects but as one friends said “he wore his knowledge lightly.” He had the most amazing memory and had store of poems and songs to draw from. He bonded with the General he kidnapped when, in a cave one night, the General murmured some lines of Horace in latin only to find Paddy finished it for him…
“The Generals blue eyes swiveled away from the mountain top to mine-and when I’d finished, after a long silence he said “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja Herr General!” As though for a long moment the war had ceased to exist.”
Though Paddy was a prodigious drinker, smoked continuously and seemed to be the life and soul of every party he remained fit, swimming the Bosphorus when he was nearly 70.
He had of course many lovers, as men of this type do, but what is extraordinary are the women who loved him and who described only in generous terms. One said that though everyone else was always taking Paddy was nothing but give, give, give.”
He was also lucky enough that his partner Joan was independently wealthy as well as being uninterested in sexual jealousy and she did much to support them through their lives.
I read this book in a matter of days so captivated and envious was I of this wonderful character and his life. It is not however a brilliant book but it is a thorough book and also I think a very British book in that the author, Artemis Cooper, barely scratches the emotional surface.
She mentions his lovers but not how he felt about them. She mentions Joans lack of sexual jealousy and their platonic relationship but does not explore the reasons why it worked for them. She spends a lot of time in details that have been described elsewhere-as with the kidnapping of General Kreipe, which goes on for pages-when the pages could have been used to dig more deeply into the character.
For instance, being the opposite of Paddy, spending too much time alone and not enough in company, I would have been interested to know more about how he dealt with solitude. She mentions that he often went into monasteries to write and that his books often took a long time coming, that he suffered from bouts of depression but she never really explores his constant need for company. I have known people who have had to be constantly in company, neglecting their inner life, always running for fear of having to face themselves and I wanted to know if Paddy was one of these people, or if he found, in the course of his life, a middle way.
But still, in terms of facts it is quite a thorough book, though the last three decades are rather skimmed over, and I guess Paddy was a person of the outer world rather than the inner one so maybe it is a fitting biography of the man.
And of course I can’t say anything too bad about a book that introduced me to this amazing person and the innumerable wild and crazy characters that colour every page of this book.
Oh what a life to have had!Oh what friends!This book wants to make me pack and go but of course that world is gone now, homogenised to the point where everything is familiar. Greece is overrun and Communism stamped out much of the cultural differences of countries such as Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary even when Paddy was still a young man.
These days the special people like Paddy are off in other arenas, in the harder to get places or maybe todays journeys are inner journeys?I suppose we cannot live life backwards, wishing we had lived then or had that persons life. We go only where our own heart takes us and only as far as our own fears allow but those bright ones that come along every now nad again, exploding like fireworks in the night, can sometimes light our way a bit and make us brave enough to go that little bit further than we thought we ever could.
In the mean time I will allow myself an occasional reverie, the sound of talk and laughter and the clink of glasses outside under the olive trees, as cigarette smoke drifts and shadowy cats dart and the sea sighs on a warm Greek night…
I often cry at the end of a good book and the end of a biography is like the death of a friend. To see Paddy grow up, roam the world, making friends with everyone, exploring, never stopping, living, just living and then, eventually, losing his friends, his wife and then fading out himself all in a matter of days was an intense rollercoaster ride and I howled at the end of it, not only for grief at losing a new friend but also in dismay at how poorly I have used my years so far on this planet.
The final lines of this book are lines I would give my life to be able to write at the end. They were found written inside a book at Paddy’s bedside in his beloved Kardamyli in Greece, some time after he died. He had written them one night when he felt his end was near…
“Love to all and kindness to all friends and thank you for giving me a life of such happiness.”
And wow, I have just found a blog page devoted to him 🙂 http://patrickleighfermor.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/well-met-by-sunlight/