Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts

July 31, 2015

9780719566950I’ve been aware of his trilogy for a number of years and have finally got round to reading it: he walked from England to Constantinople in the 1930s and tells of his journey and encountered along the way…and yet the account itself was not written until more than forty years after the journey he describes.

He kept a detailed journal as he went, but the early stages of his account felt rather vague in terms of detail (later we learn that his possessions, including his first journal, were stolen from a hostel in Munich, which might go some way to explaining this) and his descriptions of places along the Meuse and the Rhine somewhat romanticised; but then we know that memory is kind to us, and tends to erase less pleasant events.

He writes very well, though, fluently and in the upbeat way that one would expect of someone not yet nineteen years old – optimistic, and the flow of his prose carries one along impressionistically, though at times feeling just a little overdone.

Walking, he meets all sorts of people, normally friendly, helpful, sociable and often offering rest and repose in their homes (it reminds me of my hitch-hiking experiences as a student); in this first volume he reaches Hungary. We learn of his background: clearly from a very comfortable social background, he nevertheless had a rebellious and unsuccessful school career and made a spontaneous decision to throw everything to the winds and set out on his travels. It’s a very interesting, ominous time in Europe: he crosses Germany at the end of 1933, so towards the end of Hitler’s first year in power…

At times I yearned for a bit more reflection on what he was seeing and experiencing and the people he was encountering, feeling him rather superficial – then realised I was being most unreasonable; I’m sixty and I would not have offered such analysis in my teens! A range of adventures is recounted, particularly from his stays in Vienna and Prague. He is clearly a well-educated person; he tries to describe the wonderful buildings and architecture he sees, but the prose becomes purple, overblown in places; it reminded me of Robert Byron’s descriptions at times, but Byron, though lyrical, seemed to have his feet much more firmly on the ground than Leigh Fermor

In the end I enjoyed this wander through times and places that have vanished forever; I shall move on to the second and third volumes in due course.

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