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.