After countless starts and stops, 2013 was the year I finally read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor from start to finish. On previous attempts, I’d made it up to PLF’s arrival in Vienna – yes, attempts plural. This book and I have a bizarrely long history of me starting it, loving every single word, falling completely in love with PLF, and then, for a variety of reasons, having to abandon it before reaching then end. But not so this year! I have triumphed and discovered that the second half of the book is just as wonderful, if not better, than the first.
In 1933, when Patrick Leigh Fermor was eighteen years old, he set off of the first of what would be a lifetime of travel adventures, wanting to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). The story of this journey spans three books (A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and, just published this year, The Broken Road), with the first detailing PLF’s experiences from Holland to Hungary. For me, this book is not just a beautiful example of travel writing but also a reminder of places I know and love, though they have changed in many ways since the days when PLF saw them as a young man.
I am, I am sure it will surprise none of you to hear, a romantic at heart. Sometimes my romanticism is cloaked in stubborn practicality but it is nonetheless there, the legacy of romantic Mitteleuropean ancestors whose most romantic exploits became family lore. At eighteen, indeed even now at almost twenty-eight, I can think of nothing more alluring than setting out as PLF did to travel on foot across Europe. But it is much better that he was the traveller and I merely his audience since a) he writes so beautifully about his journeys, and b) I suspect modern Europe would be significantly less hospitable to a penniless traveller, however charming a guest he/she might be.
PLF outlines his background in a delightful introductory letter but what it comes down to is this: by eighteen, he had been thrown out of schools both conventional and experimental, had toyed with joining the army, and finally had found himself living among a set of older friends in London whose means far outweighed his own. At this point, dependent on an allowance provided by his father in India, PLF decided to begin his journey, presumably on the basis that it is less depressing to be poor and travelling than poor and staying put.
It is an overwhelming thing, to set out on foot across Europe. For all the people PLF met along the way, a large portion of his time was spent along and I loved reading his descriptions of those periods. I especially enjoyed the image of him entertaining himself on these solitary marches:
Song is universal in Germany; it causes no dismay; Shuffle off to Buffalo; Bye, Bye, Blackbird; or Shenandoah; or The Raggle Taggle Gypsies sung as I moved along, evoked nothing but tolerant smiles. But verse was different. Murmuring on the highway caused raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity. Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm. Regulus brushing the delaying populace aside as he headed for the Carthaginian executioner, as though to Lacedaemonian Tarentum or the Venafrian fields, called for a fairly mild flourish; but urging the assault-party at Harfleur to close the wall up with English dead would automatically bring on a heightened pitch of voice and action and double one’s embarrassment if caught. When this happened I would try to taper off in a cough or weave the words into a tuneless hum and reduce all gestures to a feint at hair-tidying. But some passages demand an empty road as far as the eye can see before letting fly. The terrible boxing-match, for instance, at the funeral games of Anchises when Entellus sends Dares reeling and spitting blood and teeth across the Sicilian shore – ‘ore ejectantem mixtosque in sanguine dentes’! – and then, with his thronged fist, scatters a steer’s brains with one blow between the horns – this needs care. As for the sword-thrust at the bridge-head that brings the great lord of Luna crashing among the augurs like an oak-tree on Mont Alvernus – here the shouts, the walking-stick slashes, the staggering gait and the arms upflung should never be indulged if there is anyone within miles, if then. To a strange eye, one is drunk or lunatic.
How wonderful to have had such an education and such a memory! I will sing or recite things to myself on long walks (you can only go so many hours in silence) but my repertoire is sadly pedestrian compared to PLF’s.
As PLF journeys on, he is buoyed along by chance encounters and charmed introductions. He finds himself holed up for a couple of nights with two teenage students, Annie and Lise, in an adult-less apartment in Stuttgart (surely every teen boy’s fantasy?) before moving on to even more enchanted digs, as letters of introduction furnished by a contact in Munich help him to find shelter along his route in charming schlosses with minor aristocrats:
The word “schloss” means any degree of variation between a fortified castle and a baroque palace. This one was a fair sized manor-house. I had felt shy as I ploughed through the snow of the long avenue late that afternoon; quite baselessly. To go by the solicitude of the trio at the stove-side in the drawing room – the old Count and his wife and their daughter-in-law – I might, once again, have been a schoolboy asked out for a treat, or, better still, a polar explorer on the brink of expiring. “You must be famished after all that walking!” the younger Gräfin said, as a huge tea appeared: she was a beautiful, dark-haired Hungarian and she spoke excellent English. “Yes,” said the elder, with an anxious smile. “We’ve been told to feed you up!” Her husband radiated silent benevolence as yet another silver dish appeared. I spread a third hot croissant with butter and honey and inwardly blessed my benefactor in Munich.
As PLF notes, “there is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster, and then back again.” The contrast is no doubt good for the soul but it is the providers of the four-poster beds who supply PLF with a truly extraordinary education, giving him access to their libraries and engaging him in intelligent and absorbing discussions on all manner of subjects. PLF recalls fondly the civilizing affect of one of his most extraordinary hosts:
Yet, without any effort, he exerted an emancipating and de-barbarizing influence similar to the mood that radiates from a few exceptionally gifted dons: liberators, that is, whose tact, insight, humour and originality clear the air and store it with a new oxygen. He resembled a much-travelled Whig aristocrat – a friend of Voltaire and Diderot, perhaps – who, after enjoying and exhausting the intrigues and frivolities of half a dozen European courts, had retired to his books in some remote and well wooded shire.
Can you imagine?
It is impossible to read this book without feeling some (or, in my case, immense) nostalgia for the Europe PLF travelled in but which had vanished completely by the end of the war. I am not sure that the loss is entirely a bad thing but I am so happy that here we have a record of what now seems like an enchanted journey through an enchanted and very long-ago land.