PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR
A Life in Letters
Edited by Adam Sisman
469 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $19.95.
Though hardly known in this country, in his native England Patrick Leigh Fermor is practically a cult figure, often said to be the best travel writer of the 20th century. But Fermor — or Paddy, as he was known to just about everyone — was also a famous vacillator and procrastinator, always distractable, unable to meet a deadline, and much of the effort he might have put into books and articles went into letters instead. Adam Sisman, the editor of this volume, guesses that in the course of his very long life (Fermor died in 2011, at 96) he might have written as many as 10,000. Sisman has selected fewer than 200, but they do add up to a biography of sorts — or, rather, a scrapbook of a rich, fascinating life lived mostly out of a suitcase and in a race to the post office. Until he was almost 50, and finally owned a house, Fermor seldom stayed in one place longer than a month.
The Fermor who emerges in these letters (and in a conventional biography published in 2012 by Artemis Cooper, granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper, one of his most favored correspondents) was a bundle of contradictions. He was a man of letters but also, like his hero Byron, a man of action — a war hero and a restless adventurer, who even swam the Hellespont when he was 69. He never finished school — his headmaster called him “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness” and tossed him out for holding hands with a shopkeeper’s daughter — but was prodigiously learned, conversant in at least eight languages and able to recite hours of poetry by heart. He was an old-school Englishman, a toff — bespoke clothes, club memberships, plummy accent, riding to hounds — who lived most of his life abroad, broke much of the time, settling down at last in Greece. He was an unabashed snob and social climber who also relished the company of peasants and shepherds. He was a famous ladies’ man and at the same time deeply in love with his wife, who patiently overlooked his wanderings. (She even lent him money for prostitutes.) And he was a tireless socializer, beloved by an enormous circle of friends, who often yearned for solitude…