The Byron of Our Time

'Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure'

Artemis Cooper
New York Review Books, $30, 448 pp.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) achieved three impressive goals in travel, war, and art. In 1933 and ’34, in his late teens and after expulsion from school, he walked southeast across Europe, passing through nine countries: Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. This 1,700-mile ramble (about the distance from New York to Denver), while not the equal of the agonizing treks made by Henry Morton Stanley across Equatorial Africa or by Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter of Arabia, was a feat of social and cultural exploration.

In the course of his journey, Fermor, a penniless wanderer and frequent guest, met many interesting down-at-heel aristocrats, who, bored on their crumbling country estates, welcomed the company of a well-read, high-spirited, and entertaining young man. In castles and libraries, with hot baths and good wine, he indulged his curiosity about genealogy, his great capacity for drink, and his sexual desires. His principal lover was a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, whom he described as “so fresh and enthusiastic, so full of color and so clean.” By contrast, in the wilds of Bessarabia he met the Skopzi, adherents of a religious sect who “castrated themselves to achieve a closer union with God.”

In April 1942 Fermor set out on his second and most famous Byronic adventure. Fermor, who spoke modern Greek, joined a handful of British Special Operations officers sent into the...

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About the Author

Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published Hemingway: The Critical Heritage (1982), Hemingway: A Biography (1985), and Hemingway: Life and Art (2000), as well as Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010), and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011).