As a form of literature, the memoir has often struck me as an odd. The author assembles a small museum of personal artifacts for the purpose of describing a story. The writing is somewhat feigned: episodes have the ring of fiction, and we must suspend disbelief that life and narrative have intersected so well. What makes the memoir especially perplexing is that, generally speaking, the better the storytelling the less likely we are to stop and question if it really did happen like this. The more extraordinary it sounds, the more likely we are to succumb to its charisma.
I’ve been reading A Time of Gifts by the great travel writer and stylist Partick Leigh Fermor. Consider the following detail, when the writer makes reference to his time in Greece during the Second World War:
“The hazards of war landed me among the crags of occupied Crete with a band of Cretan guerrillas and a captive German general whom we had waylaid [e.g. kidnapped] and carried into the mountains three days before.”
At one moment in this extraordinary wartime tale, as dawn is breaking across the valley of Mount Ida, the German general begins muttering lines of Latin poetry. Fermor immediately recognises the lines as Horace, and is able to complete the poem where the general left off, during which the captive’s blue eyes “had swivelled away from the mountain top to mine […] things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
The reader cannot doubt the veracity of the story, but might also marvel at its perfection. The setting – dawn over a Greek island in the throws of war – as well as the rather sublime conjunction of two opposing foes sharing a moment of Roman lyric verse. It’s almost too good to be true.
I happen to be writing these words whilst on the island of Rhodes. A small holiday for me, sunbathing and walking over craggy hilltops. This Greek isle sits just a few miles off the coast of Turkey, whose rocky spits extend like pikes into the Aegean and interrupt the Greek archipelago at every inlet. Not far south-west is Crete, where the sun-bleached rocks are just as pearlescent grey as those that trim the shoreline of this island. It is July, so the temperatures are high and the sun seems never to move from its perch on the tall silver-blue shelf.
Fermor’s A Time of Gifts is my reading book for the holiday. It recollects the author’s travels as an eighteen year old, setting out to walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul with little more than a rucksack and a notebook. The episode with the German general is a mere aside.
The teenage Fermor begins in the low countries, walking from Holland into north-west Germany, following the Rhine at first, then later joining the route of the Danube (“It was a tremendous vision.” p.104), through Ulm, Vienna and Budapest along the way. The young Englishman is carefree, makes friends easily, and faces each setback or lucky break with admirable magnanimity.
At one point, the eighteen year old makes a trip to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, one of the great beer-halls in Germany. After a raucous, vision-filled evening, Fermor discovers he has lost his rucksack and all his belongings with it, including 4 pound notes and the diary he’d been writing throughout the journey (“The loss of the journal still aches now and then like an old wound in bad weather”). The next day, sober and alarmed by the thought of having no official papers, he turns up at the British Consulate who not only greet him warmly but issue a new passport and also recompense his loss of cash: “Well!” the Consol-General says, “His Majesty’s Government will lend you a fiver. Send it back sometime when you are less broke.” (p.123)
Fermor’s intention was to write a book about his journey as he went. With the loss of his diary, the memoir was not complete until the many years later when the writer was in his sixties. As Jan Morris notes in her fine introduction to my copy, “Its journey is in effect evoked for us by two people: the carefree young dropout who experienced it […] and the immensely experienced author who, knowing more about history forty years later, turned it into art.” (p. viii-ix)
It strikes me that these words could be applied to the entire genre of memoir. The wanderings of the younger self, travelling bravely and with eyes wide open, written down and put into a sensible order by the older, shrewder self.