If you enjoy travel writing or adventurous biographies, I recommend “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure” by Artemis Cooper. Fermor led a charmed life, dying in 2011 at the age of 96, after living an unorthodox life on his own terms. He is best known as a travel writer -- indeed, his
“A Time of Gifts” is one of my favorite books of all time. In this affectionate biography, Cooper uses letters, interviews, publications and journals to describe Fermor's life in all its complexity, conflict, and joy.
Fermor was born in 1915 in London. Fermor's youth saw him veering between two extremes: a bright boy with an impressive memory and a talent for languages and history, who was also undisciplined and unwilling (and perhaps unable) to abide by rules. As a result, he had difficulty remaining in any one school. By the time Fermor turned 18, his future was in doubt. He was in debt from living a wild social life, had no prospects for an academic or a professional future, and his lack of discipline made tenure in the army questionable at best.
At this point, Leigh Fermor developed his plan to walk across Europe, from Holland to Constantinople. The prospect excited him -- the chance of adventure, the promise of meeting new people and the opportunity to see places he had only read about. He set off on December 8, 1933. The first stage of this journey was retold by Fermor in “A Time of Gifts,” while stage two is related in
“Between the Woods and the Water.” A posthumous volume about the final stage of the journey will be published in spring 2014.
Cooper also provides insight in Fermor's life after the walk. She details his relationship with Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, a Romanian painter with whom he lived until the onset of World War II. She describes his work as a British Intelligence Officer in WWII. Fermor achieved fame for leading a successful operation to kidnap a German general which Cooper describes, including some controversy over different versions of events, and what happened when Hollywood took an interest.
After WWII, Leigh Fermor lived a hand-to-mouth existence. A constant in his life was Joan Rayner, whom he met just after World War II, and who was his longtime partner, then wife. Rayner emerges as a fascinating figure who seemed happy for Fermor to engage in affairs and spend considerable time away from her. Theirs was not a conventional relationship. I would have liked more focus on Joan throughout the biography -- or, perhaps, for someone to write a biography of her. She appears as someone who valued a spiritual, emotional and intellectual connection with Fermor far more than any physical relationship. She also was widely-traveled, a skilled photographer, an intelligent person with many gifts and a quiet confidence in herself.
In the end, Cooper presents Fermor as a three-dimensional figure, a man whose gifts and flaws shaped his life. He veered between depression and exhilaration throughout his life, but consistently viewed himself as profoundly fortunate. He lived outside of convention, on his own terms. Cooper does not gloss over his flaws, but explores them with sensitivity and balance. I emerged with a better understanding of his life, and a new foundation from which to approach his writings which I have not yet read.