05 November 2012

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

 Odysseus on Kalypso's shore

Book Five of the Odyssey begins with the bare mention of Tithonos, beloved of rosy-fingered Dawn. That is all, but it is enough to create horror, because Tithonos, given immortality by the goddess, could not die.  He lay in a corner of an unused room  like the dried husk of a grashopper, begging to be allowed to die. When we finally see Odysseus, it is from the back -- a grieving man on the shore, seven years now with the death goddess.  That image of Tithonos-Odysseus was with me in recent years whenever I read yet another article by some male visitor about Patrick Leigh Fermor -- still alive, still drinking down in Mani, and it was my understanding of the remark Maggie Rainey-Smith reported hearing him make, "We may just forget to die!"

I have been reading Artemis Cooper's new, "official" biography of Fermor, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, and it has left me deeply saddened.  At the outset, I should say that there is no introduction, no statement by Cooper as to what she intends, and what she will  or will not be covering.  The reader is free to make interpretations based on the evidence she presents, and that I have done here.  I could make others.  Cooper gives little analysis and has little depth, although there are on occasion a few sentences of explanation for a situation.  She and her family have been life-time friends of PLF* and Joan Eyres Monsell, and if she has deeper understandings of situations and problems than she reveals, she has chosen reticence. 

So what we have in this book is a great deal more in the way of incidents of evidence for the mythology of charm, brilliance, heroism, physical daring, and incomparable companionship to be found in the T. E. Lawrence-Lord Byron of my lifetime -- and another problem with Cooper's evidence is that it only concerns the beautiful and famous: she says nothing about PLF's many-year relationship with my friend, Jon van Leuven, who cataloged his library (although she misspells his name), nothing as to whether
PLF memorized, or even knew, for example, the great Greek poet Nikos Gatsos.   And the multiplication of incidents contribute less to the charm than they chip away.

Perhaps that is Cooper's subtlety, her way of avoiding direct confrontation with the great darkness so well-concealed
from the world by the flashes of brilliance perpetually recycled.  Perhaps it is simply unavoidable.  Rather than charm, we see the frantic burden of being PL, a man desperate for love and acceptance, a man who desired women less because of lust than because of a craving for sweetness and the comfort of being held. But this makes for a great problem with the mythology and Cooper is reasonably candid in showing how Joan gave him money for his amours, and their early cessation of sexual relations while remaining the closest of companions for fifty more years.  Cooper offers no real insight into this matter which seems to me of profound importance, but when I read of Joan's violent miscarriages -- one of them with PLF's child at a point when she was painfully eager for him to marry her -- and then the sexual withdrawal on her side, I begin to wonder about matters such as chronic pelvic inflammatory disease.  Especially after reading about his personal hygiene.

True, this is extremely intimate and Joan's sense of privacy would not have allowed her to mention such a thing.  But as a city person, deeply committed to clean sheets and frequent hot baths, the issue of PLF's concern for cleanliness was always a problem for me in reading his books.  Cooper's casual remarks about his casualness at sharing sexually-transmitted infections builds an impression of almost criminal negligence.  Both here and with the frequent reports of massive amounts of alcohol, Cooper neglects responsibility as a biographer.  Surely she could have given us some sense as to whether his sexual and drinking behavior was fairly typical of his milieu -- there is an astounding amount of alcohol in books by his contemporaries and books about the period, or whether they were more particularly exclusive to his character.

The many reports by visitors of his astounding ability to recall poetry takes on another cast, when you read Cooper's accounts of people walking out on interminable recitations, and insults given by hyper-competition. The drinking -- which I discussed briefly in my entry when he died -- has taken a new light in my mind.

I have never been fond of PLF's obsessivelyadjectival, intensely emotional style of writing, while loving the incidents and the characters. But the mounding of language, the obsessive quoting, and the drinking, the hyper-activity, the pushing of physical borders, have come together in my mind in another construct. Suppose PLF was -- not hyperlexic: that word has been taken -- suppose he was the far extreme of dyslexic? Suppose the rush of words and images was so intense, so noisy, that the recitations were a way of releasing the pressure, and the drinking atemporary means of muting the noise and slowing down the rush?

Cooper shows him constantly going off for two weeks or a month to a cottage in England or a windowless tower in Italy, or a shack on a beach to try to get some writing done -- usually with some bright and lovely woman, and what lovely women they were!  Most of us have been aware of the non-appearance of the third volume of the walk to Constantinople.  But suppose that, unlike most of us who have to coax words out one step at a time in thin threads, PLF was trying to prevent himself from being trampled by the hordes that would not stop rushing at him? Andersen's "Red Shoes" about the girl who could not stop dancing haunted my childhood, and I am wondering if this is much of the PLF story.

I wanted to know a good bit more about Joan Eyres Monsell than Cooper has chosen to tell.& Cooper gives biographical information, but precious little insight.  Essentially she
says about Joan what one of his male drinking visitors wrote me: "Joan was extremely reticent and really didn't want to be written about--that was part of it. She was shy of being photographed--at least when I knew her."  Really, there is no point in biography if the subject dictates the content. The visitor also wrote: "As I say in my own book, Joan was an old soul, wiser than Paddy."

PLF knew this, treasured it, and was grateful.  Joan died in June 2003.  Cooper writes: "Paddy . . . would spend hours lying on her bed, gazing at the white arch that framed the window and the olive tree beyond, and it took a long time to get used to the loneliness. 'I constantly find myself say, "I must write -- or tell -- that to Joan"; then suddenly remember that one can't and nothing seems to have any point.  Then I remember all those happy years and what undeserved luck one had had, and the tears shift a bit . . ' " 
(That juxtaposition of olive tree and marriage and bed . . .)

There is much more in the biography than I have addressed here. I grieve for the erosion of the myth: I grieve more for the private persons.

* I use PLF because in the milieu from which I came, "Paddy" -- which apparently everyone called him -- was an extremely derogatory term for an Irishman, and I have never felt right with it.  

The Patrick Leigh Fermor Archives.


  1. Here’s a quote by Hilary Mantel (author of Wolf Hall, etc.):

    “Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy? But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes: you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy, not that you asked that question, I’m asking myself. I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.”

  2. I am so interested in your response to Artemis Cooper's biography of PLF, and I'm pleased you have looked at things from Joan's perspective. I can confess to feeling great sorrow for her through the book (the miscarriage, and the hysterectomy) but I hadn't considered the impact of Paddy's reckless 'infidelities' (I put quotes around that word, as Artemis implies that Joan felt no sexual jealousy...) - I did struggle a bit with that and your thoughtful response makes quite a lot of sense from a woman's perspective. I appreciate your analysis and share your sympathy for Joan. I must make a small correction - I didn't actually hear PLF say 'We may just forget to die'. I was repeating what a young man (I think the son of PLF's neighbour) told a group of us on that very special Name Day in 2007.

  3. Thanks, Maggie, for the correction, and thanks for writing.

    Thanks, Mark, for the Mantel quotation.


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