WORDS OF MERCURY (John Murray, 2003) is a collection of various pieces of the writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor made by Artemis Cooper. Ms Artemis has selected extracts from Paddy's books, but also articles and even his own account of the abduction of Gereral Kreipe in Crete which he wrote for the Imperial War Museum.
I'd like to approach WORDS OF MERCURY through the review (dated December 13, 2003) of the book by William Dalrymple (see The Christians of Syria) for The Guardian. Dalrymple writes -
The book also contains a short but perceptive biographical introduction that raises the curtain on the full-scale biography of Leigh Fermor that Cooper is currently researching. In this there is a nice interplay between the revelations of the biographer and the prewar reticence of her subject.
In the introduction, for example, Cooper reveals that at the beginning of the war Paddy was living with Balasha Cantacuzene, "the first great love of his life", on a rambling Moldavian estate. This echoes intriguingly with Leigh Fermor's own moving but far more tight-lipped account, a little later in the book, of revisiting Romania to find his old friend as soon as the country was opened up to foreign travel in 1965 - for Paddy himself makes no hint that the two had once been lovers, beyond saying that both she and her sister were "good, beautiful, courageous, gifted, imaginative, immersed in literature and the arts, kind, funny, unconventional; everybody loved them and so did I".
It is the most tragic of tales. For after being separated from his beloved, first by the war and then by the drawing of the iron curtain, Leigh Fermor finally managed to track down Balasha, a quarter of a century later, living in poverty in a Bucharest garret, surviving by teaching English, French and painting. Her lands had been confiscated.
The day Ceausescu's commissar turned up, she and her sister had been given a quarter of an hour to pack. The house had subsequently been turned into a lunatic asylum: "We found them in their attic. In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of twenty-six years.
... [But] early thoughts of leaving Rumania lapsed in the end, and they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; secretly, perhaps they also shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away. They wrote many and brilliant letters. For some people under alien regimes, life is lived vicariously, pen in hand."
So Balasha Cantacuzene was "the first great love of his life" with whom Patrick Leigh Fermor had lived before the outbreak of the Second World War. And Paddy revisted Balasha in Rumania after her family had lost everything and Balasha was living in a garret.
I'll return next time to WORDS OF MERCURY to flesh out this account.
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