Archive for the ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor’ Category

What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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A Time of GiftsAfter 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.

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