A Time of Gifts

Way back in 2009, I read Litlove’s review of A Time to Be Silent, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his time spent in three different monasteries. Her hints at his biography and his skill at writing made me think that he would be just the sort of writer for me, particularly since I love travel writing, so I put A Time of Gifts on my TBR: Fermor’s account of his journey, on foot, at the age of 19, from Rotterdam to Esztergom in Hungary (he was on his way to Constantinople), on the Danube. And can I call it, or what? This is one of the best books I’ve read this year: the story of the journey of a lifetime, from a young man with an enormous talent for friendship, for history, for humor, for humility, for interest in what was around him, for loving everything he encountered, and perhaps most of all for language to describe it all.

It seems clear that Fermor was ideally suited for this kind of ramble. He didn’t do well in school except in subjects that interested him (history, poetry), and he found out quickly that the submission to authority and the routine of domestic military service weren’t for him. Later, he would join the Irish Guards and fight in Greece and Crete, and his courage and intelligence brought him honors. But all that was far in his future in 1933, when he set off with ten pounds in his pocket to see Europe on foot.

Fermor’s observations of the places he sees are broad and intelligent. He is interested in everything: history, culture, architecture, relationships, politics, the climate, the dialect, the working conditions. He talks to everyone he meets, in bars, in the street, in hostels and auberges, and makes connections that will be vital to him later when he’s walking miles in the snow. (He stays in more than one flea-ridden workhouse, and more than one opulent castle.) His open, generous heart makes friends for him everywhere, though at nineteen he is, of course, diffident, and afraid of imposing himself. After staying the night at a hotel on Christmas, where the innkeeper’s youngest daughter gave him a tangerine and a pack of cigarettes done up in tinsel and silver paper, he is invited to stay for Christmas dinner.

My kind benefactors had asked me to stay, several times; but they had been expecting relations and, after their hospitality, I felt, in spite of their insistence, that a strange face at their family feast might be too much. So here I was on a sunny Christmas morning, plunging through a layer of new snow. No vessels were moving on the Rhine, hardly a car passed, nobody was out of doors and, in the little towns, nothing stirred. Everyone was inside. Feeling lonely and beginning to regret my flight, I wondered what my family and my friends were doing, and skinned and ate the tangerine rather pensively.

But most of the narrative is sheer joy. No matter what the weather, no matter what the circumstances (including some ominous foreshadowing of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany), Fermor’s travels are lushly, happily described. He brings his knowledge of history and art and architecture to bear on everything he sees:

A small crone in a pleated coif sat at the end of the table, her eyes bright and timid in their hollows of bone, and all these puzzled features were flung into relief by a single wick from below. Supper at Emmaus or Bethany? Painted by whom?

He dots his travel with snatches of poetry, sometimes in Latin. (If I read Latin, I would get on with that even better.) Through all of this, his sense of humor shines through — both his sense of humor as a nineteen-year-old, and his dryer, wiser, more ironic humor as an older man looking back on it all. There are episodes that are actually funny, but the entire tone of the book is so generous, so full of delight and promise, that I had to keep closing the book and letting bits of it sink in.

Sometimes there are books you read, and you wonder how it could be possible that you’ve never read them; that they’ve been out there, waiting for you patiently all this while. A Time of Gifts was like this for me. As a travel narrative, as a lovely and loving assessment of a place and time, it simply could not be bettered. I cannot wait to read more of Fermor’s work.

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19 Responses to A Time of Gifts

  1. litlove says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Patrick Leigh Fermor is something special in travel writing, I think. His narratives are always very dense, you have to take time to read him. But his writing is excellent and his perspective incredibly detailed.

    • Jenny says:

      I did have to take time. It was like the very best writing anywhere: I wanted to read quickly and get all of it in one gulp, and also to slow down and take in every word. Thankfully, the latter urge predominated, and I took many days to read this lovely book. Thanks so much for alerting me to him!

  2. Alex says:

    Oh Shame! A very dear friend gave me this perhaps six years ago and it’s still sitting on my shelf unread. I will move it to the top of the TBR pile. I will move it to the top of the TBR pile. I will move it to the top of the TBR pile……..

    • Jenny says:

      It is really worth it — I’m so glad I got to read it at last, myself, and now I know where to turn for really top-notch travel writing.

  3. It’s astonishing, isn’t it? A lost world.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes! Except that he makes it so vivid, you can almost imagine you could do the same trip yourself, and meet the same innkeepers. I adored it.

  4. Lisa says:

    “Sometimes there are books you read, and you wonder how it could be possible that you’ve never read them; that they’ve been out there, waiting for you patiently all this while.” – this book was like that for me as well! I had never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor I read Susan Hill’s book Howards End is on the Landing, where she (like you) wrote so movingly of his books that I immediately started looking for them. To me, it’s his engagement with the people he met that make this book such a joy to read. I found the sequel (Between the Woods and the Water) a more challenging read, because I was less familiar with the countries though which he was travelling (I read it with atlas constantly at hand). I am still hoping for the third volume that will actually take him to Constantinople – there is apparently a manuscript.

    • Jenny says:

      Those instant friendships are such a wonderful addition to the book. From farmers to young girls to counts and duchesses — everyone he meets is a friend, almost. And that quixotic figure who wants to smuggle saccharine — oh, it’s all lovely.

  5. Alex says:

    This also sounds right my alley. and PLF someone I’d really like to know – got curious and Googled him just to find out he died last year :(

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, there won’t be any more books from him. But the ones he gave us will be enough to be going on with for a while!

  6. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I finally got myself a copy of A Time of Gifts on a recent trip to Boston and look forward to reading it this summer–your post definitely encourages me. Like you, I won’t be much good with the Latin bits! Darn these erudite writers!

    A book I read recently that turned out to have been waiting for me all this time is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I didn’t even expect to like it, but I wondered why I’d never read it, and once I picked it up, I just raced on, captivated, to the end.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad you loved that book. Those sorts of encounters are so memorable. The last one I had before this one was Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers. You never know what it’s going to be, do you?

  7. pburt says:

    Thank you for this review. This book looks like a perfect fit for my youngest who is going to spend his sophomore year in college in Salzberg.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, your lucky, lucky youngest! Yes, this one will be absolutely ideal. Do, do, do get it, and read it yourself, and give it to him.

  8. Scott W. says:

    Your review has me longing wistfully for the impossible chance to go back and be able to read this (again) for the very first time. It does have that effect, doesn’t it, of just making you wonder how you managed to get through without having read it before? You’ll love his other works as well – first, of course, book two of this same voyage, Between the Woods and the Water. If you don’t know it already, book three of this voyage, finally taking Fermor to Constantinople, was left as a rough manuscript as of Fermor’s death just a year ago at age 96, and will be published in the UK as The Broken Road in fall 2013 (for this info I’m indebted to Tom Sawford’s terrific Patrick Leigh Fermor blog: http://patrickleighfermor.wordpress.com/).

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for those wonderful recommendations, Scott (and thanks for coming by!) I did not know the third volume was coming out, though like Lisa, I’d heard there was a manuscript. I am delighted to have the link to that blog — I’m really looking forward to more Fermor.

  9. Oh, it’s a wonderful book. He’s one of my favourite writers — of any genre. Of course he died last year, but I believe the long-awaited third part of his Rhine-Danube trilogy will appear at some point. Can’t wait!

    PS Just found your blog through “Freshly Pressed”.

    • Jenny says:

      So pleased you found us! And yes, this book was such a pleasure. I am looking forward very much to reading the second and the third volumes, both.

  10. Pingback: ‘The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands’ « Patos Papa

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