Patrick Leigh Fermor Enters the Canon

Dominic Green, writing in the Weekly Standard, discusses the career of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The article prominently features serveral points of contact with Evelyn Waugh, not least their service in WWII Crete (Waugh’s in retreat, Leigh Fermor’s in heroism) and their sharing of friendship and correspondence with Diana Cooper and Ann Fleming (and, he might have mentioned, Nancy Mitford). Green also subtly raises Leigh Fermor into the literary canon of 20c English literature by comparing his career with those of Waugh and Wodehouse:

How many English literary writers from the early 20th century remain genuinely popular? Wodehouse and Waugh, certainly. Maugham, though, is almost forgotten, and Conrad is more respected than read. Leigh Fermor produced six full-length books in his 96 years. … Though relatively small, this output suffices to confirm Leigh Fermor as the 20th century’s finest exponent of a genre that the English invented: travel writing. … When Wodehouse (born 1881) was confronted with the enormities of World War II, he persisted with his Edwardian fantasies and got himself into trouble accordingly. To Waugh (born 1903), the Nazi-Soviet Pact revealed the enemy “plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off . . . the Modern Age in arms.” When the Soviet Union changed from enemy to ally, Waugh knew that, one way or another, the Modern Age would win. Leigh Fermor was born in 1915. The precocious literary pedestrian was formed by a war that he did not expect to survive.

When Wodehouse was 23 years old, he wrote The Gold Bat (1904), a novel of boarding school pranks involving a miniature cricket bat. When Waugh was 23, he wrote “The Balance” (1926), an experimental story written as a film scenario. When Leigh Fermor was 25, in 1940, he trained as an Irish Guards officer, transferred to the Intelligence Corps, and sailed for Greece. “I had read somewhere that the average life of an infantry officer in the First World War was eight weeks, and I had no reason to think that the odds would be much better in the Second. So I thought I might as well die in a nice uniform.” By the time he was able to get out alive from the war, get out of uniform, and, his derring done, set out again from Britain and return to Greece, he was 31 years old.

Other points of contact between Waugh and Leigh Fermor include their marriages to women above their own class, their desire to be accepted by the upper classes through the exertion of their charm, and their choice of a writing venue in a small Chagford, Devon hotel. Some of these come together in this passage:

In 1944, when Leigh Fermor was in the Amari Valley, Evelyn Waugh, a veteran of the earlier Battle of Crete, retired to Chagford to write Brideshead Revisited. “I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm,” Waugh’s aesthete Anthony Blanche tells his social-climbing protagonist, Charles Ryder. “I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside of these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

Green’s article goes on to explain that Leigh Fermor’s life and works have inspired the formation of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society, and he files his report from their recent visit to Crete where they explored several sites of their namesake’s exploits during the war. He also discusses the publication of several posthumous works of Leigh Fermor including collected letters, memoirs and, not least, the final volume of the travel trilogy as well as a current exhibition at the British Museum featuring Leigh Fermor’s life in Greece and interaction there with two painters. The article concludes with this:

The further World War II recedes in time, the sharper the edges of its essential contours become. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books and letters are strung across time’s abyss, skeins that still connect the English to themselves even as the rope runs out. He was one of the last Englishmen. This, and not his esoteric reworking of Greek Modernism, is what explains Leigh Fermor’s posthumous growth from popularity to eminence, from heroism to myth. …

Another unrelated report in the Powells Books weblog contains an interview of Christopher Buckley, novelist, essayist and son of William F Buckley. One of the questions evokes a passage just quoted by Green:

Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
From memory, therefore perhaps not 100% accurate:

“I tried to warn you about English charm that night at Thame. It destroys everything. It destroys art. It destroys love. And now, my dear Charles, I g-greatly f-fear that it has destroyed you.” — Anthony Blanche to Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

And this was followed by another:

My Top Five Books
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I reread it at least once a year. Waugh himself said later in life that he thought it flawed (over-rich, over-ripe), but it never fails to pull me into its spell of golden, doomed youth. And the language is just caviar.

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