Thursday, 22 December 2011

Book Review - A time of gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A time of gifts : on foot to Constantinople : from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube by Patrick Leigh Fermor

New York: New York Review Books, 2005     ISBN 9781590171653

At the tender age of 18, Patrick Fermor left his native England to embark on an epic journey - to walk from the North-Eastern tip of Europe to it's end at the Straits of Bosphorus. The book under review here is the first of a proposed trilogy describing that trip (the second, Between the woods and the water is available - and no doubt will be reviewed here in due course - while the third, describing the end of his journey, was almost complete at the time of the author's death. Publication of the third volume is mooted for 2012).

Fermor must have been quite a precocious lad to think of undertaking the journey; and a romantic lad too, with visions of sleeping in haystacks and mixing with peasants. As it turned out, he only slept in the open once in the more than three months of tramping that this book covers, and that particular night ended in him being rounded up at gunpoint by the Czech border police.

By that time he had travelled over 1500 miles, nearly all on foot, with occasional journeys by train, truck and barge. He had spent time with tramps, university students and more than one member of the aristocracy, stayed in hotels, vagrants hostels and castles, and was slowly educating himself about Europe, history, and languages.

Fermor had the luck of connecting with the right people (at that time just being English seemed enough to grant entree anywhere, even in Germany), and is befriended by all and sundry, who provide him not only with shelter and food, but history and culture. Where the beginning of the book is about the joy of being on the open road and finding himself free, by the time he crosses the bridge over the Danube into Hungary (the final act of this volume), he is ruminating on the twists and turns of history in Europe and England, the wonders of architecture, and fine wines and cigars.

Fermor did not begin writing this book until well into adulthood, after heroic wartime service earned him the DSO (the story of which can be found in Ill met by moonlight), and he had sucessfully published two books of his later travels in Greece - Mani - Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, and Roumeli.

This accounts for the overall elegaic tone of the book: that of an older man looking back on a great adventure in his youth, in a time before he was corrupted and dragged down by adult life. The tone is heightened by his description of a Europe before the depredations of World War II; when aristocrats still lived in castles, and before Nazism cast a pall over the continent. Fermor's journey was undertaken in 1934, so his descriptions of the first rumblings of the Nazi scourge are a chill premonition of what was to come. Fermor made the most of the advantage of writing much later to occasionally discuss the future of some of the people he met and stayed with - not all of it good reading.

What sets this book apart as a work of literature, rather than merely a travel book or a memoir, is the craft and style with which it is written. There is never a lapse in tone - that of a wise and erudite adult looking back at his developing self, marvelling at what he saw and did, and noting events that turned out to be pivotal or formative for his later years. The descriptive passages are all immaculate - whether of a snow-bound German village, the abbey at Melk, or the city of Prague. These descriptions are all different, and are all as the older Fermor might remember them - Prague becomes a jumble of competing images, Melk an almost overwhelming history and art lesson, while other 'simpler' pleasures, such as watching the sun set over the Danube, acquire a gilded feeling of a moment captured in time, which the author felt as strongly at the time of writing as he did as a young man out in the wilds.

If you love fine writing, you must read this book. If you love European history, you must read this book. If you love armchair travel, you must read this book.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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