A Time of Gifts: Patrick Leigh Fermor

★★★★★

A Time of Gifts: Book I

Back in the summer, when the weather was balmy and the evenings long, I went through a phase of buying travel books (largely because I’d enjoyed Misadventure in the Middle East so much). With their beautifully-designed covers, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books had caught my eye many a time in Waterstones, but I’d never read any of them. Now, as the wind rattles my sash windows and the nights close in, I took this first book off my shelf, hoping for a bit of escapism. It has turned out to be far, far more than that.

This is an absolutely ravishing blend of memoir and travel writing, focusing on life on the cusp: not only in the personal experience of the writer, as he wavers between adolescence and maturity, but also in the history of Europe. The world that Leigh Fermor sees retains the lineaments of its ancient self: traditions, lifestyles and political boundaries have sometimes barely changed since the 17th century. But it is 1933 and the shadow of war is spreading: a war that, by its end, will have destroyed some of the towns, cities and buildings that Leigh Fermor admires, and shattered these ancient ways of life forever.

Described by his housemaster as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness‘, Leigh Fermor is expelled from school for a forbidden flirtation with a grocer’s daughter in the nearby town. At the age of eighteen, without the prospect of a university place and with the possibility of army service growing ever less appealing, he decides to undertake a remarkable project: to cross Europe by foot, ‘like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight‘. He takes a boat to Rotterdam and sets off through the Netherlands, down to Cologne and then along the romantic, towering banks of the Rhine towards the Danube. This first volume of his travels takes him to Hungary, where it concludes with him hesitating on the bridge leading to the gates of Esztergom on Easter Sunday. As he walks, he charts his passage both by the evolution of the landscape, from the flat fields of Holland to the rocky crags of the Lorelai, and by the differing drinks offered in inns along the way: beer in the Netherlands and Lower Germany, changing to wine as he reaches Coblenz, near the vineyards of the Rhine and the Moselle. Along the way he gets on in a mixture of English, German and French, making friends with bargemen and students, and sleeping in barns, hostels or cheap inns in order to stick to his budget of a pound a week. In Munich he strikes lucky with an introduction to the benevolent Baron Reinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, who welcomes Leigh Fermor into his home, gives him letters of introduction (leading to a dizzying succession of castles and characters), and presents him with a 17th-century edition of Horace. The only possible response for the reader is to curse her own limited network of contacts.

Leigh Fermor is such a wonderful guide partly because he has the openness of the young: he is interested in everything, eager for every sensation. But he also has the blessing of an old-fashioned English classical education, which gives him a powerful sense of the layers of history unfolding beneath his feet. He has a breadth of knowledge which few eighteen-year-olds today could muster: his surroundings are prompts for digressions into classical history or episodes from the Thirty Years’ War and, for all that he made me feel woefully ignorant, I was completely fascinated. But his charm is also that of a damned good writer. He can be painterly – Dordrecht, for example, is ‘built of weathered brick and topped by joined gables and crowsteps and snow-laden tiles and fragmented by canals and re-knit by bridges‘. He can be poetically effusive – a glass of the German liqueur Himbeergeist (literally, spirit of raspberries) gives rise to a tumbling, tipsy extravaganza of delight:

Oh for a thimble full of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through snow and ice. 

And he can simply be perceptive. Surrounded by the art of the Austrian high baroque, where saints acquire an elegant air of aristocracy, he is transfixed by the fluidity of the boundary between religion and courtliness: ‘Sacred and profane change clothes and penitents turn into dominoes with the ambiguity of a masqued ball‘. With language like that, how I wish he’d made it to Venice…! Another analogy that impressed me was the way that he interpreted the 16th-century Germany of Charles V and Altdorfer in terms of the costume of the Landsknechts. It was a time when fluttering, elaborate Renaissance decoration on the surface almost masked the archaic, practical force of the medieval traditions beneath. This analogy is used to explain not only German art but also Gothic lettering and heraldry. I wish I could quote some of that section to give you an idea of the sprightliness of his thought, rushing from one thing to the next, but it’s the most part of a page, flowing from idea to idea with irrepressible exuberance.

I used the word ‘ravishing’ earlier: his writing really is that good. You are carried along on a rich tide of description, with occasional sections which are so splendid that, like some soaring Baroque choral piece, they make your heart swell fit to burst. There are some moments where he gets slightly carried away: I felt that the two solid pages about the artistic rib-vaulting at Hradčany Castle were a little overdone, but perhaps that’s just because I’ve never seen it and so can’t appreciate how awe-inspiring it is. Being of an excitable character myself, I recognise a kindred spirit and I’m not about to dock a star for that. His sense of moment and place is exquisite:

It was Maundy Thursday… The sung words crept step by step through the phases of the drama. Every so often, another candle was lifted from its pricket on the triangle and blown out. It was pitch dark out of doors and with the extinction of each flame the interior shadows came closer. It heightened the chiaroscuro of these rough country faces and stressed the rapt gleam in innumerable eyes; and the church, as it grew hotter, was filled by the smell of melting wax and sheepskin and curds and sweat and massed breath. There was a ghost of old incense in the background and a reek of singeing as the wicks, snuffed one after the other, expired in ascending skeins of smoke.

It is a tantalisingly immediate, seductive picture of a world that feels so real you could set off tomorrow, with your rucksack and your walking stick, to see it. Much of what you saw would be the same; but there are important losses. The Rotterdam that Leigh Fermor describes, for example, is gone for ever: shocking pictures show the heart of the city literally razed to the ground by bombing in 1940. Cologne suffered a similar fate in 1942. The book is all the more moving because it describes a half-vanished age, which is historically so close to our own and yet culturally and spiritually so very different. It works a powerful magic and I was barely halfway through before I had planned my own fantasy itinerary, from Cologne to Vienna, taking in a bit of a Rhine cruise along the way. Whether or not I do it remains to be seen, but Germany and Austria have definitely shifted towards the top of my list. I can’t wait to get the second book in the series: Leigh Fermor has the soul of a poet and the heart of an adventurer, and he is super company. If you have the faintest interest in travel writing, you must read this. It is exhilaration by proxy.

Thank goodness there are many other books by Leigh Fermor to read – after A Time of Gifts there are the Greek books and, when all is done, I’m going to have to get hold of the recent biography written by Artemis Cooper.

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