Interview

miss-anne-in-harlemBiographile, September 26 2013.

PASSING STRANGE: A Q&A WITH CARLA KAPLAN.
Joanna Scutts

MISS ANNE IN HARLEM: THE WHITE WOMEN OF THE BLACK RENAISSANCE
By Carla Kaplan
Harper, 544pp. $28.99

Carla Kaplan’s group biography, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, tells the extraordinary story of a diverse collection of white women who found their way to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Bringing with them money, passion, and controversy, they were fleeing restrictive Victorian upbringings and striving to reinvent themselves and forge interracial alliances — often at terrible personal cost. For the first time, Kaplan brings six of them out of the shadows.

BIOGRAPHILE: What first led you to this project?

CARLA KAPLAN: It grew out of my last book, which wasZora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Hurston was a black writer who prided herself on her interracial friendships, and in the course of trying to do research on some of the white women she was friends with, I became more and more aware that there were a number of them who were really very centrally involved in the Harlem Renaissance, but there was almost nothing out there about them. Not only had other historians and critics either written nothing, or simply repeated the same three erroneous paragraphs over and over again, but the archives weren’t there. This was a story I wanted to read, and it became one of those things where if you want to read it, you have to write it.

I sat on the idea for some years, because group biography is so daunting: You have to do the amount of work for each person that you would do for an individual biography, because otherwise you can’t bring them back to life. I also had to decide whether it would be an academic or a trade book. It seemed to me it was an opportunity to share with a wider audience some of what has been central to the academic study of identity for so long.

BIOG: Your book shows how central these women were in so many ways — so why do you think there was this gap in the story?

CK: I think it was a combination of factors. In part it was something that these women bear some responsibility for themselves. Either out of a kind of obsession with control, in the case of Charlotte Osgood Mason, or out of respect for the difficulty of their own position in the case of Mary White Ovington, the founder of the NAACP, they really erased their own footsteps. These were women who traveled with a broom behind them, erasing every step they took. But they don’t bear all of the responsibility, because as I was able to show, they were hiding in plain sight all this time. So then the question is, how have we contributed to erasing them? One answer is that there was a story available about them: they were minor characters in black literature, and in white and black histories of the period, and as minor figures their story is an easy one to tell. It’s coherent and it has some amusement factor to it.

BIOG: It’s a caricature.

CK: Right, it serves our own purposes. The story of them as either bumbling fools, or dangerous, problematic creatures, is a useful narrative, and it tells easily. The third reason there has been this hole in the history is that these women were a mess! They were all over the place, and trying to tell their story means trying to wrap our minds around a rather complicated set of contradictions. These are women who are, to put it bluntly, enormously politically incorrect.

BIOG: And perhaps their stories couldn’t be told until we reached a point in the academic study of the Harlem Renaissance that could encompass these politically incorrect ideas, and people who were trying to figure out what race means in ways that are often uncomfortable to us.

CK: I also think this story couldn’t be told until we had filled in more of the pieces of the black Harlem Renaissance narrative itself — quite rightly, that work had to come first, and I feel I’ve been a part of that. I think we recognize today that we still don’t really know how to talk to one another about race, and we’re failing to create the interracial networks of affiliation and advocacy that we need.

BIOG: And of course the book is about the intersection of race and gender — these women were trying to run away from a world that was particularly constraining to them as women.

CK: It’s not just that gender and race come together — and I would add class as well, because so many of them came from moneyed backgrounds — but that these women were really quite canny about playing these vectors off against one another, to achieve their own modalities of freedom. Now, you can look at that canniness and dislike them for it, or you can admit that we all do the same thing — we gain our freedom however we can, by playing off whatever advantages may come our way against the disadvantages we were born into.

BIOG: Many of these women realized that they could be influential through money, by providing financial support to individual artists. How does the economic history of the Harlem Renaissance play in here?

CK: These women don’t emerge as truly central economic and cultural players until fairly late, after the stock market crash and the great Depression. As the men begin to pull out — the white male philanthropists, the publishers, the cabaret owners — it creates a vacuum, allowing these women to step in. And because we’ve tended to cut our studies of the Harlem Renaissance off after the stock market crash, it’s another way in which these women’s story was almost lost to us.

BIOG: Just by where we place the boundaries on what we call the Harlem Renaissance.

CK: Precisely — as long as we were placing that boundary essentially after Black Wednesday, we were failing to notice the way in which the Depression created a gendered opportunity. It reminds us, I think — or I hope — that where we set the boundaries of the questions we ask determines the answer we get. We’re always constructing the history we’re seeking.

BIOG: What did you find most surprising or unexpected about these women’s life stories?

CK: I’d have to say the thing that kept surprising me over and over again, that I failed to get used to, was the way in which a number of these women didn’t just claim a central place for themselves in the Harlem Renaissance, but they claimed that they were black — and they meant it. They were not kidding. I don’t just mean Josephine Cogdell Schuyler “passing” as a black woman by writing as Julia Jerome, the black Ann Landers of her day, and feeling nothing wrong in claiming that voice and that identity. But beyond her, you have Nancy Cunard and Charlotte Osgood Mason, both saying, “I am partly black.” Nancy Cunard says, “I was African at one time,” and Mason says, “I am a black god.” And we cringe — how can we not cringe at what they’re saying? But there’s something in it. It’s fascinating to me that they so believed in an idea that we think we invented, that identity is malleable, that it’s flexible, and that who we are is a matter of who we identify with. They genuinely believed that their commitments not only lessened their own whiteness, which they did, but made them partly black. And their black friends accept and indeed embrace that idea. I never stopped being surprised by that.

The other thing that surprised me over and over again was how much room there was in the Harlem Renaissance for this range of extremes, and how much room black intellectuals made — not to be nice, not to be polite, but for their own sakes — for this full range of articulations of race, some of which look to us completely nutty.

BIOG: And that flexibility existed in a larger world that was interested in drawing a single racial dividing line that absolutely could not be crossed.

CK: And the more inflexible the wider culture was, the more flexible they could be in Harlem. That flexibility itself was a way of resisting.

BIOG: It must have been hard to decide how to balance the stories and what to include or leave out.

CK: It is tricky with a group biography to figure out how to do that, even the question of which women I would focus on, because I did find about five dozen women who seemed to really represent this group that I was looking at. Then I had to find those who left enough in their own voices that I would have enough material. I initially thought I’d have a big chapter on Mary White Ovington, who was such an important political figure as the white founder of the NAACP, but she was so careful to erase her own footsteps, and never to allow the story to be about her, but always about the NAACP. She had erased herself so completely, the chapter just didn’t work, it wasn’t interesting enough. But although I do feel I let her down a bit by making her a minor character in the book, there have been several biographies of her, and she wrote a terrific autobiography of her time in the NAACP, so I was able to justify that by the sense that her story has been told. The larger goal was to tell stories that are not well known and show them in a new context.

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Book Review

collegeofoneThe Rumpus. July 23, 2013.

COLLEGE OF ONE
By Sheilah Graham
Melville House Neversink Library. 304pp. $15.

Reviewed by Joanna Scutts

The Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, born Lily Shiel, shaped herself out of nothing much, and she knew it. As her eight memoirs attest, she also knew how remarkable the story of her self-reinvention was—especially the three and a half years she spent as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s companion and lover, until he died on her green living room carpet in December 1940. Her 1967 memoir College of One, reissued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, tells the story of the couple’s relationship through their shared project of educating Sheilah, via a one-woman intellectual boot camp devised by Fitzgerald, “for a woman who had to learn in a hurry.”

Graham’s desire for education is rooted at first in shame and fear. Shame: that she can’t keep up with the intellectual conversation of the people she gets to know in London, New York, and Hollywood, the likes of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and Mary McCarthy, who drop names she doesn’t recognize and assume a knowledge she doesn’t share. Fear: that she’ll be exposed, humiliated, and banished back to where she came from. It isn’t until she’s deep into her curriculum that she begins to enjoy the reading and discussion for its own sake, rather than out of a class anxiety so palpable it’s painful to read. Even Graham’s success in Hollywood is driven by her sense of shame—she goes west from New York with relief, to a town “notorious” for its ignorance: “I would be comfortable there. No one could embarrass me with erudite conversation.”

Lily Shiel grew up in an orphanage in the east end of London, her thick hair regularly shaved to prevent lice, and the eager brain underneath stuffed with homilies, Bible verses, and historical simplifications that promoted an allegiance to God and King. It was an upbringing that erased her identity as the child of Jewish refugees from the Ukraine, and shaped her into an obedient daughter of the English working class, terrified of anarchy and unions, and accepting of an unjust status quo. Her father had died when she was very young and her mother, too poor to cope, placed her two youngest children in the orphanage. When Lily graduated at fourteen, her education was over: she was needed at home, and it wasn’t until her mother died a few years later that Lily moved to the West End of London and made her way onto the stage, via shop work and marriage to a much older man, who smoothed out her accent and groomed her, if not quite for stardom, then at least for survival.

Many years later, in Hollywood, the lowest moment of Graham’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald came when he threw her secret origins in her face, screaming that she was a Jew in front of the nurse who had been hired to see him through the aftermath of a titanic gin binge. This ugly detail is softened in the memoir (Graham says only that he revealed her “humble beginnings”) but is stripped of euphemism in the afterword by Graham’s daughter Wendy Fairey. It’s the starkest example of the memoir’s pattern of revelation and evasion in its depiction of Fitzgerald, who appears by turns as generous and self-interested, loving and narcissistic, hopeful and nihilistic.

Graham early on shrugs and accepts the power imbalance of a male Svengali educating a beautiful protégée. Long before she meets Fitzgerald, she says she has learned “that men who are in love are not interested in whether the girl knows an A from a B at the beginning of the relationship”—and suggests that perhaps they prefer it that way. Scott himself, she says, likens his education of Sheilah to what “Irish and Scotch pioneers who had struck it rich in the West had done, importing peasant girls to marry.” Not that the two can marry, with Zelda still alive in a distant asylum, haunting Sheilah’s nightmares. The education becomes a bond that stands in for, and later transcends, that missing marriage.

The curriculum of the College of One, described in detail and reproduced in a neatly typed appendix, is eclectic, demanding, and innovative. Fitzgerald is a firm historicist, assigning novels and poems as illustrations of an era as Graham works her way through the thousand pages of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. He helps her through Shakespeare by assigning her “bridges” of famous passages to memorize in advance and then watch out for as she reads, and professor and pupil act out scenes from novels, plays, and poems. He constantly revises the curriculum, giving it to his long-suffering secretary to re-type. It would be hard not to see the whole thing as a masterly form of procrastination—Fitzgerald was dragging his heels on The Last Tycoon at the time—were it not for the joy and peace that it clearly gave him in the last year of his life. Graham, too, makes clear at the end of the book that she has moved beyond shame to a prouder, more positive understanding of her education, shifting from the past to the present tense as she declares: “It widened my horizon. I know where to look. I know how to evaluate. I am curious.”

As a writer, Graham is plain and conversational, and her story often meandering and anecdotal. But her modest style makes the defining moment of Fitzgerald’s death—right in the middle of the music course—land the more powerfully for its understatement:

It was a strange coincidence that he asked me to play [Beethoven’s] Eroica Symphony while he was making some notes about football on the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Soon after it ended, Scott suffered his fatal heart attack. There was still an echo of the music in the room with the afternoon sun through the venetian blinds making patterns on his pale face on the dark green carpet.

Perhaps only at a distance of twenty-six years can something so shocking be described with such elegant detachment—and perhaps only by the most diligent student of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Astoria, New York.

Book Review

dotterBiographile, March 21 2013.

DOTTER OF HER FATHER’S EYES
Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse, 89pp, $14.99

The intensely inventive graphic memoir Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes takes its title from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and its inspiration from Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. The story of Lucia is interwoven with that of the author, Mary M. Talbot, and her father, a prominent Joyce scholar. Through this hybrid structure, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes explores women’s struggles to balance creativity and domesticity, the impact of domineering fathers on headstrong female children, and the addictive refuge offered by art. These themes are brought to life through another kind of hybridity – that of words and pictures, and the collaboration between Mary, the writer, and her husband, Bryan, the artist.

The story opens with a flashback and a moment of recognition across generations, as present-day Mary, a middle-aged literary scholar, comes across an old ID card of her father’s in a drawer and recalls another fragment from Joyce: “my cold mad feary father.” The full-color present-day opening gives way to a sepia-toned past, out of which spring crimson flashes: a hair ribbon or a blood-smeared newborn, as bright and unpredictable as a memory. The language can be equally striking, packing a whole cultural history into a single frame, as when a stern-faced nurse announces to Mary, going into labor for the first time: “Come on, sunshine. Shave and enema time.”

The grayish past depicts Mary Talbot’s upbringing in northern England as the only daughter of teachers in a working-class neighborhood. The noisy presence and sudden departure of her four much older brothers leaves young Mary dislocated and alone, the only child now present to absorb her father’s rages. The insistent tap tap tap across a closed door, which signals her father’s absorption in his work, is like a ticking grenade, until the door is flung open to reveal a roaring face, and SLAM and SMACK SMACK SMACK burst across the image. Like Lucia Joyce, Mary learns early on that her father’s work means that his moods and outbursts must be quietly tolerated – the more so because a daughter should, in the eyes of both fathers, be docile, obedient, and invisible.

Growing up around her father’s study of Joyce didn’t just make Mary aware of the realities of the writing life and lodge enigmatic phrases in her memory. It also meant that she was primed to notice the overlaps between her own life and that of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, born in 1907 in Trieste to penniless, peripatetic parents with the same names as Mary’s own: James and Nora. Lucia’s tragic story is illustrated in bold washes of black and blue, her thick dark halo of hair contrasting with Mary’s paler outline. In Paris as a young girl, Lucia discovers a talent for ballet, but her efforts to forge a career on stage or as a teacher are constantly interrupted by the disapproval and rival demands of her family. Set pieces that show Lucia’s enraptured discovery of dance, her figure leaping joyously across the page, give way gradually to scenes of rage between the girl and her parents, and eventually to nightmarish images of her imprisonment in the first of many asylums.

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is an unusually intimate example of artistic collaboration, as shown through affectionate footnotes in which Mary corrects Bryan’s impression of her past (“My mother would never have been caught dead in a frilly apron”). Sheepish, romantic Bryan, whom Mary married when she fell pregnant in her teens, is a character in the book, resplendent in flowing hair and bell-bottoms. The collaboration between his drawings and Mary’s words allows the reader to travel effortlessly back and forth through the side streets of Wigan and literary Paris in the 1920s, and to discover connections across time, space, and experience. This moving story, funny and shocking by turns, is a wonderful example of how the boundaries and expectations of both biography and memoir can be pushed.

Interview

american-isis1Biographile, February 11 2013. Part II, February 12 2013.

AMERICAN ISIS: A Q&A WITH CARL ROLLYSON
Joanna Scutts

AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH
By Carl Rollyson
St. Martin’s. 336pp. $29.99

Carl Rollyson has written biographies of several iconic women, including Susan Sontag, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, and Marilyn Monroe. His latest book is “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath,” a biography of Sylvia Plath, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s tragically early death. In part one of this two-part interview, Biographile spoke with Rollyson about who the renowned poet really was throughout her life, leading up to her tragic end.

You begin your book by calling Sylvia Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” Can you say more about that comparison, and how it shaped your writing?

It’s always struck me that Sylvia Plath was unusual for a woman of her generation in the range of her interests. She had such an interest in poetry, in prose, and in wanting to be a greater poet, but at the same time she saw no problem with also being a popular writer, for Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other kinds of magazines. When you look at her journals, she really wanted to have a wide range of appeal. That made me think of Marilyn Monroe, in part because Sylvia Plath dreamed about Marilyn Monroe, and I thought that for a writer of Plath’s age and seriousness, to dream about Monroe was really quite striking – and not only to dream about her, but to take Monroe seriously as someone who would give her advice, comfort her, appear as a kind of fairy godmother. When I read biographies of Plath, biographers would say that this was odd or strange, but because of my own work on Monroe I thought no, that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath is. This is a woman firing on all cylinders, who wants to be that kind of cynosure or center of attention, that marks her as a figure in the culture.

It’s a fascinating connection that you develop as the biography moves forward: Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Arthur Miller, for instance, has several parallels to Plath’s with Ted Hughes.

Marilyn Monroe was always looking for, in some sense, a father figure, and Arthur Miller served that function, as well as being her lover and a man she respected for his writing. Well, look at Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – in her poetry, and Hughes’s own poetry, in “Birthday Letters,” he emerges as a kind of replacement for Plath’s father, and also of course as a respected writer, someone with whom Plath could identify in that way.

You have a line I loved about the relationship between individuals and culture. You write that culture is “fixed in the human psyche like the grooves of a long-playing record.” It seems that much of Plath’s experience as a young, ambitious woman in the 1950s, so many of the tensions within her which were pathologized and treated as her own illness, were also pathologies in the culture of the time. She was torn between the intellectual ambitions nurtured at Smith, and the conflicting pull toward domesticity, that was just unavoidable.

Yes, she was very much picking up those cues from the culture. Again like Marilyn Monroe, she’s one of these great transitional figures in the culture. Monroe wanted to have a family, to have the life that her culture was teaching her would make her a full woman, a complete woman – and I think Plath was susceptible to all those feelings as well. And yet at the same time, here’s this powerful intellect, this independent woman – you can see the seventies and eighties and beyond also emerging in Sylvia Plath. I think that’s what’s going to make her last. When people say, “Oh, it’s because she died young, and she was beautiful” – that’s true, but it’s just not enough. It doesn’t explain enough.

The picture that emerges so strongly from your book is of Plath as a relentlessly professional writer: constantly entering contests, and competing for writing prizes.

It’s absolutely true – there was a relentless ambition in her, and an interest to learn not only her craft, but to learn what worked, what sold, what would catch people’s attention. She wrote forty stories for Seventeen before a story was published. You have to work very hard to become Sylvia Plath.

Yet we tend to think that if someone is published or is on their way to fame very young, that it somehow landed in their lap, that it happened by some miracle.

When I talked to Plath’s classmates at Smith, they told me that they’d say to her, “Oh, fantastic, you got a story published in Mademoiselle! and Sylvia would say, “Let me show you the forty rejection slips I have.”

And her professionalism and hard work also guided Ted Hughes – she understands where Ted is likely to be published, what his strengths are, what publishers are going to respond to his work.

Absolutely. She brought him up to speed. He was a poet already; I’m not suggesting she should take credit for that at all, but in terms of professionalism, I think it would have taken him several more years to develop and to reach an audience. That’s what Plath helped him do: cultivate an audience. She was a master at that.

Part Two

Was this a daunting project to take on, given the weight of biographical legend around Plath?

I like to say that I write in a state of self-delusion. I write in the morning; if I were to write later in the day, or really thought about it when I’m out of the writing trance, I think it might be daunting. Already in 1986, when I was writing my Marilyn Monroe biography, publishers were telling me that there were too many biographies of her; what else could there possibly be to say? And people say the same thing about Plath, but we’re learning much, much more about these figures, as one biography responds to or answers the others.

Did you have difficulties in the process of writing the book, as Plath’s other biographers have had, with her estate, or with access to materials?

I realized right at the beginning that there was no way that the Plath estate – especially given my point of view – would cooperate with me. Anyone who knows anything about Plath and the previous biographies knows that biographers had a very hard time with her estate. So I made that decision early on that there was no way I could submit the manuscript or even ask for permission to quote from Plath’s work, that I would have to do this under fair-use standards. That also determined another aspect of the book: Although I do deal, at crucial points, with Plath’s work, it’s not a literary biography in the sense of dealing extensively with her poetry and her stories. I certainly mention a good deal of them and describe them, and try to point out to the reader the importance of this work in her life, but in most pages of the book you’re not reading a work of literary criticism. I’m quite conscious of that – I’m really treating Plath as a kind of cultural symbol. I think people reading my biography will find new ways to read her work, but since I couldn’t quote in any significant way from her poetry, it simply would not be possible to do that other kind of literary biography.

So the limitations actually end up producing a different kind of book.

I would certainly call it making a virtue of necessity. Every biography has its own challenges, and all that interests me as a biographer is, do I have enough to tell a story? If there have been other biographies of this subject, are there ways in which I’m telling this story that differ from them? If I convince myself of that, any other obstacles I have – like worrying that the estate is going to sue me – I really don’t worry too much about that. I have to tell you, though: I have a secret weapon. My wife is a lawyer, and for over twenty years now she’s been my constant companion, my in-house counsel. And in the end, the Plath book was vetted by attorneys hired by the publisher, because they want to be absolutely sure they’re not going to run into any trouble.

It does seem, from your chapter on the other biographies, that a lot more threatening goes on than actual legal action.

That’s right. In England, the laws of libel are very different: The burden of proof is on the person who’s accused – that is, on the author – and in this country it’s just the opposite, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. As a result, many biographies that are published in this country do not get published in England. My Plath is not going to be published in England, because the law is against the publishers, and they’re not going to take that risk.

You made an interesting structural decision in the biography to sideline major events by listing them in the headnotes of each chapter, so readers run through them first. Why was that?

I’ve never written a book quite that way before. In terms of method, not just subject matter, I thought of this Plath book very much like my Monroe biography: There have been so many biographies of my subject, so if there’s going to be another one, I want the freedom to interpret my subject. But some readers have fixed expectations of what a biography is, and if they get into a chapter and they’re not exactly sure when something is happening, they might find it confusing, so I put the chronology for each chapter up front, to let the reader see where we’re headed, what follows what. I have a thesis, an argument in this biography. Some people like that and some don’t – some people want the biography just to tell the story. And although I do believe I tell the story, it certainly is a biography shaped by a vision, a point of view.

So by separating out the fixed events from the emotional flow behind them, what emerges is how difficult it is to track human emotions and motives. Plath comes across as someone with extreme moods, who is unpredictable emotionally, but she’s not really alone in that – other people are also unpredictable and do strange things that are hard to figure out. What do you hope this book will do for readers’ image of Plath, at this remove? What new picture of Plath do you think you’ve created?

Good question. I think it starts with the cover of my book, with that photograph, which was taken by one of her classmates in April 1954 – so that’s Sylvia Plath coming back to Smith after her first suicide attempt. But if you look at that picture, you don’t think it’s the picture of someone who’s going to commit suicide. We have a tendency to read back into Plath’s life, starting with her suicide, that her life was one long trajectory toward killing herself. I don’t think that’s true. I remember coming across a letter from her high school teacher, Wilbury Crockett, which I quote in the book, in which he says, “These biographers come and interview me and they want to know about Sylvia Plath’s sad life – and she was one of the most buoyant, exciting students I’ve ever had.” I hope the way I write the ending of the book shows that there was a whole complex of factors that led to her suicide, and it’s not so simple as saying that she had a certain “suicidal” sensibility. For Sylvia there was a brilliance and a joy to life. I hope readers understand that toward the end, for very complicated reasons, she came to feel that she couldn’t go on – but that she found tremendous value in life.

 

Book Review

crusoeThe Washington Post, May 18 2012

CRUSOE: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth
By Katherine Frank
Pegasus. 338 pp. $27.95

THE WRECKING of a vessel on a remote island, from “The Odyssey” to “The Tempest” to “Lost,” is an evergreen beginning for stories about what makes us civilized and human. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe may be the archetypal survivor, who endures his desert island by imposing his values on inhospitable surroundings. When “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” was published in 1719, true stories of seafaring adventures, run-ins with pirates, and encounters with strange lands and peoples were so popular that Defoe’s fictional book was touted as a true-life tale. The proposed candidates for the “real Robinson Crusoe” would have crowded him off his island, but in her intelligent and surprising new book, “Crusoe,” biographer Katherine Frank focuses on Robert Knox, a young sailor whose story arises at the intersection of adventure, commerce and colonialism.

In choosing Knox rather than Alexander Selkirk — the Scottish castaway usually put forward as the “real” Crusoe — Frank makes it clear that she considers the state of captivity, whether in a far-off land or a grim London prison, to be more central to the Crusoe myth than the desert island. Knox and Defoe never met, but their entwined stories of imprisonment give a fascinating glimpse of a world stirring into modernity.

In November 1659, the same year Defoe’s Crusoe washed up on his island, 19-year-old Knox was a crew member on board the Anne, an East India Company ship captained by his father. Battered by a storm while at anchor off the south coast of India, the ship had to limp to Kottiyar Bay in Ceylon for repairs, where word of its presence soon spread. After a series of confused negotiations with the small native army sent from the interior kingdom to investigate, young Knox, his father and 14 other men found themselves kidnapped, on the improbable-sounding authority of the King of Kandy. The men were marched inland, split up — although Knox and his father were kept together — and moved from village to village. For months they awaited an audience with the king that never came. Capt. Knox succumbed after less than a year to an acute tropical fever, and although his son survived, it was 20 years before he saw his home again.

In his book, “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon,” Robert Knox described how he gradually became accustomed and acclimatized to the life of a Sinhalese villager. The book was published in 1681, a year after he and a fellow captive finally managed, through “calculation, cunning, patience and stamina,” to escape the king’s watchmen — and the odd wild elephant — and make it to a Dutch stronghold. The book was the work of a writer with extraordinary powers of observation and memory, confronting an environment that sometimes seemed touched with magic: “His silver pocket watch had long since stopped, and he now reckoned time as his neighbours did, by a plant called the ‘four o’clock flower.’ This was a deep purple or white blossomed flower that opened every day at four o’clock in the afternoon and remained open ‘until the morning, when it closeth up it self till four a clock again.’ ”

There’s no evidence that Defoe ever traveled outside Britain, but his imagination ranged wide and deep, and his wrecks and captivities were many. His business ventures and failures landed him in dizzying debt, in the pillory and in prison, where inmates had to pay for everything, down to the sixpence for “an earthen pisse-pot.” Writing was his savage revenge, especially the five years of frenetic creativity in the wake of “Robinson Crusoe,” when he published at least 48 works, including the novels “Moll Flanders” and “Roxana.” Frank draws on a wide range of Defoe’s writings to argue that the creation of Crusoe was driven by lessons he learned the hard way, such as the moral of his “Hymn to the Pillory” (1703) that “Survivors are those who create in the face of all the dark forces that seek to destroy them.”

Knox, however, was neither a mythmaker like Defoe nor a creature of myth like Crusoe. His experience was extraordinary, and Frank is a sensitive reader and earnest narrator of his life, but Knox comes more vividly to life in his querulous old age, obsessively expanding and rewriting the story of his captivity, than as the young sailor trapped in an alien world.

One reason for this is that he resolutely was a company man. The East India Company was globally powerful but locally vulnerable: “its far-flung outposts were connected by wooden ships that sailed like toy boats through thousands of miles of ocean.” Its tentacles were busily establishing trading posts wherever wealth could be squeezed from the soil or the inhabitants of a foreign land, and the story of shipwreck is therefore also the story of the company’s ruthless economic colonialism.

The great irony that, in 1684, Knox was made the captain of a slave ship at the company’s behest is not one he seems to have noted. It’s true, of course, that he “would have had to be a much more unconventional man than he was” to object to the slave trade at this point in history; but it makes him an occasionally frustrating hero for such an unconventional, surprising and thoughtful book.

Joanna Scutts , who teaches literature at Columbia University, is an editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.

© The Washington Post Company

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Copyright © 2010 CorbisOpen Letters Monthly, September 2011.

ABSENT FRIENDS:
JESSIE REDMON FAUSET
Joanna Scutts

In a poem she translated in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry, Jessie Redmon Fauset seemed to foretell – and embrace – her posthumous obscurity: ‘I should like to sleep in some neglected spot/ Unknown to every one, by every one forgot.’ But her oblivion is undeserved. As the author of four well received novels, a frequent contributor to W.E.B. Du Bois’ magazineThe Crisis, and its literary editor during the formative years of the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset ought to occupy a far more prominent place in the history of twentieth-century American literature than she currently enjoys. Her obscurity is illustrative of the double bind of gender and race: the male writers whom she published and encouraged (Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay) became the definitive voices of a new African-American canon, and further afield than Harlem, white women poets and novelists carved a space for themselves in modernism. Yet her relative lack of renown and readership is also partly due to the kind of characters and communities she chose to represent: tight-knit, upper-middle-class Northeasterners who seemed to belong to an already fading past.

The epithet ‘the black Jane Austen’ was applied to Fauset in 1934 by William Stanley Braithwaite, writing in the less political counterpart to The CrisisOpportunity. Not exactly a compliment, the label highlighted the triviality and privilege of Fauset’s subjects at the same time as praising her talent for social comedy. Later critics were less subtle, arguing that she was a conservative whose characters pandered to white America by mimicking its elitist prejudices. Neither the praise nor the criticism is entirely fair – her ironic touch is less sure than Austen’s, yet the structural injustices of the social system she depicts are abundantly clear. As feminist scholars point out, furthermore, accusations of literary ‘triviality’ are often based on assumptions of the unimportance of women’s lives – and women’s work – per se. In 1900 a full ninety percent of employed African-American women were in domestic or personal service; if nothing else, by portraying women of color as artists and businesspeople, Fauset cracked a window of opportunity into the gloom of ‘the help.’ Yet the tension between ambition and acceptance, between ‘greatness’ and respectable ordinariness, remains palpable and unresolved throughout her novels and her life.

Fauset’s first novel, There Is Confusion, opens with a scene of the heroine, Joanna Marshall, climbing onto her father’s knee and begging for a story ‘’bout somebody great.’ Joel Marshall is the successful owner of a catering company, but this is not what ‘great’ means either to him or his young daughter – wealthy as he is, Joel’s aspirations to public greatness have been compromised and thwarted by his color. The novel goes on to follow Joanna’s own pursuit of greatness – which like her father’s is incomplete, uncertain, and ultimately abandoned – and interweaves it with the stories of two less-fortunate friends, Peter Bye and Maggie Ellersly. The characters live and try to thrive inside the choke-hold of a white world that refuses to recognize their shared humanity. With one or two minor exceptions, there are no white characters in the book, and white prejudices are communicated in a collective voice. Living in this world means being constantly visible, and constantly subject to insults couched as compliments:

Those Marshall children, you know those colored children that always dress so well and as though they had someone to take care of them. Pretty nice looking children too, if only they weren’t colored. Their father is a caterer, has that place over there on Fifty-ninth Street. Makes a lot of money for a colored man.

For all the sympathy with which Fauset establishes this world, she remains uncertain about how her characters ought to respond. Joanna, the ostensible heroine, is often unsympathetic in her assurance of her own and her family’s superiority and her high-handed treatment of those she thinks are beneath her. Unlike, say, Jane Austen’s Emma, a famously ‘unlikeable’ character who is redeemed by a painful journey to self-knowledge, Joanna’s similarly disastrous meddling in the love affairs of those around her carries almost no consequences for her.

Joanna is a talented singer and dancer, but there are no strains of jazz in this 1924 novel, nor a flash of Josephine Baker – her success is entirely in the hands of white gatekeepers, and ‘America doesn’t want to see a colored dancer in the role of apremière danseuse.’ Protected by her talent, her family, and her own single-mindedness, Joanna only belatedly realizes the insurmountable barrier of race; her refusal to believe in the power of prejudice sets her apart from her poorer friends, who have enjoyed no such illusions. She does achieve the qualified triumph of dancing the role of (masked) ‘America’ in a performance of the ‘Dance of the Nations,’ and becomes a star when she is begged by the crowd to reveal herself. Yet the narrative sadly admits that this is unusual and unique to New York – perhaps even to Greenwich Village where the dance takes place. Joanna can represent ‘America’ only for this one, brief, and exceptional moment – and it awakens her to no political action or sense of racial solidarity. Greatness remains a solitary pursuit.

The poorer characters, who see obstacles of class and race more clearly, are no more successful in overcoming them. Impoverished Maggie Ellersley knows exactly what the Marshalls can do for her and sets her sights on allying herself as closely as possible with the family. Some of the most vivid moments in the novel are seen through Maggie’s eyes, as the poor girl is exposed to pleasure and luxury beyond what she’s ever known: ‘Nightly hair-brushings and the discovery that of course each one had her own brush and comb! Frequent washings of both, talcum powders!’ Described as looking ‘like a yellow calla lily in the deep cream of her skin’ with ‘gray eyes’ and ‘unbelievably red’ lips, Maggie is a latter-day incarnation of a delicate Dickensian heroine whose strength belies her physique: ‘Something within her frail bosom pulsed in a constant revolt against the spirit of things that kept her in these conditions.’ As a teenager Maggie concocts a successful scheme to move herself and her mother out of ‘the tenement in Thirty-fifth Street’ to a respectable address twenty blocks north, yet her business acumen and drive are not celebrated by the narrator, nor respected by Joanna, who considers that she lacks ‘ambition.’ In order that ‘she shan’t spoil my brother’s chances,’ Joanna writes a fateful letter warning Maggie off her planned marriage into the family, and in desperate revolt Maggie elopes with a gambler.

Unlike the determined Maggie, Joanna’s lover Peter Bye needs her to push him forward to greatness and out of his bitterness against white people and his hereditary ‘shiftlessness.’ As an explanation of Peter’s attitude to white people – ‘he did not believe that any of them were kind or just or even human’ – we are given the lengthy history of the tortuously entwined black and white Bye families, slaves and slave-owners in Philadelphia. Despite the very real racism he encounters as a medical student and a soldier during World War One, Peter’s bitterness against the white world is presented as a flaw to be overcome. Yet at the same time, Peter is often a necessary voice of reason, pointing out a structural racism that’s so deeply ingrained that even other black characters overlook it. While working as a musician to put himself through medical school (and after a white woman asks him and his band to play concealed behind a floral display), Peter confronts his partner about his desire to leave for South America, where black people are ‘treated better.’

‘What business has any one ‘treating’ us, anyway? The world’s ours as much as it is theirs. And I don’t want to leave America. It’s mine, my people helped make it. These very orchards we’re passing now used to be the famous Bye orchards. My grandfather and great-grandfather helped to cultivate them.”

“Is that so? Honest?” Tom showed a sudden respectful interest. “How’d they come to lose them?”

“Lose them? They never owned them. The black Byes were slaves of the white Byes.”

Peter’s military service is an opportunity for Fauset to represent the often violent clashes between segregated American regiments thrown together in the war zone. Waiting in Brest, he reflects that: ‘The thing from which France was to be defended could hardly be worse than this welter of human misunderstanding, the clashing of unknown tongues, the cynical investigations of the government, the immanence of war and the awful, persistent wretchedness of the weather.’ Yet the documentarian in Fauset is no match for the overwrought dramatist, and the war becomes the stage for a meeting between Peter and the scion of the white Byes, who is killed under fire and dies in Peter’s arms. The physical resemblance between the two is uncanny, such that their blood relationship is obvious to the reader long before the truth is admitted by the last surviving member of the white Byes. Peter and Joanna, finally married, reject this old man’s offer of reconciliation and an inheritance for their son, made at the very end of the novel. ‘They come too late,’ says Peter, although he says it ‘gently.’ Joanna’s ambition has given way to Peter’s, and ‘a shameless apostate,’ she renounces her creed of ‘greatness’ for ‘happiness.’ This belated switch – in the very last line – suggests that Fauset could never quite imagine a combination of public fame and private joy for her female protagonists. The couple’s absorption into the Marshall home – a fortress of family and material comfort – is both a metaphorical and literal retreat for Joanna.

The daughter of a minister, Fauset was born in New Jersey in 1882 and raised in Philadelphia, in a highly class-conscious world similar to the one she evokes in her novels, in which quiet Sunday afternoons and family Bibles are the structuring staples of a life lived with head down and chin up. Backsliders and ne’er-do-wells threaten the edifice of respectability that the ‘old’ community has built on a base of grudging white acceptance. Luckier and safer than their Southern brothers and sisters, the members of this community nevertheless have to submit to daily indignities and slights, which Fauset charts in her essays as well as her novels. Violence and lynchings are a distant threat, but the daily effort to bear frustration and prejudice grinds down even the most successful. Fauset’s own life reflects the compromised nature of success for an intelligent black girl like Joanna Marshall at the turn of the last century. She was the first female African-American student to graduate from Cornell University, and possibly the first Phi Beta Kappa. Yet she ended up at Cornell because Bryn Mawr arranged financial aid for her to study there, to avoid having to accept or reject her themselves. She obtained a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and studied at the Sorbonne, but she was forced to move from Philadelphia to Baltimore to find a high school that would hire her to teach.

In 1910, W.E.B. Du Bois established The Crisis as the voice of the NAACP, declaring a fourfold mission of news reporting, reviewing, publishing new literature and providing commentary on ‘the race problem.’ From 1912 Jessie Fauset published poems and short stories in the magazine – often early versions of the characters and plots of her novels – and in 1919 Du Bois invited her to New York to work as the magazine’s literary editor, a position she held until 1926. In these years the ‘New Negro Movement’ that became known as the Harlem Renaissance flowered under the auspices of editors like Fauset, who acted as mentor to a stream of new writers. Her reviews tended to praise writing that was not overtly propagandistic, and to express a somewhat idealistic belief in the barrier-crossing power of literature and the existence of objective standards of literary art. At the same time, however, she passionately championed and promoted work that was more politically and artistically radical than her own. The apartment she shared with her sister Helen Lanning on West 142nd Street became a meeting place for artists, writers and Harlem intellectuals, who remembered her as an old-fashioned, elegant presence, albeit more approachable and encouraging than the aloof Du Bois. ‘All the radicals liked her,’ recalled Claude McKay in his autobiography, ‘although in her social viewpoint she was away over on the other side of the fence.’

A minor character in There is Confusion provides a template for the protagonist of Fauset’s second, and more critically acclaimed novel Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1928). Vera Manning, an acquaintance of Joanna’s, decides to pass for white to advance her career in an advertising agency, and is barred by her family from marrying the darker-skinned man she loves. Introduced as shallow and cynical, she later reappears having been radicalized by reports of postwar lynchings: ‘You remember they mobbed some colored soldiers in Arkansas because they’d worn their uniforms in the street?’ Light enough to work undercover, she goes to the South to gather evidence from the mobs themselves, and embraces her true identity: ‘Oh Joanna, I’m glad I’m colored – there’s something terrible, terrible about white people.”

In Plum Bun Angela Murray is neither a career girl nor an activist, but an artist – a painter who chooses to pass at the cost of renouncing her darker sister and the larger black community. Her sister embraces that community, with its belief in tradition, domesticity, and religion, while the radically individualistic Angela transforms herself into ‘Angèle Mory’ and tries, like Jay Gatsby, to transcend her heritage through the power of artistic reinvention. Fauset’s subsequent novels – The Chinaberry Tree (1931) and Comedy, American Style (1933) – continued to focus on what one reviewer called ‘amber-tinted, well-to-do, refined Negroes’: a minority within a minority, obsessed equally with lightness and class. Her contemporaries Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen are better known for both writing about and personally embodying a movement between (and in Toomer’s case, a rejection of) racializing categories and boundaries – Larsen’s novelsQuicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) owe a thematic debt to Fauset but are much more widely read and studied. One possible reason is that Fauset’s version of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme common in early African-American literature is in fact resistant to tragedy – her novels end with abrupt romantic fulfilment, rather than sudden death. Because at the last minute they declare a private solution to the public ‘race problem’ so patiently elucidated beforehand, these happy endings can feel forced. Yet it would be a mistake to let a final retreat overshadow the wealth of detail and texture contained in the novels – or to assume, even unconsciously, that a tragic twist is inherently more ‘authentic’ than a happy one.

Critical judgments from the 1930s on tended to assert that Fauset’s parlors were little more than literary attempts at passing, and to argue that a genuine ‘Negro literature’ should speak to the uniqueness of black experience in America. Her upper-middle-class fictional worlds and the kind of racism she depicted – subtle and debilitating, rather than overt and devastating – were outpaced by a growing political urgency spurred by the Depression. Yet her journalism complicates the picture of her as a conservative, and suggests that her truest talent lay in non-fiction documentary. In her 1922 article ‘Some Notes on Color’ for The World Tomorrow, her descriptions of everyday racism are vivid and blunt, and in some cases find their way into her first novel as part of the backdrop to the characters’ struggles. The essay is framed as a response to ‘a distinguished novelist’ who asserts that ‘the race problem’ is antithetical to ‘art.’ Her response is politely incredulous. ‘It’s life, it’s colored life. Being colored is being a problem.’

Her essay is measured and modulated; but at times the sentences run on in frustration: ‘Either we are inartistic or we are picturesque and always the inference is implied that we live objectively with one eye on the attitude of the white world as though it were the audience and we the players whose hope and design is to please.’ Her novels are full of performers and performances, but the larger performance is always this unasked-for role of representing the group to white eyes. Fauset recounts the ‘inhibition of natural liberties’ that this sense of surveillance engenders; on the crowded subway a seat becomes vacant and a man looks around for a woman to offer it to. ‘I am the nearest one, “But oh,” says his glance, “you’re colored. I’m not expected to give it to you.” And down he plumps.’ It is up to Fauset to make sure that the ‘unpleasantness’ doesn’t ruin her day. A slow waitress at a diner might be a sign of the establishment’s deliberate racism, or simply an inattentive server, and there’s no way to find out. ‘The uncertainty beclouds my afternoon.’ Well aware that these slights and doubts are small on a day-to-day basis, Fauset argues that they are nevertheless part of a larger abdication by white America of its purported values of liberty and democracy: “I do not have to fear lynching, or burning, or dispossession. No, only the reflex of those things.”

Fauset herself was not apolitical – she had attended the second Pan-African Congress on behalf of the NAACP in 1921, and returned inspired by a vision of the international racial unity. Yet her ideas for improving the lot of her race were pragmatic rather than revolutionary – she saw hope in education and in giving the next generation the role models Joanna Marshall lacked. To that end she and Du Bois collaborated on The Brownie’s Book, a short-lived magazine for black children, and she contributed biographies of black political and cultural figures to The Crisis, considering it of urgent importance that black children “be able to read of the achievements of their race.” She aimed to produce a compilation of her biographical writings, but the work was never finished. After her tenure at The Crisis ended, she tried to find work in white publishing houses, offering to work from home if her color should be a problem. However, following the publication of Comedy: American Style, she retired from literary life. She had married an insurance broker, Herbert Harris, in 1929, at the age of 47, and seems to have renounced her own literary ambitions for domestic life. The couple lived in New Jersey until her husband’s death, when Fauset moved back to her family home in Philadelphia. She died there in 1961.

Obscurity and oblivion may also be, in some distant way, ‘reflexes’ of violence and dispossession. Happily Fauset is poised for some redress – the Library of America is including Plum Bun in its new boxed set of Harlem Renaissance novels, out this month. The Northeastern Library of Black Literature edition of The Chinaberry Tree contains a selection of Faucet’s nonfiction writings, and Comedy: American Style is also available, from Rutgers University Press . The out-of-print There is Confusion is easy to find in used editions. For an atmospheric, sometimes jarring, flawed and spirited portrait of a vanished era in American history, Fauset is worth hunting down – not because she’s the black anybody else, but because she’s not quite like anybody else.

Feature

200px-Patrick_Leigh_Fermor_in_1966Open Letters Monthly, July 2011

SOPHISTICATION AND RECKLESSNESS:
REMEMBERING PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR
Joanna Scutts

Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915-2011.

The many obituaries for the travel writer, war hero, adventurer, polymath and bon vivant Patrick Leigh Fermor share a general stunned tone that one man could have lived so many lives. His World War II exploits were portrayed on film by Dirk Bogarde, yet he wrote a study on the pleasures of the monastic life. He took untrammelled delight in company, wine, storytelling and parties, but he was a torturously slow and meticulous writer. The twentieth century seems the wrong era for a figure like Leigh Fermor – he lived the life of a Don Juan or a Don Quixote, more appropriately celebrated in a 16th-century ballad or a picaresque novel than on a paltry Facebook fan page. Even those labels that try to sum him up, like ‘travel writer,’ feel inadequate and inaccurate – are you really a travel writer if you never make it to your destination, and take fifty years to write up your journey?

Patrick Leigh Fermor was certainly born in a different world. His father was a director of the Geological Survey in India, and when his mother and sister travelled back there together after his birth in England, they left him behind with a local farming family. The war had made the seas treacherous, and the decision was taken pragmatically, ‘so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine.’ The family who looked after him gave him free rein for four years ‘of complete and unalloyed bliss.’ The older Leigh Fermor later identified this period of ‘early anarchy’ as the root of his lifelong aversion to authority. The introduction to his travel memoir A Time of Gifts zips through his colorful childhood and adolescence: he was kicked out of a string of conventional and alternative schools, sent to psychiatrists (including one consulted by Virginia Woolf) until he was finally expelled from the illustrious King’s School, Canterbury, for holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter (‘She was twenty-four, a ravishing and sonnet-begetting beauty’). As so often, the root of his crime was restlessness against boundaries, an urge to escape confining walls.

At the age of seventeen, he and his family gave up on his formal schooling with what was probably great relief – his penultimate school report branded him ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,’ who would be a worrying influence on the other boys. He was headed for an army career when he fell in with ‘the remainder, more or less, of the Bright Young People, but ten years and twenty thousand double whiskies after their heyday,’ who intoxicated him with the dream of being a writer. In a house in London shared with fellow-Bohemians his visions of ‘Trollopian diligence’ were overtaken by parties and poverty, and in November, like Ishmael, he has had enough. His plan, which ‘unfolded with the speed and completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler’ was to walk, like a pilgrim or tramp or ‘errant scholar,’ across Europe to Constantinople, equipped with little more than hobnail boots and the Oxford Book of English Verse.

The lure of tramping, of walking and watching and writing, was a powerful one for a certain breed of romantically-minded young Englishman in the 1930s – like Laurie Lee, the author of Cider with Rosie, whose sequel As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning also takes place in 1934 and details a journey by foot from his Cotswolds home to London, and then across Spain. The common urge for adventure was likely sharpened for this generation, born just too late for the First World War, by the desire to prove their powers of endurance, and amid a flood of war stories, to find, as Leigh Fermor puts it, ‘A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’ And like Laurie Lee in Spain and Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, Leigh Fermor soon found his personal pilgrimage striking up against the darker political forces at work in 1930s Europe. As he makes his way from Holland up the Rhine, he watches the Germany of his childhood and education, of Schiller and Goethe, beginning to sink in the tide of ascendant Nazism.

The wandering scholar starts out as he intended, mixing with peasants and laborers, reciting Shakespeare to keep out the cold; sleeping in barns or inns or perhaps barmaids’ beds, but convenient friendships and letters of introduction soon change the tenor of the journey. He upgrades from beer halls to Baroque palaces, enjoying the hospitality of baronets and discussing medieval Hun invasions in their ancient libraries, studiously avoiding much discussion of the politics of the present.

After I had said goodnight and made my way book-laden along an antlered corridor and up a stone spiral to my room, it was hard to believe I had been sleeping in a byre the night before. There is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster, and then back again. Cocooned in smooth linen and lulled by the smell of logs and beeswax and lavender, I nevertheless stayed awake for hours, revelling in all these delights and contrasting them with joy to the now-familiar charms of cow-sheds and haylofts and barns. The feeling would still be there when I woke up next morning and looked down from the window.

The last sunrise of January was sliding across a lawn, catching the statues of Vertumnus and Pales and finally Pomona at the far end and stretching their thin and powdery shadows on the untouched snow. Rooky woods feathered the skyline and there was a feeling in the air that the Danube was not far.

Because the books were written so much later, it’s surprising how fresh and non-judgmental a narrator he remains. Despite his often-elaborate language (an urge to match Baroque architecture with baroque sentences?) he remains an exemplary travel writer for the sharpness and clarity of his observation, his autodidact’s thirst for knowledge and an exceptional sense of history that seems to run as deep as DNA. He’s an autobiographer who can always see the past under the present as if through the thinnest gauze, and likewise can imagine himself back into the mind and body of his 18-year-old self. The cold really bites, the fireplace and the beer really warm. No wonder that he became an icon for travel writers – Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are scattered in the grounds of Leigh Fermor’s house in Greece, and one of the best obituaries, by William Dalrymple at the Daily Beast, is titled ‘My Hero.’

Leigh Fermor never wrote at such length about his next life, although there’s no shortage of stories about it (his previously unpublished account is in Artemis Cooper’s 2003 collection of his short writings, Words of Mercury.) After spells in Bulgaria and Greece, he lived on Crete during World War II as a member of the resistance, having fought in the losing battle against the invading Germans. In April 1944 he and his second-in-command, William Stanley Moss, along with a group of burly Cretan partisans, ambushed the German commander’s car and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe. They spent two weeks hiding out while search parties hunted and threatened, making their way up and over Mount Ida, sacred to Zeus, before delivering the General into the hands of the Allies. The 1957 Powell and Pressburger film Ill Met By Moonlight is based on Moss’s book about the kidnapping, with Dirk Bogarde horribly miscast, in the eyes of most of his friends, as the unlikely hero. The anecdote that Leigh Fermor himself told as the climactic moment of the adventure was not an example of derring-do but a moment of odd connection, when he is able to finish a verse from Horace that the General begins reciting from memory as they rest. The realization of this shared history is transformative: ‘We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’ As Dalrymple notes in his obituary, ‘it is the archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote – beautifully written, fabulously romantic and not a little showy.’

Life after the war was hardly less adventurous, such that it’s often hard to piece together a full picture of his travels from the various accounts that have been published (Artemis Cooper is reportedly working on a full biography, but no publication date has been set.) He worked for British Institute in Athens and was sent on extended lecture tour around Greece with the photographer Joan Rayner, whom he first met in Athens in the 1930s and married in 1968 (she died in 2003 – they are now buried together in the Cotswolds, in the west of England.) In 1949 he travelled to the French Antilles, out of which trip arose his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, and his only novel, set on Martinique, The Violins of St-Jacques.

A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1953, is a meditation on the pleasures of the monastic life, but he could not be a monk or a hermit for long – after he and Joan designed and built their perfect writers’ house, south of Kalamata in Greece, they filled it with books, wine and fellow travellers. Maniand Roumeli are his two books on Greece, and he only finished two volumes of the trilogy he intended about that epic 1934 trip – A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. He was a painstaking writer, averaging a book or two per decade, but they are all in print and available in lovely editions from New York Review Books. If you ever get to feeling you’ve been born in the wrong century, or you just want to be transported far from here and now, you couldn’t ask for a better travelling companion.