Patrick Leigh Fermor

Fermor montageA while ago The New Yorker published a “Briefly Noted” book review of a biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor that ended: “Elusive and often coy, the Fermor who emerges from these pages seems so authentic that when he dies, at ninety-six, the reader feels the loss keenly.”

That certainly got my attention, especially since I’d never heard of Fermor and, not incidentally, had no idea how to pronounce his name. FAIR-more? FUR-more? Furmur to rhyme with murmur? (Having a name that is frequently mispronounced — it’s long O Oster, to rhyme with toaster, rather than AH-ster, as many prefer, or even Oyster, as people often say in the South, where I live — I like to get other people’s names right. One of my doctors is named Lachiewicz, pronounced Luh-KAV-itch, and I sympathize with him so strongly that I’ve memorized the spelling of his surname.)

Googling Fermor (318,000 hits), I learned that he was a fairly prolific author and was regarded as “Britain’s greatest living travel writer” and, in the words of one critic, “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene.” He was best known (he died in 2011) for a memoir of a walk he took in 1934, at age 18, having been kicked out of King’s School, Canterbury, the oldest school in England, founded in 597, from Rotterdam, Holland, to Istanbul, or, as he knew it, Constantinople.  I’d heard of the writers he was often compared with — Bruce Chatwin, Norman Lewis, Wilfred Thesiger — and even read Chatwin, so why not Fermor?

I couldn’t go farther without learning how to say Fermor’s name. Since two of his books, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” about that youthful stroll, are very much in print, by New York Review Press, which also published the new biography, “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” by Artemis Cooper, I went to the publisher’s Web site and used its very convenient Contact Us page to send a query to the publicity department, asking “Can anyone there hazard guidelines on Leigh Fermor’s surname? Is it pronounced like firmer or fair-more or even firMORE?” Within a very few days, “Nick” answered: “I have been saying fir-MORE as you put it at the end, which I think is right but let me double-check on that.” A good publicist as well as a helpful one, he added: “And we have just published the final volume of his trilogy, ‘The Broken Road.'”

I have a friend, Asta, who was born in England and retains a strong English accent. I showed her the cover of “A Time of Gifts” and asked how she’d pronounce her countryman’s name. She said she had no idea, but would ask her brother, who was a literary sort. The day wasn’t out when she forwarded this e-mail from not only her brother but from two (I think) other siblings. (To protect their identities, for reasons only she could tell you, Asta x’ed out their names:

Comment 1: Definitely stress on first syllable, Asta, and the vowel ending in the ‘mor’ is almost completely lost, in the sense that it’s not ‘more’ nor even identifiable as ‘or’ rather than ‘er’. In fact it’s more ‘er’ than anything else.

He was at King’s Canterbury, and the University gave him an hon. degree, in connection with which I interviewed him for the purpose of writing the public oration. I then had quite an exchange of correspondence about one of his Cretan ‘great-god-daughters’ who was at the University and busily failing her exams. Her family assumed he would be able to fix everything for her, and of course he knew perfectly well he couldn’t. He did indeed have bags of charm, and was also something of a sponger. The quite recent biography by Artemis Cooper is a very good read and might be worth dipping into before you tried any of the travel stuff.

Comment 2: That’s an interesting reply that xxx has sent. He is right, of course, about the pronunciation. I am, as it happens, reading one of his books — “A Time of Gifts” — at the moment for our book group. It is the first, written about his walk from England (actually Holland) to Istanbul. Although interesting, he goes into far too much details for me. He says things like “On the church wall in such-and-such a church in somewhere I have never heard of has angels at the top of the door”. And it’s 300 pages of that kind of thing. No mention of whether he gets blisters, what he eats (or very little about that kind of ‘real life’ story). I am persevering with it, but not really enjoying it. Having said all that, he does write beautifully, with wonderfully descriptive paragraphs of things he sees along the way. And he always seems to end up staying with people who are friends of friends — although he does also stay in the odd barn here or there.

I also don’t agree with xxx about the biography by Artemis Cooper, which I have also read. She takes a lot of her writing from Leigh Fermor’s books, so I would have the same criticism about her as about him — too much detail. But she just sort of strings it together, whereas he at least writes about it very beautifully.

But back to you; and I shall be interested to hear whether you do in the end read one or other of the books, and, if you do, what you think of it/them.

Comment 3: Or, to put it more simply, patrick lee firmer (as in the comparative of
firm)

I find his language pretentious, too much effort devoted to being
poetic….. But he’s a good read if you skip quite a lot.

Fascinating exchange. They’ve not only heard of Fermor, they’d read him and read about him and — one of them — met him. I tried to imagine the conversation at a family reunion.

Naturally, I prodded Nick at New York Review Press to see if he’d come up with any pronunciation alternatives. I felt badly about his reply — “Yes, it’s actually pronounced ‘fur-more,’ I hear” — since I was going to have to not only correct him but brag that I’d heard from someone who’d met Fermor and had corresponded about his Cretan great-god-daughters. (I won’t go into it because this is getting very long but Fermor was in the British army during World War II and had some remarkable adventures fighting the Nazis on Crete. He lived in Greece for many years.) Nick was gracious about my suggesting he say it Firmer: “Good to know! Thanks for letting me know and I’ll correct the rest of the office. Slightly embarrassed, don’t tell anyone else!” So here I am doing just that. Sorry, Nick — it’s too good a story.

One more story, having to do with his name. I found a 2013 Paris Review interview with Fermor in which he told an anecdote about his involvement with the screenplay of “The Roots of Heaven” (1958), directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn, Orson Welles and Juliet Greco — and one of my mother’s favorite movies. (She and Welles, both born in 1915, both grew up in Kenosha WI. My mother never mentioned Welles, so I doubt if she knew him. She often mentioned Nicky Bleczka, a high school suitor, just to annoy my father, as in “I shoulda married Nicky Bleczka.”) The movie is on neither Netflix nor Amazon. Just by chance, I was going through TMC’s forthcoming listings and saw that it is broadcasting “The Roots of Heaven” — tonight, February 4! The DVR is programmed to snare it.

Darryl Zanuck, the producer, rode herd over Fermor’s efforts to turn out a screenplay (he had no experience in that form at all), occasionally addressing him as “femur,” which gave me, having just had hip surgery involving my thigh bone, special pleasure. One day, Zanuck asked Fermor if he was saying his name right. Fermor replied: “Nearly.”

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