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Living and writing

Anthony Lane wrote a piece about a scholar and soldier who played a suspenseful and successful role behind the lines in the Battle of Crete during World War II, and became famous for his travel literature. ("The Englishman Abroad" New Yorker, May 22, 2006) With the face of “a hawk with a sense of humor”, Patrick Leigh Fermor is adventurous and playful, educated in the classics and dangerously capable with a surprising capacity for self-sacrifice and pleasure. He might be seen as the model of a certain kind of Brit or as one who modeled himself after earlier versions.

After a “lawless youth” bumping around schools, Leigh Fermor became a nomad. Like his 19th century predecessors, he enjoyed exploring other countries and slipping quietly "under their skin”. Within a decade he will become a gentleman warrior whose daring brings him to the brink of capture, torture, and death. His exploits, which become the legend of books and film, amuse him.

During these hectic events, he takes time for literature, for its “incantatory music” and “body of accumulated wisdom. . . .His delivery of poetry has a brisk, practical air that makes a sonnet seem as indispensable as a decent suitcase or a pair of binoculars – part of the well-made equipment that a gentleman should be expected to carry.”

After the war, with “a commanding modesty,” a suit of “impeccable cut,” and “a perennial fear of boredom”, Leigh Fermor lives half the year in England and half the year in southern Greece with the Englishwoman he loves until she dies. Sometime during those years he instills in himself the discipline of writing, and describes his journey on foot across Europe in 1933.

Two classics result: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), both reissued by the New York Review of Books. Anthony Lane sees “the penitent” buried far below “the grandee, the bon vivant, and the storyteller”, and notes that Leigh Fermor also wrote A Time to Keep Silence, a study of the monastic experience that takes contemplative pleasure in “the rigor of the regime that the monks espouse and the tranquility that it breeds in their character”.

Leigh Fermor likes to drink whisky and wine. He avoids sin, which he understands, I think, in the old way as “the use of that which should be loved and the love of that which should be used.”