For fans of top-drawer travel writing the next year holds two particular treats. The first is Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor: journalist, war hero and author of two luminous volumes of travel writing regarded as some of the finest ever written. The second, coming next autumn, is the missing third volume of Leigh Fermor’s trilogy, The Broken Road, which Cooper has reconstructed with the help of Colin Thubron.
Cooper, already an established biographer, is uniquely placed to chart Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary life. Her grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, became friends with Fermor shortly after the war, as subsequently did her father John Julius Norwich. She first met Leigh Fermor as a teenager and had been working on the book with him for a decade up to his death last year.
Much material was drawn from life, but not from classic face-to-face recorded interviews: “He would clam up,” recalls Cooper. “He found it very difficult and quite restricting, he didn’t like answering direct questions. I got quite depressed about it.” Finally she hit on a more oblique method, offering to help tidy up his “Augean stables” of a study. “I was able to pick something up and say ‘Oh, I never knew you knew so and so’ or ‘do tell me about such and such’, and because it was in reference to a conversation it would spark something off—so I would do a certain amount and then go and write it all down.”
Cooper fleshed out that skeleton with access to an unpublished diary of Leigh Fermor’s, plus interviews with members of his wider family, his many friends and full access to his archive. As such, she has been able to reconstruct an extraordinarily detailed account of Leigh Fermor’s life.
He was left by his mother in rural Northamptonshire for the first four years of his life, before an undistinguished schooling saw him abandon formal education at 18. Filled with romantic notions of being a wandering writer and scholar in the medieval tradition, he embarked on an epic walk across Europe from the Channel to Constantinople, equipped with little more than stout boots, a rucksack, notebooks and charm.
Starting in 1933, he befriended a string of aristocrats, who passed him along their family connections right across central and Eastern Europe. He became an accidental witness to a way of life that was obliterated by the war, and his two travel volumes, published decades later, brought that lost world back to life.
The war itself “was the making of him”, says Cooper. Rejected by the Guards regiment, he moved to the intelligence corps, which could make more use of his languages and experience of the continent. Accordingly, he spent two years undercover in occupied Crete assisting the Greek resistance. His most famous exploit was to kidnap a German general and smuggle him off the island, an escapade turned into the film Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Leigh Fermor is played by Dirk Bogarde. After 1945 he lived a rootless life as a journalist and writer, before settling permanently in Greece and eventually marrying.
To this basic structure Cooper has added a vast amount of depth, with appearances from a whole host of characters, from William Somerset Maughan to Deborah Mitford, from Lawrence Durrell to Ian Fleming.
A key decision she made early on was not to retrace Leigh Fermor’s pre-war journeys, however. “I wanted the pictures in my head, and the Europe that he had created, in my head. I also realised that the gestation of the two books [ie Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water] is so long and convoluted—with drafts and early versions—that if I had added another layer of me interpreting what he had seen I didn’t think it was going to get us much further.”
Although this is an authorised biography, it is no hagiography. “I think one of the reasons he stipulated that this book should come out after he and Joan [his wife] were dead was there were certain things he wouldn’t have wanted to see in print.”
As a young man Leigh Fermor had an eye for the ladies, but, partly because he often invented a third character as a chaperone when he wrote about liaisons, and partly because “he was of that generation where a gentlemen never talked about the women in his life”, much of this remains only sketched in. Women apart, a painfully funny letter about crabs, and one splendidly bitchy remark from Somerset Maugham about Leigh Fermor (“that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”) are the only items on the debit side.
What remains on the credit side is the irresistible sense of a life of adventure, erudition, bravery and charm recounted in depth and with love.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is out now, published by John Murray.