A Time of Gifts

by wjw on June 12, 2007

I’m finishing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. I mentioned a couple months ago that I was reading the book, but you shouldn’t take the length of time between then and now as a criticism of Fermor. Rather the opposite: the book is too rich, and too finely wrought, to read with anything less than full attention. I was either obliged to read other works in the interim, or I didn’t have the time and patience to work my way through Fermor’s highly concentrated prose.

The story of the book is this: in the winter of 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor dropped out of his cram school (he was aiming at Sandhurst), and then walked across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, living on a couple of pounds per month. (He got to Constantinople, but not to Sandhurst.) Along the way, he slept in barns and jail cells, was taken up by the aristocracy and feasted in castles, and broke bread with Gypsies.

1933 was also the year Hitler took power in Germany, and set in train the events that eventually destroyed the world that Fermor passed through on his way to the Golden Horn.

Fermor later distinguished himself as a guerilla leader, fighting Germans on the island of Crete: he captured the German general commanding the island, and after hiding with the general in a cave and exchanging Horacian epigrams in the original Latin, he smuggled General Kneipe off to Alexandria in a fishing boat. This episode was later made into a film, Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Fermor was played by Dirk Bogarde.

The book, which was written thirty-odd years after the events depicted, possesses an ironic distance that would have escaped the original eighteen-year-old, hard-drinking, and over-educated young Paddy Fermor, had that bumptious young man turned his journals into a manuscript in the Thirties. Fermor avoids condescending to his younger self, as he avoids elegy for the Mitteleuropa that no longer exists, but he can’t help but add a few more decades’ worth of wisdom to the feast of observation within his pages.

Nor can Fermor resist showing off. He goes through the whole Cretan general episode, including the Latin epigrams, even though it’s entirely out of place. He wants you to know that the young man of the narrative became a war hero, and that the journey was a part of all that.

And my God! The prose style! Here’s a piece picked out at random:

“In cold weather like this,” said the innkeeper of a Gastwittschaft further down, “I recommend Himbeergeist.” I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost— this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homoeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns— or so it seemed after the second glass— like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria . . . “


These spires and towers recalled the earlier Prague of the Wenceslases and the Ottokars and the race of the Premysl kings, sprung from the fairy-tale marriage of a Czech princess with a plough-boy encountered on the banks of the river. The Czechs have always looked back with longing to the reigns of the saintly sovereign and his descendants and to the powerful and benevolent Charles IV— a golden age when Czech was the language of rulers and subjects, religious discord unknown and the rights of crown and nobles and commons and peasants all intact. These feelings gained strength during the Czech revival under the last hundred years of Habsburg ascendancy. Austrian rule fluctuated between unconvinced absolutism and liberalism soon repented and it was abetted by linguistic pressures, untimely inflexibility and all of the follies that assail declining empires, for knavery was not to blame. These ancient wrongs must have lost much of their bitterness in the baleful light of modern times when the only evidence to survive is an heirloom of luminous architectural beauty.


The book never actually gets to Constantinople, nor does its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water. A third volume has been promised, but so far not delivered. (Sir Paddy— he was knighted— is probably having too much fun in his Peloponnesian villa.)

Ave Fermor! May your ninety-odd years sit lightly upon you.

Eugene D. Gibson June 12, 2007 at 11:34 pm

Its nice and refreshing to see an authour who is deep enough to read other genres!

S.M. Stirling June 13, 2007 at 5:24 am

God, I love that book!

The bit (or is it in the second book?) where he and the Hungarian aristo are skinny-dipping and meet the two Rumanian farm girls (“you have soft, gentleman’s feet. I bet you couldn’t even chase us as far as that haystack over there…”) is priceless.

Some of the best descriptive prose I’ve ever read.

Dave Bishop June 13, 2007 at 1:12 pm

I love Leigh Fermor’s books too. When LF reached the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria he had Kipling’s lines in his mind: “I’ve lost Britain and I’ve lost Gaul, and Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall.” It really was snowing when LF first glimpsed those “Pontic Shores”. When I got there it was mid-summer and I’d flown from the UK rather than walking … but it was still a great experience.
Congratulations on your new book, Walter – can’t wait to read it!

dubjay June 13, 2007 at 10:13 pm

I’ll look forward to the skinny-dipping episode, which must be in the next volume.

Eugene, most authors I know read every damn thing. Aside from the fact that reading widely makes for more diverse and interesting writing, there’s the sad fact that reading exclusively in one’s own genre begins to seem more and more like what one does for a living. In other words, work.

Dave, thanks for dropping in! My own response, when I first saw the Aegean (with the view in the other direction embracing Mt. Olympus wreathed in cloud), was to say (with Xenophon’s Ten Thousand) “Thalassa! Thalassa!”

Which had the Greek country folk with whom I was sharing the train looking at me askance, as if to say, “What’s the big deal? Of =course= it’s the fucking sea!”

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