What’ve you been reading? My reading for 2017 included a lot of old favorite writers, a few brand-new books, and an eclectic mix of in-betweens. I reread the first five Sherlock Holmes books—actually, I listened to Stephen Fry read them—got through the first half of The Chronicles of Barsetshire books, and finished Graham Greene’s Collected Essays as well as three of the thrillers I hadn’t read, including Brighton Rock. I also chuckled my way through three P. G. Wodehouse books, including the collection The Man with Two Left Feet (1917), which has the first Jeeves story.
I went back to read some of the parts of Auerbach’s Mimesis that I had ignored in grad school. Other books I have always intended to read but never before got around to were on this year’s list: Gilgamesh, Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, Main Street, Dead Souls. I filled in some other gaps. Along with apparently a lot of other readers since Trump’s inauguration, I read both Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I was happy to finally read all of the Archy and Mehitabel columns Don Marquis wrote; they can be found in The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel.
The only whole corpus of poetry I managed in 2017 was Elizabeth Bishop’s.
My son Matt, who often guides my reading, led me to Michel Houellebecq’s Submission and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. Submission was one of a small list of new books, along with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, and Joan Didion’s South and West.
I read a couple of children’s books I’d managed to miss: Winnie-the-Pooh and The Giving Tree, and I reread one of my favorites, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, by Russell Hoban. I also read Kipling’s Captains Courageous for the first time.
Among the unclassified and the in-betweens were Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, a selection of the often hilarious reviews Dorothy Parker’s wrote for The New Yorker under the byline “Constant Reader,” Evelyn Waugh’s early travel book Labels, Hesiod’s Theogony, Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (with many of the same themes as Fantasyland and Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris’s not-quite-as-good sequel to The End of Faith.
Probably the most interesting book was the last one I read this year, Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters. “My life story could be entitled ‘The Case of the Overshot Deadline’,” Leigh Fermor wrote accurately about himself in one of his letters. In fact, his life story is told in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), two books he wrote decades after his 1933-35 trip on foot when he was eighteen from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul; in his friend and battle-mate Billy Moss’s book Ill Met by Moonlight (1950) which tells of the kidnaping of a German general on occupied Crete in 1943 by Moss, Leigh Fermor, several other British comrades, and a band of partisan Cretans; and in this collection of letters selected and edited by Adam Sisman, who fills in the gaps, identifying the correspondents and the hundreds of people referred to in the letters recording Leigh Fermor’s very social life. But nowhere is the whole story told of Leigh Fermor’s falling in love with the Rumanian Princess Marie-Blanche Cantacuzène, called “Balasha,” whom he met in Athens in 1935 and lived with, in Greece and Rumania, with travels to England and around the Balkans, until war broke out in 1939, when he immediately left to join the war effort in England. He wrote to her after the war was over, and he visited her when it became possible to do so, which was not until 1965. They remained correspondents until her death, but Leigh Fermor in 1946 was already in love with Joan Rayner, whom he married in 1968.
He had many other affairs, some of which Rayner may have been aware of. The one with Lyndall Birch in the late fifties is an example, I think, of how Leigh Fermor sometimes trades unthinkingly on his charm and expects it to open doors and arms. He had a fling with her in Rome in October, 1958, wrote one letter to her in November from London, and then went back in May expecting to pick up where they’d left off. That didn’t work out. He does not make the same mistake with his next lover, Enrica “Rickie” Huston, fourth wife of John Huston, whom he chats up in frequent letters, the funniest being the one where he is trying to figure out whether she got crabs from him. “Could it be me?” he asks. He thinks at first it might have been because of that one-night stand in Paris with “an old pal,” but then he says, no, he has no sign of them, directs her to an Italian powder for sale in Paris called MOM, and discusses the departure of her little friends in an allusive paragraph (“their revels now are ended…where are all their quips and quiddities? The pattering of tiny feet will be stilled. Bare, ruin’d choirs”) ending with “Don’t tell anyone…Mom’s the word, gentle reader.”
The funniest letter is one to “Debo”—Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, youngest of the Mitford sisters, whose correspondence with Leigh Fermor over fifty years has been separately published as In Tearing Haste (2008). He writes about Anne Fleming’s getting him an invitation to stay with Somerset Maugham at his house in France and about his being thrown out after one day because he drank too much (he says in another letter that his favorite noise is “the soft hiss of the soda syphon”) and told a story about a stuttering friend that rightly offended Maugham the stutterer.
One gets the idea that the good looks and the charm allowed him to get away with a lot of unanswered letters, missed deadlines, and carelessness. An egregious example: he took back to England all of Diana Cooper’s answers to condolence letters after her husband Duff died—and then lost them. To Balasha he makes the claim that because he wants to write long, detailed letters, he doesn’t get around to it for much longer than he would for a short one. Then, two pages later in the same letter we discover that he and Joan Rayner have just married, and his dilatoriness in writing takes on a different light.
He complains to his publisher Jock Murray that his house builders in Kardamyli, at the tip of one of the southern peninsulas of the Peloponnese, are doing a Leigh Fermor on him. But the house is finished in 1969. What shall we call it, he asks—“Doubting Castle? Blandings? Gatherum? Headlong Hall? No. 2, The Pines?”
Once one actually received a Leigh Fermor letter, however, it was worth the wait. He has a lyrical gift for describing landscape, as evident in the letters as in A Time of Gifts and other books. He sets down the mundane events as well as the outré ones and, as Sisman perceived, does the biographer’s work for him.