In her biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper has achieved something very special – to transmit the effervescent charm and joie de vivre of her subject in such a way as to give the reader a very real sense of having experienced it first-hand. It is an affectionate, fast-paced and entirely non-judgmental portrait of an extraordinary life. As Robert Macfarlane puts it, PLF appears at the end more glorious for the faint tarnish he acquires in its course. There is tarnish; flaws are revealed unflinchingly – and the heroic figure who has been mythologised since he strode out across Europe emerges as an extraordinarily gifted, rather fragile, swashbuckling buccaneer.
When I first read A Time of Gifts earlier this year, I conjured a very clear image in my mind of what PLF must have been like. Magnificent, charming, perhaps a little naive, striding through pre-War Europe with almost no money and nothing to recommend him but his irresistible personality. There is always that sense of mystery, too – he never reveals more than would be chivalrous about the women he encounters, and whilst one gets the impression that his childhood was not necessarily an easy one, his consequent insecurities are not examined. Artemis Cooper gives flesh to this literary persona in the most affectionate way; reading her book is to feel entirely immersed in both PLF’s world and his character.
It is self-evident from the network of generous friends he made throughout Europe that he was possessed of the kind of enchanting, extrovert charm which endeared him to (most) people. What Artermis Cooper does so successfully, though, is to reveal a personality of light and shade. His experiences at school, coupled with an absent father and the manically inconsistent affections of his mother, left him with fundamental insecurities as a young man. Despite his eidetic memory and hungry intelligence he had been convinced that his peculiar cocktail of bookishness and boisterous was worth very little – it was only by abandoning England entirely and setting off across Europe that he began to relish his abilities and to satisfy his appetite for living. It was during these travels that he forged friendships with the noble families of a dying Europe (connections which would colour the rest of his life) and fell in love for the first time, with a woman sixteen years his senior. As AC puts it, Balasha was touched by Paddy’s youth, and saw that his erratic brilliance was in need of some polish. His love of a party and willingness to become embroiled in a pace of life he could not afford did not appeal to everyone – Somerset Maugham once witheringly described him as that middle class gigolo for upper-class women – and his fondness for fun made him careless with other people’s feelings on occasion. Without either fighting his corner or passing judgment, Cooper demonstrates that this was perhaps the inevitable accompaniment to the force of his personality – a man who shone with joy is a thing of extremes.
On the other side of that exuberant coin were bouts of depression. His gorgeously dense prose did not always come easily, and the difficulty he had in finishing his books exacerbated those periods of melancholy. The early pages of A Time to Keep Silence articulate that beautifully. What that book doesn’t mention, though, is Paddy’s reliance not just on monastic solitude, but also on his wife Joan when it came to managing his depression.
The description of their relationship is lovingly, but very honestly, drawn. Like Basha, Joan was older than Paddy – the Wendy to his Peter Pan, as AC puts it – and although an adventurous, independent sole in her own right, and a very talented photographer, she was a steadier soul. AC describes how she would sit in a bar, contentedly wrapped in her own thoughts, whilst PLF held court during long drinking sessions. Her scrupulously catalogued photographs were crucial prompts for his writing, and she almost always insisted in being written out of his stories. They didn’t marry for many years and never had children – and, in the strictest sense, their relationship was not truly exclusive until they finally wed in 1963, despite the fact that she essentially funded this life-style from her own trust fund in the years before he was making any real money from his writing. There is a wonderful dit about them finding the Mediterranean heat too strong one evening as they were trying to dine, prompting them to carry their table into the sea until they were sitting waist-deep in cool water. It comes across as a unique,very loving relationship, seemingly founded on loyalty and a shared sense of fun – I would thoroughly enjoy reading a book dedicated to their shared story.
AC’s book is as exciting and full of anecdotes as Paddy’s life, built upon interviews with his friends, private letters, PLF’s writing, and her own meticulous research. He famously captured a German General during the War; was fundamental to the Cretan resistance; scaled Peruvian mountains in his 50s; waged war on tongue cancer; and swam the Hellespont when he was 69. There are reams of hilarious and heart-warming tales, and above all Paddy emerges as a man who felt an imperative to wring joy from every moment. It is a masterclass in turning one’s own story into an adventure. We may not all be able to match his feats of courage or his vivacity, but PLF, channelled by AC, certainly inspires you to try.