Whitewashed ribbed amphorae for oil or wine, almost the size of those dug up in the palace of Minos, stood by many a doorway. Once more I wondered how these immense vessels were made. They are obviously too big for any potter smaller than a titan with arms two yards long. As usual, theories abound. Some say a man gets inside the incipient jar like a robber in the Arabian Nights, and builds up the expanding and tapering walls as they rotate on a great wheel; some, that the halves are constructed separately and then put together; others that they are cast in huge moulds; yet others assert that they are built up from a rope of clay that is paid out in an expanding and then a contracting coil until the final circle of the rim is complete; which is made to account for the ribs and the fluting that gird them from top to bottom. I had heard, all over Greece, that they came from Coroni in the Messenian peninsula, only the other side of the gulf. It was strange that, even here, there should be such a conflict of solutions. There were only four men in the little group I asked among the beached fishing boats. If there had been more, no doubt the total of solutions would have risen accordingly.
I have been to Coroni since, and I now own one of those stupendous vessels. ‘We build them bit by bit, from the bottom,’ the potter said, ‘just as a swallow builds its nest.’
– Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani (1958)
Inexplicably, I have not yet written on Patrick Leigh Fermor, despite the fact that there has for the past year inevitably been to be found on my bedside table some or other book of his, perhaps picked up only sporadically, but read in bursts of avid pleasure. There has been a fair amount of buzz about Fermor lately (perhaps more in the British than the North American lit press) because the final instalment of his technically still-unfinished trilogy documenting his trek by foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul/Constantinople in 1933-1934 was just posthumously released. Consequently there is no shortage of profiles that do greater justice to the details of this life than I ever would. You should read them. Better still, you should read -him-.
I am not typically a fan of travel literature, nor of memoir, but like Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, and parts of Greene’s Ways of Escape (and much of MFK Fisher, come to think of it, and to think of someone who is not a dead white British man), Fermor’s work captures something special. The first two books of his trilogy, A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water are tremendously engaging. His writing is dizzyingly prolix, but usually in the best and dare I say shit-eatingest sense of the word (and in the best sense of the term “shit-eating,” for that matter). Purple but without pretence. Almost too much, or perhaps just too much enough. It may depend on one’s taste. But there is a vital quality to all of Fermor’s prose, it animates his material in an irresistible fashion – I am inclined to say that it speaks to one’s blood, if one remembers that blood flows equally to the brain as to the heart and the stomach.
The quote above only hints at this quality, but it caught my eye since I’d been thinking about kvevri (hence amphora, although kvevri are cooler because they bury them in the goddamn ground) recently. But just wait until I track down that passage about getting wasted in Schwabing, you’ll be in for a treat.