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Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor’

How to Piss Off W. Somerset Maugham, and Other News

June 18, 2014 | by


You shouldn’t have said that. Somerset Maugham in a portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1934.

  • Beneath Picasso’s painting The Blue Room, infrared technology has revealed another painting, “a portrait of a man wearing a jacket, bow tie, and rings.”
  • Literary Feud of the Day: Patrick Leigh Fermor versus W. Somerset Maugham. The latter called the former “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women,” but “at least a small part of Somerset Maugham’s hostility can be attributed to an evening during which Leigh Fermor, a guest at the older writer’s table, entertained the company by making fun of his host’s stutter.”
  • Pablo Delcán on his complex, eerie cover designs for the Spanish editions of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy: “It was about giving a twist to the natural and known world, a way of making it fictional and distorted.”
  • Charles Barsotti, one of The New Yorker’s greatest cartoonists, died yesterday. Among his many masterworks is a cartoon of a cheerful God talking to a nervous new arrival in heaven: “No, no, that’s not a sin, either. My goodness, you must have worried yourself to death.”
  • An interview with Barbara Cassin, whose Dictionary of Untranslatables is now available in English: “I wanted something else, and this something else is rephilosophizing words with words and not with universals. And these words are words in languages. Let us see what it means, how it can bring us to dwell a little bit on the difference between mind, Geist, and esprit. What happens if we look at the words, where they emerge and where they philosophize? Let us have a look.”


A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2

May 24, 2013 | by

P.L.F. on Ithaca, 1946

P.L.F. on Ithaca, 1946.

See part 1 here.

Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?

“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.

“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.

“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.

“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter. Read More »


A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 1

May 17, 2013 | by


Patrick Leigh Fermor, center, with members of the team that abducted General Heinrich Kreipe: George Tyrakis, W. Stanley Moss, Manoli Paterakis, and Antoni Papaleonidas.

It has been said of Ulysses that, were Dublin ever obliterated, the city could be substantially rebuilt by consulting its pages. Along these lines, if all Europe were, God forbid, laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of its historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Patrick who? Although popular both in his native England, where his books are available in Penguin paperback, and in many other countries—he has been translated into any number of languages—Leigh Fermor (who died in 2011) is known to only a devout few in this country, where, scandalously, his work is not distributed. I myself came to him three years ago, when a friend pressed me to seek out A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about his teenage walk across Europe in the early thirties. By chance, that very week I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts. I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.

I am not given to idolizing writers or reading them entire, but this was a special case. Before long I had tracked down, whenever possible in their beautiful John Murray hardback editions, not only Between the Woods and the Water (which sees Leigh Fermor as far as the Iron Gates of the Danube) but also his remaining work—two travel books about Greece, one each about the Caribbean and Peru, a slim volume on monasteries, and a novella. Having devoured these, I started trying to find out more about Leigh Fermor himself. Piecing together information from his books and other sources, I came up with the following.

A clever but unruly student, Leigh Fermor was expelled from a series of schools and at sixteen dropped out altogether. After a period in London halfheartedly cramming for Sandhurst and (far more eagerly) partying with the last of the Bright Young People, he set out in December 1933 on his journey to Istanbul, which took him over a year. At this point the picture grew vague; there was some improbable story about his tagging along with a Greek royalist army as it quashed a rebellion, another about his falling in love with a Romanian princess. Read More »


On the Shelf

June 15, 2011 | by

A cultural news roundup.

  • Legendary travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor died this week at ninety-six. Described by the BBC as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” Fermor authored twelve books and numerous articles. A BBC tribute gives him his due.
  • Australian minister for small businesses Nick Sherry has declared that the bookstore is doomed. Speaking in Canberra, the politician declared, “I think in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist because of what’s happening with Internet-based, Web-based distribution ... What’s occurring now is an exponential take-off—we’ve reached a tipping point.”
  • Not one but two prominent “lesbian bloggers” are revealed to, in fact, be straight men.
  • Francine Prose and Keri Hulme have sharp words for Naipaul.
  • Rehabilitating the original “Uncle Tom.”
  • Murakami publicly criticizes Japan’s nuclear policy.
  • The return of Batgirl.
  • Actor Mark Rylance quotes poet Louis Jenkins in his Tony acceptance speech.
  • Werner Herzog will narrate an audio version of surprise-hit “bedtime story” Go the Fuck to Sleep.
  • The 100 greatest nonfiction books?

    A Week in Culture: Peter Terzian, Writer

    September 29, 2010 | by


    6:46 A.M. Sit on the couch with Toby, our dog, to read Ulysses. I’ve been doing this in hour-long sessions, a few mornings each week, since spring. Today I begin chapter 9, otherwise known as “Scylla and Charybdis.” This is the one where Stephen Dedalus gives a disquisition on Shakespeare in the reading room of Dublin’s National Library. (Meanwhile, Leopold Bloom, the novel’s main character, is in the National Museum nearby, checking out the bottoms of the classical statues to see if they have anuses.) I am, as a friend calls it, “geeking out” on Ulysses. My method is: read each chapter once through with Ulysses Annotated, Don Gifford’s exhaustive book1 of explanatory notes, at my elbow; read the corresponding sections in a couple of critical texts2 that discuss the book chapter by chapter; go back and read the chapter a second time, neat. But that’s not the end of the geekery! Before I begin each new section, I take a look at Ian Gunn and Clive Hart’s incredibly fun James Joyce’s Dublin, which maps the routes Bloom and Dedalus walk over the course of their shared June 16th and reprints archival photos3 of the Irish capital in the early twentieth century. For “Scylla and Charybdis,” there’s a great picture of the interior of the National Library, with men wearing many-layered, tightly buttoned suits, sitting at long wooden tables similar to the ones in the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room. No one’s playing Minesweeper on his laptop, though; these Dubliners are reading books—books, imagine!—propped on very civilized-looking reading stands.

    This chapter is pretty note-heavy. Over the next hour, I get through only sixty lines of text, but according to the annotations, these lines contain allusions to Hamlet, Goethe4, Milton, Blake, Yeats, Matthew Arnold, Marie Corelli, A.E., an obscure play by Synge, and Irish political history5. I also learn two new Shakespearean words: coranto, “a running dance,” and sinkapace, “a dance with five steps.” I should say that I’m technically rereading Ulysses, but my memory of the book from the first time around, in college, twenty-three years ago, is almost nil. I’m sure I stumbled over every other sentence then. Not this time!

    7:51 A.M. Toby and I hear Caleb waking up in the bedroom; Toby slides off the couch, corantoes off.

    7:54 A.M. Joyce’s allusion to the phrase “strangers in the house,” an Irish epithet for British invaders, causes the Elvis Costello song6There’s a Stranger in the House” to briefly play in my head.

    8:03 A.M. Breakfast. Caleb and I are slowly reading through The Oxford Book of English Verse, aloud, poem by poem. The idea is to start the day with beauty and art, while bad news waits on the doorstep, temporarily contained in a blue plastic bag. But sometimes, against our better judgment, we find the temptation to read the newspaper overwhelming. Today we decide to do both—the paper while we eat cereal, a poem after. I read “Political Cauldron Stirred by Old Video of Candidate,” about Christine O’Donnell’s dabbling in witchcraft, and immediately regret our decision.

    8:25 A.M. Caleb reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, then I read it. It’s beautiful. The message is, Caleb says, “You love me more because I’m olden7.” We figure out that Shakespeare probably wrote it when he was in his late thirties—dismaying that he thought himself in his twilight then. I’ve read a lot of the plays but very few of the sonnets. I know this one, though, because Kate Jacobs, a Hoboken singer-songwriter I like, has adapted it and set it to music. Her version, “That Time of Year,” is enchanting—it’s done klezmer-style, with a horn, fiddle, and banjo.

    9:02 A.M. Iron my clothes8 for work. I figure out that I can memorize Sonnet 73 in a week if I learn just two lines a day.

    That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hang

    I’ve been obsessed with the idea of memorization since reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, an account of the British travel writer’s walk across Europe in the 1930s. Leigh Fermor passed the time by reciting9 the anthology’s worth of English poetry he had committed to memory as a schoolboy. Rote learning was not a priority of suburban public schools in the 1980s—we memorized the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade, and that was it—and since reading Leigh Fermor’s book I’ve fantasized about making up for it in middle age, though without much10 success.

    10:10 A.M. At work, read my Facebook news feed11. My friend Sean Howe has changed his profile picture to the rooster on the cover of Pavement’s Watery, Domestic EP. Sean texted me Saturday evening to say he had an extra ticket for Pavement at the Williamsburg Waterfront, the first of five New York dates on its reunion tour—did I want to go? I immediately said yes, and then realized I didn’t want to after all, and sheepishly called him back Sunday morning to say I had changed my mind. A reason for my ambivalence occurred to me later: that seeing Pavement, a band I loved in the 1990s, might make me feel temporally displaced—as though, for one night only, I would revisit a musically exciting time in my life, and then the window would close up again, for good. The prospect of such a heady rush of nostalgia made me uneasy12.

    10:44 A.M. Sean e-mails a link to a review of the Pavement concert with the set list appended to the bottom. Maybe I was wrong—looking at this list, I think I would have been happy to hear these songs again.

    12:32 P.M. Take advantage of my new MoMA membership by meeting my friend Kate Bolick for lunch at the trattoria-ish cafeteria on the second floor. Afterward we quickly walk through a small show about modern kitchen design. Some great poster art, including British wartime propaganda with a rat that “will eat your rations,” and TV monitors with kitchen-related vintage films. It’s too much to take in over a few minutes—I’ll have to come back.

    6:18 P.M. On subway platform, begin new Alan Bennett story “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” in the London Review of Books.

    6:50 P.M. Train pulls into the station near my house. It’s touch-and-go with this story; not sure I’ll end up finishing it.

    7:45 P.M. Leaf through new issue of New York magazine while waiting for frittata to set on stovetop; wish that there were more photos of Andrew Garfield in Facebook movie article. I have a haircut scheduled for later in the week—could I pull off13 his flawlessly styled quiff?

    9:31 P.M. Read draft of “Melville’s Secrets,” a lecture Caleb will deliver later in the week at Geneseo State College. He’s been asked to give the annual Harding Lecture, named after the late Walter Harding, a preeminent Thoreau scholar who taught at the school. The lecture is about “secret meaning” in Melville, specifically in Moby-Dick and Clarel, Melville’s little-read epic poem. Why do certain books, Caleb asks, make us feel that the author possesses esoteric knowledge he or she has encoded within the text? What might that hidden knowledge mean in Melville’s case? I haven’t read Moby-Dick in a long time, but I’m fully absorbed by Caleb’s paper; for one, there’s a lot of sperm14 in it. Read More »


    1. Longer than my edition of Ulysses itself.
    2. Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey, which brilliantly traces patterns I wouldn’t otherwise recognize; and the warmer and fuzzier Ulysses and Us, by Declan Kiberd, which argues that the famously avant-garde novel is actually a useful guide to a well-lived life.
    3. When I read a novel set in a place or era I haven’t personally experienced, I want to know as much as possible what its real-life trappings looked like—the scale of the buildings, the style of drawing-room furniture, the fashions in men’s facial hair.
    4. Here’s a beautiful line about Hamlet from Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister: “There is an oak tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.”
    5. There’s lots of Irish political history in this book. Parnell, Daniel O’Connell, the Phoenix Park murders—my head is spinning trying to keep it all straight.
    6. An outtake from My Aim Is True that Costello later rerecorded for a single with George Jones.
    7. Olde and olden are words I originally adopted, for in-home use only, to describe food that’s not up to my high standards of freshness—i.e., “I’m not going to eat ye olde leftovers; you can if you want to” or “This milk is a day past the sell-by date. It’s olden—I don’t care if it’s still half full, I’m going to open a new carton.” We’ve expanded the usage to refer to our middle-aged selves.
    8. The problem with J.Crew pants is the fly. For some reason, the fabric folds open in such a way that one’s zipper becomes exposed. I spend a lot of time ironing the flies of my pants shut.
    9. Out loud, sometimes to the consternation of passersby.
    10. read: any
    11. That didn’t take long.
    12. Of course, there was also the prospect of crowds, jostling, tall people.
    13. A rare moment of hair-emulation that’s appropriate to my actual hair, which is thick and shrubby. Usually I covet floppy hair.
    14. The whale kind.