In , at the age of , Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on an extraordinary journey by foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople A Time of Gifts is the first volume in a trilogy recounting the trip, and takes the reader with him as far as Hungary It is a book of compelling glimpses not only of the events which were curdling Europe at that time, but also of its resplendent domes and monasteries, its great rivers, the sun on the Bavarian snow, the storks and frogs, the hospitable burgomasters who welcomed him, and that world s grandeurs and courtesies His powers of recollection have astonishing sweep and verve, and the scope is majestic First published to enormous acclaim, it confirmed Fermor s reputation as the greatest living travel writer, and has, together with its sequel Between the Woods and the Water the third volume is famously yet to be published , been a perennial seller foryears


10 thoughts on “A Time of Gifts

  1. Kelly Kelly says:

    I ll have whatever this guy is having Yeah, the one making the embarrassing noises and eating ambrosia without a care in the world This ridiculous guy right here Fermor is kind of my hero He represents something I ve always envied You know those people who can make a thing, an occasion out of anything, out of doing errands if they must It s not just an Always Look on the Bright Side of Life da da da dah dah da dah da thing, it s a way of not letting a surface presentation of boring be t I ll have whatever this guy is having Yeah, the one making the embarrassing noises and eating ambrosia without a care in the world This ridiculous guy right here Fermor is kind of my hero He represents something I ve always envied You know those people who can make a thing, an occasion out of anything, out of doing errands if they must It s not just an Always Look on the Bright Side of Life da da da dah dah da dah da thing, it s a way of not letting a surface presentation of boring be the end of it Their minds are always working, and can always find something to think about, even at the most mediocre of tourist traps, even at the most average performance of the thousandth rendition of Pachabel s Canon they ve been forced to listen to.Fermor is one of these people I mean, he tries his best to minimize the reality of it, but he walked across the north of Europe in the depression ridden 1930s in the depths of a horrible winter, where snow covered the otherwise picturesque scenery and where Hitler was in charge He slept in barns covered in ice, had his belongings stolen, had to go door to door peddling his sketching hobby in order to feed himself, and again, need I say it, NAZIS This trip could have been a nightmare, or he could have sketched it as one Who would question that in a narrative written about Europe of 1933, with the clouds closing in But instead of touting himself as a prophet or a self important chronicler of the troubles of the interwar years, Fermor makes himself a magician He is the Guide, the Gandalf, the ghosts of Christmas Past, the curator, the Brothers Grimm, the wise child who knows the way through the woods There is darkness, but it is the kind of darkness that the story needs, a supportive depth that allows us to appreciate the worth of our Guide.Fermor has two gifts that allow him to do this One is a breathtaking capacity for rapture I can think of no other word for it He is able to section off a moment and a place and rope it away from the world and declare it Divine Guy Gavriel Kay, the great Catholic authors and mystics down the centuries, Woolf in her own way, a few others there are not so many who know this spell and understand the proper way to recite it Even fewer of them do not require the assistance of a perfectly staged performance and a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain to achieve it He s one of them What is , he has so many different kinds of rapture some that stand apart from the rest in isolated glory, some that last a few paragraphs of a pause, and some that are just phrases woven into a surprisingly colloquial and conversational surrounding tale He allows his 18 year old self to be excited about some conjecture that perhaps doesn t seem very important now, and lends his additional forty years of experience to help out.His other great power is a wonderful capacity for digression, footnotes and sidenotes He has the sort of curiousity that seems to always pay off adding to his ability to make an occasion out of stopping for lunch If the trees are boring, well, let s talk about singing to ourselves in Latin and acting out Henry V on Dutch roads instead, if the German countryside s rustic Medieval charm cannot be further elaborated upon, why don t we talk about the Danubian school First of all, I am jealous that he can do this Second of all, it is always fascinating He s just never, ever at a loss The depth of knowledge he has to draw on which, the flattering comparisons to Byronesque behavior aside, prove that books were some of his best friends, no matter what other ones he may have acquired is just astounding He couldn t create the atmosphere he does without formidable ingredients to draw on luckily he works with only the best Perhaps this is part of it too he refuses to descend from the height on which he sits, or to consider a trip to the pub to nudge and winkthan the once or twice he is in the mood for that sort of thing I got such a sense of Fermor from what he told me on the side, the way that he shaped this story Which Fermor is of course the question Sometimes it was old man Fermor shaping the bright young Fermor, at times it seemed like a remnant of the young Fermor broke through the careful old gentleman, whether he wanted him to or not how artless was it Was he consciously na ve Was he overly careful How much was a portrait of the artist as a young man, and how much was the young man in negatives himself Of course near the end Fermor gives us a taste of the un retouched voice of his 18 year old self and leaves us to judge But perhaps that is merely selective, planted evidence as well Whatever is the case, Fermor is one of the best artists of the Self that I ve met, and certainly the one who seems to have worked on it the longest and the most thoroughly We all of us have many selves on display, and without schizophrenia, it isn t often that our selves get to talk to each other with an audience around He makes much of the memories that never were the landmarks just a few miles out of his way he never knew about, the events he arrived just after or before, the art he did not properly appreciate , which for an narrative about 1930s Europe seems an appropriate topic It s almost as if he had such an obligation to make what memories he could burn brightly because he had been to a nearly fallen Eden that no one could go again If his constant allusions to fairy tales, the Middle Ages, ancient myth and artwork irritate you somewhat or seem problematically racist essentialist I would just say that Europe was robbed of a lot of Stories that no one wanted in the 20th century in favor of an attempt to return to Before In the absence of history, the brightly painted knights and the Vermeer serving girls were what was left that one could talk about in order to attempt to understand why Imperfect memory robs you, voluntarily or involuntarilyApart from that glimpse of tramlines and slush, the mists of the Nibelungenlied might have risen from the Rhine bed and enveloped the town and not only Mainz the same vapours of oblivion have coiled upstream, enveloping Oppenheim, Worms and Mannheim on their way I spent a night in each of them and only a few scattered fragments remain Lamplight shines through shields of crimson glass patterned with gold crescents and outlined in lead but the arch that framed them is gone And there are lost faces a chimney sweep, a walrus moustache, a girl s long fair hair under a tam o shanter It is like reconstructing a brontosaur from half an eye socket and a basket full of bones I mean, this is a travel book It is firmly and gorgeously grounded in a sense of place It is, in the end, about walking across Europe and having wacky adventures and picturesque scenes But it is also about experimenting with literary forms, with the past and with the Self It is about engaging with a history that was not yet ready to be history, telling friends about wacky adventures, about the power of stories and it is about an 18 year old boy growing up There s a gleeful silliness that lurks under some of this, a deadly seriousness to other parts, a winking acknowledgement of melodrama, and a creation of it in successive paragraphs, without breaking a certain kind of consistency It is a meditation on the role of the storyteller himself How much of the storyteller is in the story, how much should be there What would be there anyway, without him, and what needs him to make it real Some storytellers outshine the story Fermor is one of these But I don t resent him for it There are a lot of good stories in this book, but in the end, he s the best one


  2. WILLIAM2 WILLIAM2 says:

    This is about a European walking tour begun by the author in 1933 He was 18 at the time and his budget was 4 a month, sent poste restant to him along his route The book s unusual intellectual depth derives from the fact that he did not write the memoir until much later in life This first volume, of three, appeared in his 62nd year.Leigh Fermor s departure from London takes the form of a lengthy description of his steamer, the Stadthouder, pulling away from Irongate Wharf under Tower Bridge o This is about a European walking tour begun by the author in 1933 He was 18 at the time and his budget was 4 a month, sent poste restant to him along his route The book s unusual intellectual depth derives from the fact that he did not write the memoir until much later in life This first volume, of three, appeared in his 62nd year.Leigh Fermor s departure from London takes the form of a lengthy description of his steamer, the Stadthouder, pulling away from Irongate Wharf under Tower Bridge on a rainy night His literary technique here is to slow the moment down through excess description as if to savor it This is just the first spate of very rich description that one gets throughout He naps in the pilot house and is in snowy Holland in a blink Here everything reminds him of Dutch painting On the third or fourth night he sleeps above a blacksmith s shop Promptly at six he s awakened by the clanging hammer, the hiss of hot metal in water, the smell of singeing horn as a horse is shoed Heading for the German border, he comes across a belfry and, almost reflexively, climbs it The whole kingdom was revealed The two great rivers loitered across the landscape with their scattering of ships and their barge processions and their tributaries There were the polders and the dykes and the long willow bordered canals, the heath and arable and pasture dotted with stationary and expectant cattle, windmills and farms and answering belfries, bare rookeries with their wheeling specks just within earshot and a castle or two, half concealed among a ruffle of woods p.34 His trek across Germany comes at the very start of the Thousand Year Reich Hitler has been Chancellor just nine months The people he meets are wonderful He picks up two fr uleins in Stuttgart he was strikingly handsome who don t let him go for days The parents happen to be away at the time.There s a funny evening when one of the girls must attend a party held by a business associate of her father The German host is a Nazi and a man of high, conspicuous style His ghastly modern villa is deprecated at length Leigh Fermor watches as the host hits on each young woman in turn, cornering them in his study, and is rejected by both This does nothing for his standing among other guests He styles himself the young woman s cousin, named Brown His host introduces him around as the English globetrotter, which PLF resents Most amusing is their departure To protect the girls reputation he must tell the host he s staying at a nearby hotel, when of course he s sleeping on their sofa We had to take care about conversation because of the chauffeur A few minutes later, he was opening the door of the car with a flourish of his cockaded cap before the door of the hotel and after fake farewells, I strolled about the hall of the Graf Zeppelin for a last puff on the ogre his host s cigar When the coast was clear I hared through the streets and into the lift and up to the flat They were waiting with the door open and we burst into a dance p 80 Then he s in Bavaria wrestling strapping peasants on beer hall floors for fun, losing his precious notebook, his walking stick, and waking catatonic with hangover, or, as it s called in Germany, katzenjammer The holidays pass and on 11 February 1934 he turns 19 He undertakes a recapitulation of his reading at the time, much of it Latin and Greek, which left me envious of his failed classical education Though he was a terrible student a scrapper and practical joker it seems he ended up a formidable linguist, who, only a few years later during the war, along with his unit he was in uniform by then successfully kidnapped a German general in Crete This would make him a national war hero, but I rush ahead.In Austria, as in Germany, he has occasion, between his nights in peasants stables and hutches, to find himself lodged amid extraordinary grandeur He had the foresight to arrange a number of introductions on the continent In Austria he fetches up at the schloss of K.u.K K mmerer u Rittmeister i.R., Count Gr fin of the late dual monarchy The count was old and frail He resembled, a little, Max Beerbohm in later life, with a touch of Franz Joseph minus the white side whiskers I admired his attire, the soft buckskin knee breeches and gleaming brogues and a gray and green loden jacket with horn buttons and green lapels These were accompanied out of doors by the green felt hat with its curling blackcock s tail feather which I had seen among a score of walking sticks in the hall p 137 We move on to an assessment of the quintessential Austrian schloss It myriad details are considered, as well as certain regional variations The disquisition on German painting Cranach, Bruegel, Altsdorfer, D rer, etc has the righteous authoritative tone of Robert Hughes Especially interesting is the author s point about the lush technique of the Italian Renaissance hardening into a grotesque and visceral style in the north due to the brutal wars of the period See C.V Wedgwood s fine The Thirty Years War which he extols in a note We also get details of the Danube s history, its flora and fauna including a predacious 15 foot catfish known as the Wels The author s not infrequent late nights at the various inns along the way are colorful The one five miles from Ybbs was made of wood, leather or horn and the chandelier was an interlock of antlers A tireless accordionist accompanied the singing and through the thickening haze of wine, even the soppiest songs sounded charming Sag beim Abschied leise Servus, Adieu, mein kleiner Gardeoffizier, and In einer kleinen Konditorei The one I liked most was the Andreas Hofer Lied, a moving lament for the great mountain leader of the Tyrolese against Napoleon s armies, executed in Mantua and mourned ever since p 170 The section on the migrations of peoples I found particularly dense One thing you have to say for PLF, he does not write down to his reader He assumes you have much the same knowledge or educational grounding as he does, and for those of his generation this was by and large true Always hovering is the horror of the Holocaust to come It s 1934 after all But it s not until he enters K b lkut in the marches of Hungary, and finds himself among the roughhewn peasantry in a local church on Maunday Thursday, listening to the Tenebrae, then, in search of a bed for the night, when he finds himself talking to the local Jewish baker, that the weight of the inevitable hits the reader and the effect is is one of deep dread.The church had lost its tenebrous mystery But, by the end of the service a compelling aura of extinction, emptiness and shrouded symbols pervaded the building It spread through the village and over the surrounding fields I could feel it even after K b lkut had fallen below the horizon The atmosphere of desolation carries far beyond the range of a tolling bell p 299 I gave the book four stars because the style is very dense and I never quite acclimated to it I find PLF here at times too humorless and didactic There s a smell of the lamp, true, but there s also much that s wonderful He s clearly drunk on the history of the Danube basin and he has a gift for making languages interesting on the page even for those who do not speak them That cannot have been an easy task, but he does it Particularly interesting was how one almost watches him pick up German, writing about the change of dialects along the way There s so muchI m not touching on Bratislava and his friend there, Hans, the banker the last minute train trip with Hans to Prague in the snow, a backtrack to the only city on his 2000 plus mile route he does not enter on foot his discussion the following morning with the Jewish baker s Hasidic heritage the time he s held at gunpoint on the Austria Czech border when he s thought to be a smuggler his contemplative loitering on the bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, the Basilica of Esztergom looming overhead, the Danube rushing below.But for all it s verbal richness A Time of Gifts can be at times a bit of a slog One never careers happily through it One is always aware of the great erudition, the trumping vocabulary, etc It is in the end like a cloying, too rich desert If you re inclined to indulge, as many will be, for the book is very highly regarded , so much the better for you


  3. Adam Floridia Adam Floridia says:

    This book will forever hold a special place in my heart because it is the first one my son, Jameson Michael Floridia Jem for short , read Actually, it waslike this Hopefully, some of Fermor s aesthetically magnificent, dazzling images will dance like sugar plums in his little head Maybe one day he will be a Wandering ScholarHopefully, Konrad s words will reside latent in his subconscious You see, dear young, how boldness is always prospering 205.Hopefully but not likely , I This book will forever hold a special place in my heart because it is the first one my son, Jameson Michael Floridia Jem for short , read Actually, it waslike this Hopefully, some of Fermor s aesthetically magnificent, dazzling images will dance like sugar plums in his little head Maybe one day he will be a Wandering ScholarHopefully, Konrad s words will reside latent in his subconscious You see, dear young, how boldness is always prospering 205.Hopefully but not likely , I will be able to restrain my new fatherhood joy and not include him in every subsequent reviewbut onefor the road He saw himself as a Wandering Scholar He was alone, and he was ready to sleep anywhere, talk to anybody, live on almost nothing, eat or drink anything, have a go at any language, make friends with rich or poor, and brave the worst that heat and cold, mishap and blister, officialdom, prejudice and politics could do to him intro


  4. Paul Paul says:

    This is a remarkable book the account of an 18 year old who decides to escape England and walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople The year is 1933 and the Nazis have just come to power and he sets off just before winter starts He had been expelled from school and wanted to write and he took writing materials with him to record his experiences in a journal diary Leigh Fermor has the optimism and enthusiasm of youth but he also had good powers of observation and the ability to make fr This is a remarkable book the account of an 18 year old who decides to escape England and walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople The year is 1933 and the Nazis have just come to power and he sets off just before winter starts He had been expelled from school and wanted to write and he took writing materials with him to record his experiences in a journal diary Leigh Fermor has the optimism and enthusiasm of youth but he also had good powers of observation and the ability to make friends easily That he must have had a great deal of as many people put him up overnight without question This first of three volumes starts in Holland and moves through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and ends in Hungary.The book captures a world about to be torn apart by the rise of Nazism and Leigh Fermor comes across them and they are generally unpleasant in contrast with most of those he meets He goes off on tangents on a regular basis to describe something interesting His descriptions of the natural world are very good, especially the arrival of the storks in the spring in Hungary Leigh Fermor also has a good eye for architecture and notes the changing nature of the buildings as he travels He describes the people he meets, the generosity, and often in detail the food and the drink Laced through it all is Leigh Fermor s love of literature and reading Having had a public school education he has able to quote a great deal of what he had been taught He records the amused reactions of people as he walked and acted out bits of Shakespeare or read poems and other bits and pieces that he recalled It is a coming of age tale like no other and he maintained his zest for life until the end The journalist Allison Pearson recalls when she was sent to Crete to meet him when he was 83 to write an article on him She expected a frail old man she would have to look after She just about remembers drinkingin 48 hours than she had for the previous 20 years and waking up under a bar Pearson says that as they walked around Crete she could barely keep up with him and he was very much like he was in the book observant of nature, breaking into song and poetry periodically and climbing things.The sheer zest for life is infectious and the descriptions very sharp, for example Snow had covered the landscape with a sparkling layer and the slatey hue of the ice was only becoming visible as the looping arabesques of the skaters laid it bare Following the white parallelograms the lines of the willows dwindled as insubstantially as trails of vapour The breeze that impelled those hastening clouds had met no hindrance for a thousand miles and a traveller moving at a footpace along the hog s back of a dyke above the cloud shadows and the level champaign was filled with intimations of limitless space. This is one of the great travel books


  5. David David says:

    Now I fully realize that I have no right to review a book of which I ve read only about forty miserable pages, plus its bloviating introduction So if you re a militant Fermor partisan and you ve arrived here for the purpose of throwing fits and tantrums and tsk tsking me for bad protocol, then save the exertion of your typing fingers I m unmoved by the natural law of book reviewing or its radical adherents Now where s my soapbox This book is the opposite of the kind of books I enjoy It s Now I fully realize that I have no right to review a book of which I ve read only about forty miserable pages, plus its bloviating introduction So if you re a militant Fermor partisan and you ve arrived here for the purpose of throwing fits and tantrums and tsk tsking me for bad protocol, then save the exertion of your typing fingers I m unmoved by the natural law of book reviewing or its radical adherents Now where s my soapbox This book is the opposite of the kind of books I enjoy It s windy, self satisfied, lifeless, and dry something you imagine might easily have been written in the pleasureless Age of Hegel But no This was actually the 1970s The era of Three s Company and Minnie Riperton So why does this dude sound like he just rode in on a hansom cab from the Congress of Vienna Seriously We get it You re really, really, really smart and you know a whole bunch of archaic and rarely used words, and therefore we should feel as if we have somehow failed you if we don t appreciate your masturbatory wordiness for the poetry it is But it really isn t Poetry, I mean It s a gratuitous and bloated travelogue that makes Proust look like Vanna White s autobiography Where was the editor here I m worried that he scarfed down some hemlock when he got to page ten, never to red pencil a text again But a lot pretentious American intellectual aspirants will really eat this stuff up for varied and complex sociological reasons First of all, it s painfully British That s shorthand in America for classy You could recast Transformers Revenge of the Fallen with Jeremy Northam, Kiera Knightley, and Alan Rickman, and they d be falling all over their tins of Earl Grey to get to the cineplex Secondly, the English major types are often aesthetically conservative They won t celebrate DeLillo or Pynchon for another hundred years, until they ve been fully vetted by history Besides, who needs experimentation when you ve got people like Fermor still writing in that old starchy anachronistic style that makes the Anglophiles sink a little deeper into their imported Fair Isle sweaters Well, actually you don t have Fermor any He died earlier this year And while I m not happy about anybody s death, I m certainly not mournful that he can t churn out anybooks Forty pages plus introduction wasthan enough to know that I hated this book with the white hot heat of a thousand suns And I want it to be gone, away from me So if this sounds appealing to you, I d be happy to send it to you free of charge if you re on my friend list Along with my pity The first friend who asks for it in the public comments below gets it And after a sales pitch like this, how can you say no


  6. Geoff Geoff says:

    To enjoy A Time of Gifts you will only need to possess an interest even a passing interest in at least one of these three things the English language, descriptions of land and city scapes, and the history of European art and culture Is thatthan three things Possibly This is certainly the most erudite travel book I have ever read It is composed of countless magnificent words I understand this is the case with many books But this one is a really vivid fabric, each word representing To enjoy A Time of Gifts you will only need to possess an interest even a passing interest in at least one of these three things the English language, descriptions of land and city scapes, and the history of European art and culture Is thatthan three things Possibly This is certainly the most erudite travel book I have ever read It is composed of countless magnificent words I understand this is the case with many books But this one is a really vivid fabric, each word representing a micro filament that commands its due attention from the gaze as it passes over the length and folds of this textile work Each little strand supports its successor and predecessor, and each one shines on its own in the field I would like for someone not myself to attempt an individual word count for this book The language is almost overflowing its capacity I learned a great deal just looking up the architectural or religious words and phrasings I did not know I was mystified by the place names once he dropped from the Rhine and picked up his pace along the Danube and into the Slavic countries Fermor s love of and aptitude for languages is one of the pleasures of this work As he crosses each frontier a new dialect, odd stresses on syllables and deviant pronunciations fascinate him and he will go on extrapolating theories as to their origin and historic context It s the same when he reads the land, his eye is always looking for connections His verbose landscape paintings are head rushes, dizzying flights of prose composed of minute observations of the details of meadows, sunrises and sunsets, snow dappled limbs, light on frozen rivers, buds emerging from wet bows, dark and constellation domed forests It s sometimes a bit much and I reread many sections trying to assimilate it all But Fermor really gets going when he is in his favorite environs the Schlossen, the abbeys, the castles and monasteries and libraries that punctuate his trip across Middle Europe An example of his descriptive prolixity in the abbey at Melk rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the forests and quarries A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of artificial icicles Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on journeys of aspiration towards three dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxesIt goes on With A Time of Gifts, Fermor has kind of entered my pantheon of personal heroes Why I ll tell ya Of course his capacious intellect, his effortless recitation of obscure and fascinating points in Middle European history connected to his travels his obsession with the Thirty Years War colors this travelogue in a similar way that Rilke s Brigge Notebooks are colored by his obsession with the deaths of French kings , his open mindedness and ability to communicate and find commonality with practically anyone, despite barriers of language and culture all these things, yes, but also because the guy had balls Balls and intellect the keys to success At age 18, finding himself kicked out of school and wanting to become a writer, he set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, following two of Europe s most significant rivers He was met with kindness and generosity, even crossing Hitler s Germany, and there is a gray tint that falls over some of this book when he reflects that within a decade certain quarters he had haunted would be bombed into nonexistence I suppose that is what this book is, the experiences of a young man instilled with a good dose of that youthful confidence that persuades one that anything is possible, who sets out across a European continent he obviously adores to set it down in a loving portrait, one last time, before it all went to pieces


  7. Roy Lotz Roy Lotz says:

    When I began this book, I fully expected to join the universal chorus of praise The premise of this book could hardly bepromising a na ve, bookish nineteen year old decides to walk from Holland all the way to Constantinople We have here all the makings of a literary adventure an author sensitive enough to language and art to appreciate the finer points of culture, and impetuous enough to get into scraps and misadventures The only book I can think of that holds comparable promise is Ge When I began this book, I fully expected to join the universal chorus of praise The premise of this book could hardly bepromising a na ve, bookish nineteen year old decides to walk from Holland all the way to Constantinople We have here all the makings of a literary adventure an author sensitive enough to language and art to appreciate the finer points of culture, and impetuous enough to get into scraps and misadventures The only book I can think of that holds comparable promise is Gerald Brenan s South From Granada, which begins, similarly enough, with the young, bookish Brenan settling down in the south of Spain to read Spinoza Well, to get straight to the point, even by the end of the introduction I found myself disappointed This was surprising At first I thought I was misinterpreting my own feelings The book had everything I expected fine prose, snippets of culture and history, a few youthful misdeeds here and there Why the persistent feeling of letdown Is it me But in the end, true to form, I have decided that my instincts are not misfiring, and that this book is not quite the masterpiece it has been made out to be To me, Leigh Fermor is the epitome of superficial learning No doubt he is well educated His vocabulary is vast he has a solid grasp of art history and a fine appreciation of architecture he can speak and read several languages his knowledge of English poetry borders on encyclopedic And yet all this learning functions, in him, as the feathers in a peacock s tail as a bright, beautiful, and at times intimidating display but a mere display, nonetheless Leigh Fermor deploys recondite words, the names of painters and poets, and the weighty facts of history, neither to express deep sentiment nor to communicate insights, but as mere ornament George Elliot both anticipated and perfectly summed up Leigh Fermor in Middlemarch, in the character of Will Ladislaw another young Englishman with vague literary and artistic ambitions who travels to the continent to bask in the culturerambling in Italy sketching plans for several dramas, trying prose and finding it too jejune, trying verse and finding it too artificial, beginning to copy bits from old pictures, leaving off because they were no good, and observing that, after all, self culture was the principal pointThis description fits Leigh Fermor to a T the total aimlessness, the nebulous hopes of someday writing a book, the amateurish sketching that Leigh Fermor himself is careful to denigrate I admit that I am lobbing these accusations at Leigh Fermor with an uneasy conscience, because in so many ways he is leaps and boundslearned and eloquent than I am Yet to misuse one s gifts seemsculpable than not having gifts in the first place But let me stop being vague Consider this passage from the beginning, right when the writer is setting out and saying goodbye to his loved ones Haste and the weather cut short our farewells and our embraces and I sped down the gangway clutching my rucksack and my stick while the others dashed back to the steps four sodden trouser legs and two high heels skipping across the puddles and up them to the waiting taxi and half a minute later there they were, high over head on the balustrade of the bridge, craning and waving from the cast iron quatrefoils. While I like certain aspects of this sentence specifically the bit about soggy trouser legs and puddles the final effect is unpleasant and false First is the curiously passive construction in the beginning, giving agency to haste rather than people and the ending focus on cast iron quatrefoils is emotionally leaden he isn t thinking about his family , and implausible is this really what the young Leigh Fermor was focusing on in that moment , and, in sum, strikes me as a purely pedantic inclusion a word used because he knew it and not because it fit This tendency to use words just because he knows them often spoils Leigh Fermor s prose for me I grant that his verbal facility is extraordinary But to what purpose He is like a virtuoso jazz pianist who shows off his chops in every solo, even on the ballads, without tact or taste This comes out most clearly in his architectural passages The archway at the top of these shallow steps, avoiding the threatened anticlimax of a flattened ogee, deviated in two round topped lobes on either side with a right angeled central cleft slashed deep between the cusps There had been days, I was told, when horsemen on the way to the indoor lists rode in full armour up these steps lobster clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostriche plumes under a freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep their bright paint that spiraled them unchipped But in King Vladislav s vast Hall of Homage the ribs of the vaulting had further to travel, higher to soar Springing close from the floor from reversed and bisected cones, they sailed aloft curving and spreading across the wide arch of the ceiling parting, crossing, re joining, and once again enclosing those slim subdivided tulips as they climbed. Aside from illustrating his penchant for refined obscurity, the bit about the horseman with lances in full armor exemplifies another irksome quality of Leigh Fermor his romanticism He seems totally uninterested in actually learning about what he sees Like Byron, he treats the cathedrals, castles, and local history solely as food for his imagination The closest thing to a real investigation in these pages is his attempt to explain why, in A Winter s Tale, Shakespeare speaks of Bohemia, a landlocked country, having a coast This line of questioning is somewhat amusing, sure, but also captures Leigh Fermor s mentality there he is, in a foreign land, and the question he occupies himself with is how a dead English playwright made a geographical error a question of scant literary or historical value, a meaningless curiosity His tendency to fetishize learning and his romanticism are, I think, both symptoms of a deeper malady the habit of looking at only the surface of things Or, to put this another way, the exclusive preference for the specific at the expense of the general To be just, Leigh Fermor is marvelous when it comes to surfaces and particularities He seems to notice every small, fleeting detail of everything he sees buildings, cities, people, sunsets, landscapes His love of strange words and foreign phrases fits equally well with this wont the verbal flavor of an unusual termimportant to him than its ability to communicate meaning Leigh Fermor s propensity to drown in an ecstasy of aesthetic observation rendered in gloriously profuse prose often reminded me of Walter Pater s similar flights But even Pater, an extreme aesthete, is not as wholly superficial as Leigh Fermor who seems entirely incapable of holding abstract ideas in his mind Now, I am being rather unduly harsh towards a book that is generally good natured and light hearted Partly this hostility comes from defensiveness If I am to accuse someone as highly respected as Leigh Fermor of writing badly, I must make a strong case As the final exhibit in my prosecution, I include this snippet of a description from a bar in Munich The vaults of the great chamber faded into infinity through blue strata of smoke Hobnails grated, mugs clashed and the combined smell of beer and bodies and old clothes and farmyards sprang at the newcomer I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb bells, but the blond beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth. To my ears, this is just painfully overwritten Including infinity and blue strata and iron dumb bells in a simple bar scene is too much And the final touch of calling a glass of beer a brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth besides being a nonsensical image is yet another example of his adolescent imagination he can hardly touch anything German without his fantasy flying off into legendary knights and Germanic sagas There is something to be said for enlivening a regular scene using colorful language but there is also something to be said for honest description Now, despite all this, was I often astounded by Leigh Fermor s diction and his fluency Yes I was Did I enjoy some parts of this travel book Undeniably I did particularly the section where he is taken in by the German girls Do I think Leigh Fermor is insufferable Often, yes, but he can also be charming and winsomely jejune But did I learn something about the places he traveled to I m honestly not sure I did and that,than anything, is why I felt the necessity to write in opposition to the famous travel writer


  8. Sherwood Smith Sherwood Smith says:

    It took me a long time to comprehend history as a palimpsest Fermor seems to have understood it viscerally, if not yet intellectually, as a teenager dropping out of school in order to walk from Ostend to Constantinople He set out in December of 1933, though he didn t write up his experiences until the seventies He did keep a travel diary though he lost the first one, when he left his backpack at a youth hostel in Munich for a day, after having met a pair of schoolgirls who took him in so th It took me a long time to comprehend history as a palimpsest Fermor seems to have understood it viscerally, if not yet intellectually, as a teenager dropping out of school in order to walk from Ostend to Constantinople He set out in December of 1933, though he didn t write up his experiences until the seventies He did keep a travel diary though he lost the first one, when he left his backpack at a youth hostel in Munich for a day, after having met a pair of schoolgirls who took him in so the book is liminal in so many ways the observations of a young man interpreted through the experience of himself much older the fascinating layers of history encountered in villages, cathedrals, castles, and towns across Germany the shadow of what was to come as Hitler had just taken over within the past year, and had his eye on Austria.What was incomprehensible back then is gloriously rich to me now but that s after years of accumulating context, from Huizinga s thoughts on the German Renaissance and those who disagree with him to the language itself, to having hitch hiked along the exact section of the Danube, roughly between Melk and Duernstein, which Fermor considers one of the most beautiful river valleys in all of Europe I wasn t much older than he when I lived for a year in Austria as a student And I kept going back to that stretch of the Danube just to see if it was really as amazing as I thought the first time, though hitch hiking was scary If you were lucky, it was also a way to meet people, something he talks about as he wanders cross country and encounters people who take him in, give him a place to sleep and share their food, from counts in castles to the poorest farm folk.He also blends his travels with reflections on the layers of history, through the art and architecture, and evokes the old ghosts of cultures smashed by war It s a brilliant book, elegantly written it repays regular rereads.I followed his steps on a map of Europe dated 1815 Most of the villages and towns are on it


  9. Rebecca Rebecca says:

    A true masterwork of travel writing So much is impressive about this book, starting with Fermor s journey itself Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, he walked from Holland to Constantinople I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my train travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava This first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary.The sharpness of memory is astonishing, especi A true masterwork of travel writing So much is impressive about this book, starting with Fermor s journey itself Over the course of three years, starting when he was just 18, he walked from Holland to Constantinople I was particularly eager to read this because he passes through a lot of places I went on my train travels this past summer, including Germany, Austria and Bratislava This first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary.The sharpness of memory is astonishing, especially when you learn that Fermor lost two of the journals he kept along the way a late section intersperses a few recovered journal entries with the narrative, and there s scarcely any difference in terms of detail His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday, and yet he was reconstructing this journey nearly 40 years after the fact.Although he was in a sense travelling rough he took very little with him, was often worried about money, and pretended to be a student, an assumed identity that proved to be an amulet and an Open Sesame he also managed to wangle invitations into castles and aristocrats homes For every night he had to sleep in a barn or on a pub floor, there was a stay of comfort or even opulence This gives him such a broad base of observation that you feel you re getting a complete picture of European life in the early 1930s It s a precious glimpse of pre war history, but even though he s looking back Fermor doesn t use too heavy a hand when recalling the signs of rising Nazism.Lastly, this is simply damn fine writing I marked so many gorgeous passages here are just a few that helped me absorb the atmosphere Beer, caraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.The Romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams.When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel Bought from 1 from a secondhand bookstore in Henley on Thames


  10. Eric Eric says:

    Ah, these English travellers and their amazing prose prose equal, fitted to their feats Virginia Woolf on Hakluyt s Early Voyages These magnificent volumes are not often, perhaps, read through Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds One is for ever untying thi Ah, these English travellers and their amazing prose prose equal, fitted to their feats Virginia Woolf on Hakluyt s Early Voyages These magnificent volumes are not often, perhaps, read through Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.During 1933 35, the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor, recently expelled from school after an innocent, unconsummated townie flirtation, walked, barge floated, rode horseback, hitckhiked lorries, Bugattis, woodcutter sledges , but mostly walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople A Time of Gifts 1977 gets Leigh Fermor as far as the verge of Hungary, and his lumber room is packed with the loot of Central Europe There s his passport, crammed with the visas of vanished kingdoms And a peasant table, with raw knuckles of enormous hands amid the cut onions and the chipped pitchers and a brown loaf broken open Heavy steins, a chandelier of interlocked antlers, a cask of Rhine wine Horace and H lderlin in scholar gypsy size, pocket portable editions plucked from baronal libraries and bestowed in parting on the hobnail booted, putteed, greatcoated Leigh Fermor as he prepared to step off into the snows onceAn Augusburg choir stall, specimen of Germany s blunt realism in woodcarving, showing highly polished free standing scenes of Biblical bloodshed, On the first Jael, with hanging sleeves and hatted like a margravine, gripped a coal hammer and steadied an iron spike among the sleeping Sisera s curls.Leigh Fermor is really into the Thirty Years War, so the curio emporium must include a composite warlord portrait The polyglot captains of the multi lingual hosts hold our gaze nilly willy with their grave eyes and Valesquez moustaches and populate half the picture galleries of Europe Caracoling in full feather against a background of tents and colliding squadrons, how serenely they point their batons or, magnanimously bare headed and on foot in a grove of lances, accept surrendered keys, or a sword Curls flow and lace or starched collars break over the black armour and the gold inlay they glance from their frames with an aloof and high souled melenacholy which is both haunting and enigmatic.And to stand for the strange political ruin of the lands in which Fermor wandered, there s the symbolic gold key once worn on the uniform of a Hapsburg court chamberlain But now the Empire and the kingdom had been dismembered and their thrones are empty no doors opened to the gold keys, the heralds were dispersed, the regiments disbanded and the horses dead long ago.With one book, Leigh Fermor makes an easy leap into my favorites A Time of Gifts is magical, Pale Fire , Speak, Memory magical, richly responsive to nature, art, people and history, and with a style so perfectly evocative that you think of sorcery On to its sequel, Between The Woods and The Water He s on a borrowed horse, cantering across the great Hungarian plain, thinking of the Magyar and other migrations