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Deep memories: the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor

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There have been some thoughtful appreciations after the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor – none more so than Ben Macintyre’s excellent piece in the Times, which rather than following the obvious line of ‘the end of an era and can anyone still write travel books anymore’ instead proclaimed the continued need for them.

The thing that has always most intrigued me is the length of time between Leigh Fermor’s journeys and his books.  A Time Of Gifts came out 40 years after his Balkan travels of the 1930s;  Between the Woods and the Water 50 years later;  he was still working on the final volume of the trilogy at his death, which would have appeared almost 70 years after the events described.

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Such fine distillation of experience over very many years can do interesting things to a book.  I’m used to it from the chroniclers of South American adventures where you often also get such time delay:  Garcilaso de la Vega, the best known chronicler of the Incas, had been in Europe for forty years before he wrote his account of the civilisation he had left behind;  Pedro Pizarro wrote his memoirs of being a page boy at the Conquest of Peru when he was an old man;  similarly the great chronicler of the Mexican campaign, Bernal Diaz, only recorded his eyewitness account of that parallel conquest some fifty years after the event.

Is there something that makes ambitious journeys difficult to assimilate in the present tense –  that their sensory overload can only best be interpreted years later, when the glitter and noise has fallen away to reveal structure underneath? Many of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels depend on just such an almost optical effect,  in which events of the distant past are foreshortened and looked at with startling clarity.  W.H. Hudson’s classic memoir of Argentina, Far Away and Long Ago, relies as much on the passage of time between the writing and the remembered events for its nostalgic power.  Or is there a simpler explanation – that young men inclined to go out into the jungle and cross deserts  – or the Balkans – are equally disinclined to sit down at a desk and write about it immediately afterwards?

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