Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"It is truly ghoulish of me not to have written ages ago," Or, The letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Mitford

I've spent the past two days dipping into In Tearing Haste, the new collection of letters between travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and Mitford sister Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, and it's been a real treat.

My love of books of letters is nearly indiscriminate, but as most collections consist of the correspondence of a single writer, they tend to offer nearly as many frustrations as satisfactions: I find myself regularly wanting to know what the writer's interlocutors are writing, what words he or she is responding to. The solution, so rarely available, is this sort of dual edition, one that presents a lifetime's exchanges between a single pair of correspondents. Debo and Paddy have been friends since the 1950s, and it's a lot of fun to watch them toss ideas and stories and jokes and impressions back and forth over the decades.

As editor Charlotte Mosley (who has for more than twenty years now admirably fulfilled her charge of keeper of the Mitford legacy) explains in her introduction, the two couldn't be more different in their approach to letter-writing:
Unless Paddy was making a plan or asking a quick question--in which case he would scribble a few lines headed "In unbelievable haste" or "With one foot in the stirrup"--his letters are sustained pieces of writing, as detailed and beautifully wrought as his books. With the eye of a painter, the pen of a poet and a composer's ear for language and dialogue, in his letters he often sounds like a musician practising scales before launching into a full-blown symphony. . . . In complete contrast, Debo's letters are breezy and spontaneous. Dashed off almost in telegraphese at times, they are sharp, idiosyncratic and funny. Where Paddy is dazzlingly erudite, widely read and a polyglot, Debo is defiantly (at times disingenuously) a non-reader, puncturing any intellectualising or use of a foreign word with, "Ah, oui", or "quelle horrible surprise."
The contrasting styles, which could be dizzying, instead are charming; reading the book, you quickly settle into the rhythm of the correspondence, feeling, because of Patrick's lush descriptions, more as if you're sitting with Deborah receiving these reports and dashing off answers than as if you're trekking the world with Patrick.

The best bit from Fermor that I've encountered so far is a letter describing some of the people he met while in Africa working on the film The Roots of Heaven, for which he wrote the screenplay. His description of director John Huston, which jibes with what others tended to say about him, is concise and memorable, even chilling:
John Huston. Wildly bogus, charming, complicated, boastful and ham. I like him very much and don't trust him a yard. He has to be kept under pretty strict control; he would trample on one if he saw the faintest flicker of a flinch, and does so when he does see it. This entails keeping on the offensive quite a lot, i. e. diagnosing his weak points and, when occasion arises, hitting hard and often. This establishes an equivocal and amusing kind of truce and makes life quite fun, a rather dangerous game which both sides divine by an amused look in each other's eyes: thin-ice work & figure skating. He sings "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You" beautifully.
In a few short lines, he makes you want to stay far away from that man--even as you realize how great a character he would make in a novel.

Fermor's sketches of actors Trevor Howard and Erroll Flynn are also nicely turned:
Trevor Howard. Have you ever seen him?--sorry, of course you have. I only asked because I'm so ignorant in such matters. He is playing the lead--Morel, the elephant defender--and seems to me wonderful. A very nice man, but as with nearly all actors, there is something missing: --'A bit of a bore' doesn't quite cover it, somehow. It's something missing somewhere else, which I have yet to put my finger on. He drinks like Hell, starting at breakfast, and goes through his part in a sort of miraculous trance.

Errol Flynn. All the above strictures about actors do not apply here. He poses as the most tremendous bounder--glories in being a cad--but is intelligent, perceptive, and, in a freak way, immensely likeable. We are rather chums, to my bewilderment. Sex rules his life, and very indiscreet and criticisable and amusing he is about it.
Deborah's pen portraits, on the other hand, tend to be more like this:
I've been to dinner at the White Ho[use] twice. Jackie Kennedy was there. she is a queer fish. Her face is one of the oddest I ever saw. It is put together in a very wild way.
But, like her sisters, she also has a great eye for amusing oddities; elsewhere in the letter I've just quoted, she writes,
A rich lady said to me she needed a secretary who understood her "nervouswise." The lingo is very nice indeed but takes a bit of learning.
In another letter, from May of 1974, Deborah writes,
I had a jolly day with a burly team of woodmen, who were doing some clearing. We got to some thick ivy & stuff & I said look out, there might be some birds' nests in that. The foreman said "Oh of course you have that commitment as well." Do admit.
Not that Patrick's letters, polished though they are, are all seriousness and culture; the tale of the woodmen and the birds makes a nice pair with this bit from one of his letters of a few years later, sent from his home in Greece:
We've got two owls here, very close to the house, who hoot like anything just beyond the sort of arched gallery where we dine. I'm very jealous of Joan [his wife], because she's an ace at imitating them through clenched palms, as I bet you can too. I can't do it, like being unable to whistle, because of two front teeth being too far apart, I suppose. Anyway, when Joan breaks into their dialogue, there is an amazed or embarrassed silence, then bit by bit they answer, until an enthusiastic three-sided exchange begins, which it is hard to break off.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

There's much, much more in the book--including some of what Patrick calls "terrible gossip column stuff," which no real Mitford fan can deny being interested in. For now, though, I'll leave you with a bit of properly autumnal description, from an October 2006 letter sent by Patrick from Greece:
The olive harvest has begun. Ladders are propped among the branches of each tree and olives come pattering down on to coloured rugs and tarpaulin, with lots of children and dogs skipping about, and pillars of pale blue smoke from the sawn-off branches floating up into the autumn sky.
And now, speaking of olives, time to go put a few of them into their natural habitat . . .


  1. You write in the voice of Noel Coward, brilliant. It's nice to have to stop occasionally to recall words that require a college education to understand. You time them well making room for the common man in between.

    At what point in your writer's life did you decide to focus on criticism and editing? Do you have any advice I could pass on to my high school students about writing?


  2. Thanks for the kind words, Theodore Daniel.

    I really started writing criticism regularly only when I began writing this blog five years ago. I'd done some reviewing, and of course paper writing back in college, but for the most part, the act of criticism, of trying to understand what I was reading, was going on in my head; one of the main reasons I started this blog was to draw that conversation out and find a public space for it.

    The other reason gets to your second question: I started writing this blog because I wanted to make myself write--and thus practice writing--regularly. That's my advice for your students, old and familiar as it is: write, regularly. Read what you write closely, then edit it. Try to make it more clear and concise. Read it again. Edit again.

    And, more important: read. That's where I learned whatever writing skills I have. Read fiction, read criticism, read poetry. See how other people have handled the problem of describing and explaining. Reading will make you a better writer, full stop.

  3. I've just recently run across your blog and enjoy it very much. When I read the comments to this post, it struck me "That's exactly why I started my blog!". I have always been a voracious reader, but never much of a writer. I have no ambition to write a book, but I would like to be better at understanding what I read, participating in literary critisms and general writing. I will certainly keep an eye on your blog to help me in my endeavors. Thanks!