In 1933, at the age of 18, 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.
What sets Fermor apart from other travel writers is his massive breadth of literary, historical, linguistic and cultural knowledge; he seems, in fact, to have been not just a renaissance man but a genius. While walking through the Swabian counryside he amuses himself by singing and reciting verse, casting his memory back through the swathes of literature he has memorised. He literally fills an entire page with the names of English poems and poets that he has read, then says "My bridgehead in French poetry didn't penetrate very far: a few nursery rhymes, one poem of Theodore de Banville, two of Baudelaire, part of one of Verlaine, Yeats' Ronsard sonnet in the original, and another of du Bellay; lasly, more than all the rest put together, large quantities of Villon." That's not a bridgehead, it's D-Day. Either Fermor was exceptionally modest, or standards have slipped in the last century. How many eighteen-year olds today would be able to recite a single English poem, or even name a French one?
Fermor is therefore that kind of traveller, a lifelong scholar with an intense thirst for knowledge - one readily slaked by the majesty of Central Europe. He finds every town and city and province fascinating, detailing their history and customs and fashions and architecture. A Time of Gifts is more than a mere travel memoir: it's an orgasmic ode to the grandeur of civilisation itself.
I make this sound tedious, and it can be at times, but Fermor's infatuation with Europe is so genuine it's hard not to appreciate it, and it can be infectious. I often split travel writers into two groups: witty, conversational types like Bill Bryson, who can easily be read by anyone, and writers like Ted Simon or (I assume) Paul Theroux, whose loftier ruminations on the world can easily turn people off. Fermor certainly belongs to the latter category, but the book isn't all art and literature. There is a definite sense of adventure and excitement to his travels, as he dosses down in haystacks or befriends wealthy German counts and sleeps in plush four-poster beds; the idea of being a young man with an open road and a pack on his back, something wonderful around every corner. In an early chapter, he hitches a ride on a river-barge, and describes the joy of watching the counryside slide past, the flourishing of flags and horn-blasts from other vessels, the wheeling of seagulls and the shadow and sunlight of the mountains. Not since the ferry chapter in David Mitchell's Number9dream have I read a passage so suited to the song "Blitzball Gamblers," the finest tune there is for stirring the excited, triumphant feelings of nautical travel at its finest. (The scene must always be on a water-borne vessel, of course.)
The other thing that sets A Time of Gifts apart is the age in which it took place. The 1930s were arguably the last great era of Europe, before it was devastated by World War II (many places or objects in the book are footnoted as having been destroyed in the war). The scenes in Germany are darkened by the presence of S.S. men with raised forearms and sieg heil salutes - although they also reveal a strong dislike of the Nazis amongst many ordinary Germans. In many other places there is a sense of a vanished age, of towns and cities lost not just to war but to modernity. Fermor's world of dainty villages and regal cathedrals and ruined castles is a world crammed full of the aesthetic splendour of antiquity, a world full of things made in a time when individual craftsmen took pleasure in their work and created things that were beautiful; before high streets all over the world became identical, selling Nike and McDonalds and IKEA out of pastel-coloured concrete boxes whose fittings can be stripped down and replaced in a day. Fermor's book is a voyage into a beautiful world that was devoured by the Ballardian nightmare a few decades later. There is still beauty in Europe, as I found last year when I landed in Berlin after five months in the hideous block cities of communist or post-communist Asia. Yet one can't help but read Fermor's words and feel that we've lost something.
Nowadays if one were to set off across Europe, there would be hordes of backpackers and tourists in every town. Most nights would be spent in YHA dorms; if strangers did take you into their home, odds would be you arranged it on couchsurfing.com. The castles and monasteries would all be covered in restoration scaffolding. If there are any river-barges left, OHS regulations would prevent them from giving lifts to random vagabond travellers. Yes, the world has definitely lost something.
A Time of Gifts is often considered one of the finest travel books ever written, and I can see why. I can also see how Fermor's elaborate prose and constant cultural tidbits would put some people off. Although it slowed at times, for the most part I enjoyed it, and it deserves its well-regarded place at the peak of travel literature.
Then, about two hours into the journey, we rounded a bend in the track and a stupendous building hove into view, standing on a rocky outcrop just on the other side of a small town. It had domes, and spires, and flying buttresses, and it was gigantic and ornate and I think my jaw dropped open. I was utterly transfixed; why had I never heard of this place before?
This was my first view of the monastery of Melk. (Sadly, present-day train travellers do not have this pleasure; the upgrading of the railway between Salzburg and Vienna has meant that the high-speed trains now plunge into a tunnel avoiding Melk.) Some sixty years earlier, the 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor had a similar reaction on first encountering Melk from the banks of the Danube; and like me, he was experiencing the reality of travelling through Europe first hand for the first time. But he was doing it the really difficult way - on foot.
In 1933, Paddy Leigh Fermor dropped out of a fairly good public school and decided to walk across Europe to Constantinople (Istanbul). He determined to go on the tramp as an itinerant scholar, sleeping where he could and talking to whoever crossed his path. Within ten years, he achieved some notoriety in the fighting on Crete in the Second World War, operating behind the lines, organising the Cretan resistance, and kidnapping the German general in command of the island and spiriting him away to Cairo on a motor-boat. On the strength of the story that he starts in 'A Time of Gifts', this was a role he had been preparing for all his life. Certainly his ability to fit in and move, reasonably unhindered, across Europe at a time of political turbulence, well fitted him for masquerading as a Cretan shepherd. Like other British officers, in later life he turned to literary endeavours and had a successful career as a writer. 'A Time of Gifts' was started in the 1970s when Leigh Fermor was in his sixties; it is a reconstruction from his memories and incomplete notes. He continued the story in 'Between the Woods and the Water'; he never completed the third, concluding volume, though it has now been assembled and published as 'The Broken Road'.
He captures well the wide-eyed innocence of his youth; few of his reminiscences are marred by our, and his, knowledge of what was to come, although that is very much a subtext, especially when he explores the streets of Cologne or encounters hospitable and erudite Jews everywhere along his journey. He even maintains that sense in recounting encounters in Germany with the then-new Nazi regime, its supports and the ordinary people who had little time for Hitler. He also has a (nearly) eye-witness account of what the Austrians call "the Civil War", the internecine conflict between militias of the Left and Right. If all your knowledge of inter-war Austria comes from "The Sound of Music", this will come as a shock.
But there are many pleasures to be had from this book, too. Leigh Fermor's complete guilelessness enables him to fall in with ordinary workers and peasants as well as members of the aristocracy which he seems to gravitate towards, only partly due to contacts from his family and friends back in the UK. He hitches rides on lorries or on a barge on the Rhine; the description of Rhineland river traffic is timeless, even though so much has changed since.
Leigh Fermor took one other thing with him on his tramp; a classical education, though his own opinion of his school career is brutally negative. Nonetheless, as a minor member of the English gentry, he had that classical education even if he did absorb it by osmosis rather than by scholastic endeavour. His reactions to the art, literature, architecture and accounts of historical personages he encounters on his way shows this, and sometimes the book does divert into detailed and quite florid descriptions of artistic movements, of minor Habsburg nobles, of events and people long since consigned to history. This can make the eyes glaze over a little, but the older Leigh Fermor manages to inject his youthful exuberance and zest for life into the account, even at something like forty years' remove.
This book will not be to everyone's taste; the historic and artistic diversions can be a distraction, though when he takes a side excursion to Prague it is fascinating to read his account in the knowledge that he did not anticipate ever being able to see it again. The political changes of the late 20th century have changed all that, and for some in our modern age of mass travel, Prague and Bratislava are perhaps too ordinary to notice when compared with more exotic long-haul destinations. I also found, from time to time, that he dropped a name into the conversation which I recognised and took delight in; for instance, he references Jaroslav Hasek's great comic novel 'The Good Soldier Švejk" in its proper setting.
In his journeys through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary), he continually comes across reminders of the only then recently departed Empire as he encounters portraits of Franz Josef in offices and living rooms, or other relics of the k.u.k (Kaiserlich und Königlich, or Imperial and Royal) past. "Alles k.u.k-lich" some Austrians say, even now, "Everything Imperial style"; I have had conversations with old boys in Viennese cafes who are surprised that an Englishman can have an interest in the "old Empire"; it appears I am certainly not the first.
In this book, I have found echoes of things I have seen, experiences I have had and the sort of conversations I have had in trains and in cafes between the Channel and Vienna. It is a book that speaks to me directly. I think I have a new favourite book.
Of course, there's an extra charm in the knowledge that the Europe he describes was about to change for good. Although he freely admits that he knew little and cared less about politics, he could not avoid noticing that Hitler had just come to power in Germany, and that there was fighting in the streets of Vienna when he arrived there. In a way, his naivety makes his few observations of the political scene more interesting (for instance, the scene where a young man proudly shows off his bedroom full of Nazi posters and emblems, then disarmingly tells him "You should have seen it six months ago, when I was a Communist!"), but this is clearly an aspect of the book that has been heavily filtered through his subsequent knowledge and experience.
Most of the book is written in a charmingly clear and elegant style, but there are occasional passages where he allows himself to get carried away, mostly when writing about the way his ideas on history and painting evolved during the trip, and it all becomes a bit Bridesheadish. Still, it's clearly a classic piece of travel writing, and I don't know why it's taken me so long to discover it...
2. Set off into the unknown having been inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor's erudition, open mind and steady pace. Accept the kindness of strangers. Open your eyes to the history being made around you now, as he did then. Later on you'll be able to say that, yes, you really were there, and that you were paying attention.
3. Read this book again. It's light enough to carry on your journey, and is one of the very best I have ever read myself.
PL-M notices and comments on the growing Nazi presence and appeal in some areas, a not-yet acknowledged malevolence that will (despite some muted opposition and benign neglect of those who underestimate its power) take Germany to edge of, and then deep into, an abyss of death and destruction unlike anything ever known before.
But....before then, it is 1933 and PL-M has given us a remarkable picture of places and people.
Now, there are a few problems here: the descriptions of art and architecture might be great, but they might also be an excuse for Fermor to use the admittedly fabulous jargon of art and architecture, and they often go on far too long.
But mostly, this is a carefully composed book (that's not to say everyone will like his style or composition), PLF is clearly a kind of ethical superman who can get on with pretty much anyone, and there's just enough reflection on the distance between the time of its writing (1970s, I believe) and the time of his tour (early to mid 1930s) to keep you intellectually engaged.
The book is also a wonderful tool for learning more about central Europe. While reading this, I realized how very grateful I am for being a liberal studies major and paying attention in Western Civ 201. Even with that cursory overview however, I found myself reading this book with the dictionary and iphone in my lap. I'm glad I did too, because I learned quite a bit about the 17th and 18th century Central European dynasties and the Thirty Years War. I also realized how very very deprived our modern education is, at least in the U.S. At 18 years old, Fermor ( a school dropout no less) passes the time reciting Latin prose, French poetry, and Shakespearean sonnets as he walks along the country lanes. He picks up the German language (low and high) and has no trouble carrying out detailed discussions about art, music, and architecture with the random strangers he meets. If only I was so lucky to get a single conversation like this from today's modern 18 year olds, I would even settle for it in English.
Next up, find a Folio Society copy of Between the Woods and the Water. Then maybe, just maybe, Sir Fermor will finish the final book.
The book is not overly thick, weighing in at almost exactly 300 pages, but the type is small and a lot of words are packed onto each page so it isn't a particularly quick read. Leigh Fermor is a master of the English language, and the book has many lengthy and beautiful descriptions in. It is at its heart a travel book, but covers quite a bit of history as well as art, literature and various other topics.
The book is regarded by many as one of the finest travel books written in the English language, Leigh Fermor is a highly regarded writer and this is considered his masterpiece. So what is it actually like to read?
The book starts off with a lengthy letter to a former colleague from WW2, which serves as the book's introduction. I skipped past this at first, eager to get started with the book, but came back to it when I was part way through and found it full of useful backplot and biographical detail. I found the book overall a joy to read, it gives a wonderful view of pre-second world war Europe, painting a picture of a world long gone. Much of the book is beautifully written. The author does use a lot of long words and bits of German and other languages (mostly though not always with translations), as well as references to literature and art which I wasn't familiar with. My advice is just enjoy the book, and don't get bogged down in the sections where he is discussing a (now obscure) old literary text, or an old historical-political situation which has long since evapourated. Just enjoy the book for what it is, a wonderful travelogue.
I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, as it is not an easy read and written in an old fashioned style (i.e. nothing like Bill Bryson). But I loved it. I can't wait to read more books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and it has got me into travel books generally too.
Of course, there was more to it than that, but not as much more as there might have been. Given that he set off on his journey in December 1933, just eleven months after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, with Europe still wracked with economic depression, I would have preferred rather more insight about the political tensions bedevilling the areas through which he travelled. He did describe a few members of the Nazi party whom he encountered in Germany, but that was almost in passing. Of course, you might say that my view distorted by the inescapable influence of hindsight, but then so is Patrick Leigh-Fermor's. It did, after all, take him forty-four years between making the journey and writing the book.
I think my final verdict is that this is not so much a travel book as a lengthy essay in self-regard. On balance I think I will forgo the second volume.
Reading this book truly transports you to a bygone era, where a traveller's welcome and hospitality awaits in every town and village, rural peasants still wear the traditional dress of their culture, and beautiful medieval German towns have yet to be destroyed by the war which is only a few years away. As Fermor wrote this book some 40 years after his journey, what ensues is a mix of travelogue embellished with detail from subsequent cultural and historical learnings, peppered with interesting insights which the passing of time and hindsight enabled him to draw different conclusions on than may have been apparent during his travels (for instance, the spread of Nazism in many German towns).
Despite a shaky start to his education, Fermor clearly was a natural scholar and intellectual, and at times his knowledge on the complexities of the changes of European power through the centuries in relation to various castles and cathedrals was dizzyingly dense and detailed. In an ideal world, this is a book that should be read slowly in complement with a study of European history, as in places it was challenging to keep up with the pace of Fermor's expansive knowledge.
The first half of his journey was my favourite, as Fermor travelled through the Netherlands and followed the Danube through Germany. We feel more of his journey experience at the time rather than the historical detail that makes up some later parts of the book, but I suspect that's a point of personal interest as I enjoy social history, whilst others may enjoy more of the political and historical architecture sections. Although I suspect he liked to downplay his background, Fermor was clearly from a privileged family, and despite travelling on a shoestring budget his stays in hay lofts and hostels were interspersed with stays in magnificent homes and castles of European gentry.
This is a beautiful book written in a dense, literary style which requires close reading (and sometimes rereading) of passages to fully absorb it. It truly is an insight to an era that we will never see again; a romantic perspective no doubt, but one that leaves you longing to experience that magical Europe of old when a traveller was something of a rarity (how difficult to imagine that nowadays where the places Fermor visits would today be crushed by heaving swarms of tourists).
4 stars - a wonderful book which transports you to everyday life across Europe at a time when the horrors of war are just around the corner.
The book has a certain leisurelyness that can grate, but once I got into the rhythmn it carried me along.
continues in "Between the Woods and The Water" which is on my list to read next month. During the war Patrick Leigh Fermor was in the SOE and spent a lot of time with the resistance in Crete. His adventures there were the
subject of the Dirk Bogarde film "Ill Met By Moonlight". He is still alive and a couple of weeks ago he was knighted.
He is in no rush to reach his destination, and with his easygoing manner makes friends easily as he walks. People are always sharing food or putting him up for the night, or he sleeps down in barns. He immerses himself in the culture of the places he walks through, taking time to see the sights. He is fortunate to sometimes stay with Counts and Barons across Germany, who are delighted to welcome a wandering soul. Most of the people he meets are warm with their greetings and generous with their time, food and shelter. He has his bag stolen at one point, but he is issued with a new passport, and is lent £5 by the consulate to be paid back when he is able to do so.
This point in history is where Europe had mostly recovered from the shattering First World War, and people have more or less gone back to their previous way of life. He provides a rare snapshot of what it was like in this period of calm. But in Germany the Nazi party is starting its steady rise to power and there are odd one or two individuals that have a problem with him being there.
He writes with such eloquence and detail in the book. The descriptions of the towns and villages, as well as the Rhine and the Danube are so evocative. He meets such interesting people too, from the German nobility to the country peasants, and acquires the odd hangover after nights spent in bars.
Just about to start the sequel now.