A collection of correspondence to friends and family over more than half a century, recounting the noted British traveler and writer’s adventures over a long life.
If letters are a lost art, you wouldn’t know it from reading this lively collection by Fermor (1915-2011), who, writes editor Sisman (John le Carré: The Biography, 2015, etc.), saw them as “a means…of making convivial connection across the void.” Famously, as a young man, Fermor had walked across Europe to what is now Istanbul, witnessing the rise of Nazism as he crossed Germany. In the ensuing war, he served as a special operations officer who, spectacularly, kidnapped a German general in Greece. “The Germans in Crete,” he recalls understatedly of his squad of behind-the-lines mischief-makers, “were just as courageous, probably more efficient, four times more numerous and a hundred times more ruthless than the British…and yet we all managed to survive quite easily.” Fermor seems to have remembered everyone he met and every snippet of conversation that entered his ears, for his letters, to friends and fellow writers such as the poet George Seferis and the medieval historian John Julius Norwich, are full of details of all that he witnessed. Sometimes his memories, as presented in these letters, are quite striking: here he awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of wild ponies driven by the cold from the Devonshire moors, there he recalls decrepit Transylvanian hotels and rugged Spanish goat paths. Even his mundane reminiscences are interesting. He protests in old age that his “memory swings very erratically from the lucid to the nebulous and back,” but he doesn’t skip a beat. Fans of Fermor’s travelogues will recognize incidents, and readers new to him will find this a good introduction.
Recounting triumph and tragedy, these letters help round out a portrait of a writer who had long ago reconciled himself to a minor role in literary history—but who deserves a wide readership all the same.