Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Fermor is considered by many to be one of the great travel writers in our time. I note he waited many years before he wrote of his wanderings. He kept a notebook, several really, and added and embellished what had not occurred to him at nineteen when he was walking to Constantinople. He admits to being a green young thing and, while he had a good education and many gifts, it is his insatiable curiosity and open demeanor that gained him so many friends and helpful companions.

This is what should be required reading in high school. Not college, but high school. We want youth to realize that the world is theirs, but they must first learn to navigate just a little, and prepare to be on their own. One should not have to require the whole book: just the first 120 pages should suffice. By the time Fermor has told of his "hoggish catalepsy" at Munich’s Hofbraushaus, if there is no comprehension in dull minds, there is no need to explain that one must have something to work with before one goes off wandering alone. The ecstatic enthusiasm and excitement of youth is everywhere evident. What it takes to succeed in the world is a great deal, but mostly it is interest in the world. It can be taught. I think.

Fermor indulges and cultivates his interest in architecture on his journey. It would be hard not to be impressed with the gorgeous relics on display throughout Europe. His impression of the "scenes of Biblical bloodshed [run] riot" in the churches made me laugh with recognition. My first visit to Europe produced the same feelings of shock and awe to see in churches the graphic display of Christ’s crucifixion.

Oh, what a moment in time Fermor captures: the brown shirts consolidating their power in Germany and Europe between the wars. He caught a little of that held-breath tension, and reviled himself for ever after for missing the significance of the street fighting in Vienna.
"I bitterly regretted this misappraisal later on: like Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme, when he was not quite sure whether he had been present at Waterloo."
When I was younger, though not young enough perhaps, I remember someone pressing into my hands a copy of the terrific travel story News From Tartary by Peter Fleming. It made me realize that such kind of travel was achievable, even something to strive for.

If only Cheryl Strayed in her memoir Wild had taken a leaf from Fermor’s book, her own work would have been substantially improved. But then, her work would have been better also had she followed the very different and equally anguished memoir by Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk which of course did not come out until after Strayed’s memoir. The exceedingly popular Wild did nothing for me but put me in a bloody state of mind while the other two memoirs add something both to my understanding and to my enjoyment of the world.

Rather early on in this book, Fermor makes glancing reference to his time in Crete when he captured a German general and secreted him away in a cave, something for which he would ever be famous. He tells of how they spoke lines of the same poem, first one then the other, realizing that at some distant time "they’d both drunk from the same spring." That capture was immortalized in a 1950s book by Stanley Moss called Ill Met: By Moonlight and a 1957 film starring Dirk Bogarde called Night Ambush.

I adore what Fermor discovers about Shakespeare as he searched for reasons Shakespeare would have placed an Bohemia near the sea in one of his plays:
"Shakespeare didn’t care a fig for the topography of the comedies. Unless it were some Italian town—Italy being the universal lucky dip for Renaissance playwrights—the spiritual setting was always the same. Woods and parkland on the Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire borders, that is; flocks and fairs and a palace or two, a mixture of Cockayne- and Cloud-Cuckoo- and fairyland with stage mountains rather taller than the Cotswolds and full of torrents and caves, haunted by bears and washed, if need be, by an ocean teeming with foundering ships and mermaids."

And this is a small thing, perhaps, but it so illuminates why Fermor was such a great travel writer: he becomes completely enraptured one night standing on a bridge in Prague, looking over the Vltava and tracing in his mind the twists and turns of the river--distances and changes in culture--on its way to the sea. It is Fermor looking at it, thinking about it, and speaking of it that makes the river a marvel of space and time.

Though this first in Fermor's travel trilogy starts just before Christmas 1933, this book and its companions are perfect summer reading material. Indulge your better self.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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