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Fermor the Magnificent

January 18, 1998|JEREMY BERNSTEIN | Jeremy Bernstein is the author, most recently, of the travel book "In the Himalayas."

Here is the scene: The time is late April of 1944. The place is near the summit of Mt. Ida, the highest mountain on Crete. There is still snow. Gathered are five Cretans, fully mustached and heavily armed. Three other men wear German uniforms. This is deceptive: Two of them are British officers (commandos). The third, however, is something else. If you are very familiar with German military uniforms, you will see from pictures of the group that he is a general. In these photographs he is not looking at the camera. He does not smile. It is little wonder. His name is Karl Kreipe. He was, until he was kidnapped two days before, the commanding general of the German occupation forces on Crete. He was due to be promoted to lieutenant general yesterday. German patrols are looking for him.

As dawn breaks over Mt. Ida, he murmurs to himself: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte ("Do you not see how Soracte is shining"). . . . Then, surprisingly, one of the British officers continues, nec jam sustineant onus / Silvae laborantes, geluque / Flumina constiterint acuto ("beneath a heavy covering of snow, and how / The laboring trees can no longer hold up their burden, / And how the rivers are frozen by the sharp cold?"). (Translation of the Latin was provided by Professor W.C. Dowling of Rutgers University.)

The officer continues through the next five stanzas to the end of Horace's Soracte ode. Many years later, he wrote, "The general's blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountaintop to my own--and when I'd finished, after a long silence, he said: 'Ach so, Herr Major!' It was very strange as though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk from the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together."

Readers of this anecdote may divide into two groups: both, in my view, equally fortunate. A few of you will recognize this scene as one of the mosaic tiles out of which Patrick Leigh Fermor's (the British major was he) magnificent travel book "A Time of Gifts" was composed. (Readers intrigued by this passing anecdote who want to know more about what was one of the most daring exploits of World War II will enjoy reading "Ill Met by Moonlight" by W. Stanley Moss--he was the other British officer--George G. Harrap & Co.: London, 1950, as well as "Crete: The Battle and the Resistance" by Antony Beevor, Penguin Books: New York, 1991. Both books have photographs.) You are fortunate readers because you have discovered this marvelous author. But those of you who have not discovered him are also fortunate: When you do, you will have in front of you hours of enormous pleasure and satisfaction. I should confess that, until a few years ago, I had never heard of Fermor either. But in the fall of 1993, I went on a bicycle trip around Crete. Looking for something to read, I found "A Time of Gifts" in a local bookstore. I glanced through the first few pages and decided there and then that I would try to read everything the man ever wrote.

While all of Fermor's books (there are not that many, only half a dozen or so by my count) are autobiographical, he has never written an autobiography. Nor, as far as I can determine, has anyone written his biography. The best one can do is to snatch fragments from his own books and from books written by people who came across him in passing. Constructing a person's life this way, especially the life of a man like Fermor, is like trying to cross a rapidly flowing stream by hopping from rock to rock. There are lacunae for which I simply cannot account. What, for example, was he doing living in a vast Romanian country house near the Russian border for about two years just before the war? And later, how did he come to spend an almost equal amount of time in the Caribbean: an experience that resulted in the first of his travel books, "The Traveller's Tree"? Moreover, why was that book actually written in two monasteries in France where Fermor was a resident visitor? This experience resulted in a gem of a short book, "A Time to Keep Silence," which, he informs us, began as letters written from the monasteries to the woman who was to become his wife. We are told nothing more about her, not even her name. Why, I don't know. But here, at least, are a few of the steppingstones in his life.

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