Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Lovely Prose of Patrick Leigh Fermor . . .

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick Leigh Fermor, once described as "a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene," and who died in 2011 at the age of 96, left the world several fine books.

I recall reading about Fermor's part in the kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German army in occupied Greece during WWII. Here's a report from The Telegraph on how Fermor and Kreipe came to respect one another. During the abduction, Fermor and the others took Kreipe by way of Mount Ida, where Kreipe gazed at the peak and recited to himself the first line of Horace's Ad Thaliarchum: "Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte" (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high). Fermor proceded to recite the rest of the poem, revealing that they had both "drunk at the same fountains" of culture, "and things between them were very different from then on."

Here's a beautifully detailed description from one of Fermor's memoirs, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (September 2013):
An indistinct blur darkened the air above a notch in the skyline: a wide blur that seemed almost solid in the centre. It thinned out round the edges in a fringe of numberless moving specks as though the wind were blowing across a vast heap of dust or soot or feathers just out of sight. The shoulder of mountain passed, this moving mass, continually renewed from beyond the skyline, dipped out of silhouette on our side of the range and began to expand and to declare itself as more comparable to feathers than to dust or to soot; it became predominantly whiter. The vanguard spread wider still as it sank lower and grew larger, rocking and fluctuating and heading for exactly the stretch of mountainside where we were standing so raptly at gaze. It was a slow airborne horde, enormous and awe-inspiring, composed of myriads of birds, their leaders becoming distinguishable now as they sailed towards us on almost motionless wings, and at last, as they outlined themselves once more against the sky, identifiable. Storks! Soon a ragged party of skirmishers was floating immediately above, straight as the keels of canoes from the tips of their bills to the ends of their legs that streamed behind each one of them like a wake, balanced between the almost motionless span of their great wings, the sunlight falling golden between the comparative transparency of the feathers and the dark bobbin-shaped outline of their craned throats. Only their outstretched feathers flickered. The broad black edge of their wings stretched from the tips to where they joined the body in a dark senatorial stripe. The leaders were soon beyond us. A few solitary birds followed, and then all at once we were under a high shifting roof of wings, a flotilla that was thickening into an armada, until our ears were full of the sound of rustling and rushing with a flutter now and then when a bird changed position in a slow wingbeat or two, and of the strange massed creaking, as of many delicate hinges, of a myriad slender joints. They benighted the air. A ragged shadow dappled the mountainside all round us. A number of birds flew below the main stream of their companions, cruising along in their shade, others alone or in small parties were flung out on either side like system-less outriders. One of the low fliers subsided to the mountainside through the fluctuating penumbra under an inward slanting V of wings, and suddenly earthbound, took one or two awkward steps on its bent scarlet stilts, its wings still outstretched like a tightrope-walker's pole. After shaking its beaked head once or twice, it levered itself into the air and rose again with slow and effortless beats to the sliding pavilion of feathers overhead. Looking back, the specks were still showering over the skyline as plentifully as ever, then sinking a little way down the mountainside like a steady waterfall and out again almost at once and over the valley in a sinuous and unbroken curve. The leaders, and soon the first units of the main horde, had now sunk just below the level of our line of sight: we could see the sunlight on the backs and wings of their followers as their line lengthened. Their irregular drawn-out mass, rocking and tilting and disturbed by living eddies and with a whirlpool flutter and ruffle round the outskirts, moved beyond the great empty gulf of air between the 6,000-foot watershed of the Shipka Balkan, which they had just crossed, and the lesser heights of the Karadja Dagh. Soon their leaders were dwindling to specks, then all of them began to cohere in a dark blur, high above their long irregular shadow, which followed them a mile below their flight like the shadows of a navy on the sea bed. Gradually the supply began to dwindle; the rope of birds grew thinner, the loose-knit parties smaller, until at last there was nothing but a straggling rearguard gliding eastwards. Several minutes later, when the last of them had winged away over the wide valley of the Tunja, an ultimate stork passed overhead beating a slow and solitary path . . .
I can add nothing to that . . . other than the hope that I might someday write something as fine. I would, however, try to avoid the dangling modifier: "Looking back, the specks were still showering over the skyline as plentifully as ever."

But perhaps Fermor was influenced by the Greek genitive absolute . . .



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