When he was 18 he got booted from military school, so did the logical thing: walked alone from Holland to Constantinople, sleeping in forests, farmhouses, bars—wherever he set down his pack. During World War II he and a band of British commandos parachuted into Nazi-occupied Crete and set up shop “disguised as Cretan shepherds, complete with black turbans and sashes and armed with silver-and-ivory daggers.”* In 1944 he kidnapped a German general—not something I’ve done, but I assume it was exciting.
This is a biographical sketch, emphasis on sketch. I'm not an expert on the man. I have only read one of his books and portions of another. So, these are the impressions of a casual reader relatively new to his work. (However, all of the above—from his hike to Turkey to kidnapping the general—is true. Except for the 008 part, alas.) I have read several magazine pieces about him—Anthony Lane’s from the New Yorker is great—and whenever I do, I envy him. Or maybe I envy the image as it appears in profiles, but I envy it to the point that I wish I was him. Even in old age he seemed far cooler than the rest of us. In Anthony Lane’s profile, he tells this anecdote of hanging with an 83-year-old Leigh Fermor in Crete:
There might be something to my “Her Majesty’s Secret Service” joke. No, not that he really had a License to Inspect Breasts. (Ladies, those are always counterfeit.) Here was a brilliant, sort-of-aristocratic Englishman with movie-star looks and immense erudition. His youthful wanderjahr lasted three, and featured actual wandering. He fought bravely in a ‘good’ war, traveled and lived throughout the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and South America—the same places where James Bond fought Soviets and nefarious mega-villains while bedding laconic, slightly-dazed supermodels. Ian Fleming’s hero, then, is a juvenile version of England’s dashing Renaissance man, while Leigh Fermor was the genuine article. (To be fair, while 007 may be juvenile, at least Fleming didn’t think up “008: Royal Breast Inpsector.”)
The one Leigh Fermor book I’ve read is ‘A Time to Keep Silence.’ The exotic locale in this is a tad sleepy, but completely removed from modern Western life: Europe’s ancient monasteries. Much of this very short book takes place in St. Wandrille, a Benedictine abbey in Northern France. Leigh Fermor stayed there not out of any religious impulse, but “in search of someplace quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book I was writing.” He found that and much more. He found hospitality, warmth, and friendship.
But not belief. He remained, I think, an agnostic throughout his life. He writes in his introduction that he has a “recalcitrance or skepticism or plain incapacity for belief.” What he did not lack, clearly, is respect for belief. He writes admiringly of the monastic life, pointing out that the terms “‘Pray for me’” and ‘Give me your blessing’ are no polite formulae, but requests for definite, effective acts.” He describes his hosts as “men whose lives were spent hammering out in silent factories these imponderable but priceless benefits.” A few sentences later, he conjures the hostile skepticism that such claims evoke from those we now call “neo-atheists,” and responds in the only flash of anger in this otherwise quiet and meditative book:
It is curious to hear, from the outside world in the throes of its yearly metamorphoses, cries of derision levelled at the monastic life. How shallow, whatever views may be held concerning the fundamental truth or fallacy of the Christian religion, are these accusations of hypocrisy, sloth, selfishness and escapism! The life of monks passes in a state of white-hot conviction and striving to which there is never a holiday; and no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false. They have foresworn the pleasures and rewards of a world whose values they consider meaningless; and they alone have as a body confronted the terrifying problem of eternity, abandoning everything to help their fellow-men and themselves to meet it….
At St. Wandrille I was inhabiting at last a tower of solid ivory, and I, not the monks, was the escapist. For my hosts, the Abbey was a springboard into eternity; for me, a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom. Strange that the same habitat should prove favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.
You can almost see him stand, hear his voice rise, in defense of his friends.**
For all of his gifts—from his athletic build to his looks, from his great intellect to his eloquence, from his long, happy life to his exciting adventures—perhaps there was something he lacked. Perhaps there was something that he envied, something that made him look at another man and wish he could trade places.
White-hot conviction. I’d take that over anything that Patrick Leigh Fermor had, even if he really did have a 008 license.
Well… Let me think about that.
*Robert D. Kaplan, "The Humanist in the Foxhole," New York Times, June 15, 2011. Read it here.
**I should also add that one does not have to be a neo-atheist, or an atheist at all, to hold monastic life in scorn. It is a day later that I write this this note. I imagined the neo-atheist, I guess, to contrast a non-believer like Leigh Fermor with a non-believer like (pick your favorite best-selling biologist author). Leigh Fermor not only respects belief, he is also intolerant of derision aimed at believers.