In Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE partly dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the highlands and hence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as ‘a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida’.
‘We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”. It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off… The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain top to mine - and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’
It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: fabulously erudite and romantic, and just a little showy. For his greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Leigh Fermor has been responsible for some of the most brightly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.
At the recommendation of Andrew, I purchased A Time of Gifts and gave it to my father. I keep reading it in snatches - you can open it anywhere; it's like a Persian carpet - and I think I've read most of it. The brilliantly purple bits are a guilty pleasure, as I am a sometime member of the purple school myself. The 19-year old Fermor is an intellectual glutton, willing to lose himself in wonder at anything rich and strange, and, despite his wide-eyed wonder and his taste for aesthetic sweets, an unnerving escape artist and resourceful bandit, able and willing to mix with anyone and fiddle with any language. But I can't help but compare A Time of Gifts to Belloc's Path to Rome, which I'm afraid does beat it.