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Artemis Cooper: Patrick Leigh Fermor - An Adventure (John Murray)

If Patrick Leigh Fermor's circumstances had forced him to restrict his perambulations to Saracen Cross, the Barras and points further south, he would have been labelled a chancer.

Instead, he strode through to the 21st century on the back of considerable privilege, the ability to find an open purse (most regularly in the hands of a beautiful woman) and a formidable energy. He was thus called a charmer.

Fermor, of course, had attributes that lifted him far above the louche. He marched through his long life, from his birth in 1915 to death in 2011, with a reckless abandon that was both censured and praised. Paddy, as he was always called, was handsome, eloquent, a singer of songs, a teller of jokes and hoarder of unlikely tales. He was also, according to Somerset Maugham, "a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women". Civil servants in Athens also routinely described him as bumptious, arrogant, even insufferable.

This verdict was delivered when Fermor, at 30, was finding his way in his first job. This way seemed almost exclusively to encompass going to towns and villages and drinking with the locals. This is not to say he had not experienced much before his 30th year. By that time, he had been expelled from several schools, walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, bedded a considerable number of women (some of them not princesses), taken part on horseback in a civil war, accidentally shot dead a comrade in arms, and kidnapped a German general, marching him across Crete and into Allied captivity.

The last escapade was celebrated by Dirk Bogarde's portrayal of Fermor in Ill Met By Moonlight, a film whose overheated drama was considerably cooler than real-life events. Fermor, in truth, could not even be captured by CinemaScope.

However, above all, the hero was a writer. Fermor was 35 before his first book, The Traveller's Tree, loosely a traveller's account of the Caribbean, was published. This gave fair warning of the advance of a major talent. A Time Of Gifts, the account of his walk from Holland to Constantinople, franked that impression solidly. This is one of the greatest travel books and invested with that essential component of the best of the genre: it tells us more about the writer than the physical journey. Fermor wrote about life rather than geography.

His passion was literature, particularly poetry, and his facility was for both charm and languages. These strange bedfellows all inhabit his writing, producing something of considerable substance.

Cooper, a long-time friend of Paddy, has produced a pedestrian biography of the great walker. There is criticism in this observation but there is a wisdom in her approach. The constituent parts of Fermor's life are dramatic, even sensational, not least the influence his writing had on future generations.

No biography could capture this passion, zest and wilful abandonment to life fully and convincingly. Cooper thus takes us on a brisk walk through the major staging posts of a remarkable career. The attention to detail is admirable, if occasionally soporific, but its dedication produces an account that is comprehensive and lucid.

Fermor, though, escapes capture. The war hero, the polyglot, the serial seducer, the inveterate seeker and finder of generosity had a facility in engaging with life. Yet he excelled at the one occupation he found extraordinarily difficult.

For Fermor, writing was a daily, hourly trial. He groaned, almost buckled under the labour of producing a cohesive whole. He could write too much, too little or not at all. However, great works were produced, their seamless brilliance disguising the messy turmoil that was their delivery.

His work, of course, gives the greatest insight on Fermor's character. Cooper gives regular accounts of her subject's depressive episodes, disdaining a glib diagnosis. Her book's non-judgmental tone allows others a freedom to assess a life on a substantial body of evidence.

It is a cliche that a biography's most praiseworthy purpose is to lead the reader back to its subject's works. Cooper points unhesitatingly in that direction and it is a journey worth taking. She adds much to the stature of Fermor, but it is in the pages of his singular works that the life and soul of this wonderful writer are to be found.

patrick leigh fermor: an adventure

Artemis Cooper

John Murray, £25

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