Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beautiful and Immovable Forever: Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

The recent passing of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011 ) at the age of 96 has produced a florescence of memories, tributes and obituaries. His passing has led many back to his writings, myself included.

Words of Mercury (John Murray, 2003), a selection of PLF's writings edited by Artemis Cooper is an excellent book to reacquaint oneself with his writings, and it will be a fine companion to her anticipated biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. This selection reproduces choice excerpts from his published works as well as a selection of his pieces written for magazines and journals. There is a short essay he wrote for Architectural Digest (August 1986), Sash Windows Opening on the Foam, which is a detailed and fascinating look at his home in Greece, a home he designed and helped build. The essay tellingly opens with a reference to books--for though he was a man of action, he was also most definitely a man of the book: a scholar, a gentleman, and an adventurer. The essay also opens with a reference to his dining table, a place of convivial discussion:

Where a man's Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is, there shall his heart be also; and of course, Lempriere, Fowler, Brewer, Liddell and Scott, Dr. Smith, Harrap and Larousse and a battery of atlases, bibles, concordances, Loeb classics, Pleiade editions, Oxford Companions and Cambridge histories; anthologies and books on painting, sculpture, architecture, birds, beasts, fishes, trees and stars; for if one is settling in the wilds, a dozen reference shelves is the minimum; and they must be near the dinner table where arguments spring up which have to be settled then or never. This being so, two roles for the chief room in a still unbuilt house were clear from the start.

The large living room and dining room are surrounded by bookshelves and windows and he describes his convenient device to reach the smaller volumes on the upper shelves:

The bookcases with no divan in front rise nine feet from the floor and we have discovered a brilliant way of reaching the upper shelves without steps: an elephant pole of brass bound teak made by the Hong Kong Chinese to help minor rajahs to climb into their howdahs: it splits down the middle and half the pole drops away parallel with a heartening bang like grounded arms; the rungs, slotted and hinged in hidden grooves, fall horizontal and up one goes.

Such Victorian pole ladders are not uncommon but certainly pricey these days, running into the thousands of dollars at auction houses. Patrick Leigh Fermor's dinner table, however, was unique:

A visiting friend unsettlingly hinted that a Victorian mahogany dining-table was not up to the rest; so, years later, we ruinously exorcized this complex with an inlaid marble table made by Dame Freya Stark's marmorista in Venice. Based on a tondo in the chancel of S. Anastasio in Mantua, flames of Udine stone radiate from the centre of the design of subtle grey carsico rosso di Verona. When it arrived, lugging the triple plinth of Istrian stone down from the road and then trundling the heavy circular top through the trees was as bad as the earlier struggles with the lintel. But the friend was right. Here it was, beautiful and immovable forever, and when set down with glasses and candles, it turns the humblest meal--even oil and lentils--into a feast.

A very recent blog by a writer who was living in Greece and visited the author at his home, provided photographs of his bookshelves, his dinner table, and Patrick Leigh Fermor and his guests. It seems the post has quite disappeared, perhaps due to the personal nature of the photographs. The shelves were interesting to peruse from afar, however, many works of Freya Stark, Norman Douglas, Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley among others. Heavy old volumes, bereft of dustwrappers, slightly shabby, well read, well thumbed. A working library. There is still a photograph of his dinner table and I hesitate to post it, but it has so much charm. His home must be imbued with his spirit, a spirit that will also live on in his extraordinary and vivid prose.

The latest on all things Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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