I've just finished Artemis Cooper's recent, very readable biography of the irrepressible author and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Known almost universally as 'Paddy', he was such a larger-than-life character that almost every page of the book made me gasp: did he really do that? Did he honestly know all those people? How on earth did he manage to survive without ever having a 'proper' job?
Fermor is a legend. Man of action, war hero, restless voyager, travel writer, scholar and intellectual, doer and thinker, bibliophile, linguist, loyal friend, old-fashioned romantic and dazzling conversationalist are just a few of the epithets you could use to describe him. His enthusiasm and sense of fun were infectious, and his charm and charisma irresistible. He smoked and drank furiously all his life, yet enjoyed mainly excellent health until the ripe old age of 96. He took great risks but survived without major mishap; he was perpetually late in delivering typescripts to his publisher but always charmed his way through; he was impossibly good-looking and women fell at his feet. He broke all the rules. He was a Byronic figure — and quite specifically so, as the Greeks revere him to this day for his part in helping the Cretan resistance during WW2, which included a star role in the kidnap and deportation of German general Heinrich Kreipe, a daring piece of Boy's Own bravado immortalised in the 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight.
Yet no one's perfect, and even legends have feet of clay. Fermor could often be insensitive, and ride roughshod over others' feelings; and some found him rather cocky and boastful. He also had a slight snobbish streak, I feel — but perhaps I'm just a tiny bit jealous of his impossibly wide circle of aristocratic and influential friends who would give him money, put him up, and lend him their cottages and châteaux.
His writing too, brilliant as it can be, is not without its faults and purple patches. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which recount his epic walk as an 18-year-old across a 1930s' Europe, are masterworks, and made a lasting impression on me when I first read them, partly inspiring some of my own treks. But other books of his don't quite live up to the sparkle and sense of wonder you get from these two. For instance, Mani — a memoir of a trip in the southernmost Greek Peloponnese — I found rather hard-going, with its maze of erudite detail. There was too much history and not enough story; the narrative became lost in the factual complexity. Yes, Fermor can write really well, but occasionally he tries too much and can't help showing off.
The style really is the man in Fermor's case. All of which got me thinking about style in general. There are as many different literary styles as there are writers, from the laconic minimalism of Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy to the lush extravagance of Proust and Faulkner, from the clear, workmanlike prose of George Orwell to the off-putting density of Hermann Melville and the baffling impenetrability of the later James Joyce.
But I don't think we should be deterred by perceived difficulty. For example, I've just read Swann's Way, the first volume of Proust's towering classic In Search of Lost Time, and found it a complete joy and delight, despite all those stories about its complexity, and the intricacy of those long, convoluted sentences, and how no one ever finishes it. Sure, you have to focus and concentrate, and you can't read it quickly, and sometimes you have to reread in order to work out the sense. But the rewards far outweigh the effort.
If you want facile, simply and poorly written escapist literature, which has no bearing on real life, then that's fine. Go to the beach and enjoy. But I want something with a little more meat and meaning, a book which says something about what it is to be human, how we think and feel and relate, how we struggle and fail and suffer and achieve happiness or not, how we live and endure. And I can find this in books of enormously varied styles, whether (to take the travel field) it's in Leigh Fermor's baroque chronicles or in Bruce Chatwin's condensed and pared-down prose. The apparently simple or manifestly complex — each style is artifice; but the essential thing is that it should represent the writer as authentically as possible. Any inauthenticity you can spot a mile away. And Fermor is as authentic as they come.
Ultimately, when reading a great book, you have to submit to the unique style and world of the author, and humbly enter his or her own particular and individual world without prejudice and with curiosity and an open, enquiring mind.
I'll end my piece with this touching final paragraph from Artemis Cooper's biography of her friend, the uncategorisable Paddy Fermor:
Paddy had endured his last illness and the inevitable shrinking of his world with a kind of bewildered sadness, 'It's very odd,' he said to one friend at Kardamyli after the operation to remove the tumour. 'My life has suddenly gone out of kilter, familiar and yet utterly strange, like before and after the war.' He never talked about death, though of course he thought about it. In a short biography of Proust which was found in his room in Kardamyli, he had written a message in the middle of the night, at a moment when he felt the end was close. Yet whatever sorrow he felt at leaving the world, what he wanted to express was a sense of profound gratitude. 'Love to all and kindness to all friends,' he wrote, 'and thank you all for a life of great happiness.'
(The Broken Road, the third part of Patrick Leigh Fermor's trilogy describing his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, was published posthumously last year.)