Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts

A Time Of GiftsIn late December of 1933, shortly after turning 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor departed his native England by boat, heading for the Hook of Holland. Like many young men before him, his ultimate plan was to complete a walking tour of Europe, beginning in Holland and ending in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), but he was fated to complete his travels just as Europe was beginning its inexorable descent into the bloodiest combat in human history. Nearly a half-century later, a much older Fermor would combine journal entries and memories into A Time Of Gifts, his account of his travels, and the resulting book defies categorization. It is, first and foremost, a record of his travels, the people and places he encountered; but it is also written with an eye to the future, and functions, therefore, as a kind of history book, preserving in amber a Europe that would perish within the decade.

The young Paddy Fermor, our narrator, deserves a profile. He was born in England while his father was stationed in India, but his mother and older sister left him with a foster family shortly after his birth, preferring to trust him to the kindness of strangers than risk the entire clan’s lives on the perilous ocean journey to India. He speaks very little about his formal education, except to relay a teacher’s assessment (“…a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”), but there are early indications of his brilliance and preternatural gift for language. Apart from a change of clothes and scant belongings, he brings with him on his journey the Oxford Book Of English Verse and Horace’s Odes, and amuses himself, during his long solitary march across Europe, by reciting from memory the verses he learned as a child: a great deal of Shakespeare, “several” Marlowe speeches, “most” of Keats’ Odes, and “the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge,” to name just a few. His facility with language (he speaks four fluently, and picks up smatterings of many more on his journey) surely owes much to this love of literature, and becomes a valuable asset to him on his march across the continent.

The older Patrick Leigh Fermor, the real author of A Time Of Gifts, has expanded upon the young Paddy Fermor’s precocity, adding an intimate knowledge of European art, architecture and history to his already considerable store of learning. Consider this masterful description of a Rotterdam church:

I hadn’t gone far before the open door of the Groote Kirk – the cathedral attached to the enormous belfry – beckoned me inside. Filled with dim early morning light, the concavity of grey masonry and whitewash joined in pointed arches high overhead and the floor diminished along the nave in a chessboard of black and white flagstones. So compellingly did the vision tally with a score of half-forgotten Dutch pictures that my mind’s eye instantaneously furnished the void with those seventeenth-century groups which should have been sitting or strolling there: burghers with pointed corn-coloured beards – and impious spaniels that refused to stay outside – conferring gravely with their wives and their children, still as chessmen, in black broadcloth and identical honeycomb ruffs under the tremendous hatchmented pillars. Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.

One short paragraph, and yet Fermor is doing so much. First we are given a particularly evocative description of the church, which the young Fermor peoples with imaginary and representative Dutchmen – notice the extension of the chess metaphor, from simple description of the church flooring to a description of the burghers’ children, “still as chessmen.” Next, the older Fermor, cognizant of Rotterdam’s impending bombing by the Luftwaffe, reminds us, in hauntingly simple terms, of what was lost.

Modern readers will perhaps be most captivated by his time in Germany, and his encounters with the ordinary men and women who were stoking the flames of nationalism and resentment, and those who were repulsed by this latent ethnic tribalism. He is hosted by middle class German families, whose hospitality and intellectual vibrancy he finds enchanting, and likewise encounters fanatics and true believers spoiling for a fight with “ein Engländer.” The deeper he penetrates into Germany from the surrounding countryside, the more fanatical the citizenry:

The proportion of Storm Troopers and S.S. in the streets was unusually high and still mounting and the Nazi salute flickered about the pavement like a tic douloureux. Outside the Feldherrnalle, with its memorial to the sixteen Nazis killed in a 1923 street fight nearby, two S.S. sentries with fixed bayonets and black helmets mounted guard like figures of cast-iron and the right arms of all passers-by shot up as though in reflex to an electric beam. It was perilous to withhold this homage.

In one particularly memorable episode, Fermor stumbles into an S.S. dining hall, where gluttonous Nazis stuff their mouths with food:

The trunks of these feasting burghers were as wide as casks. The spread of their buttocks over the oak benches was not far short of a yard. They branched at the loins into thighs as thick as ten-year-olds and arms on the same scale strained like bolsters at the confining serge. Chin and chest formed a single column, and each close-packed nape was creased with its three deceptive smiles. Every bristle had been cropped and shaven from their knobbly scalps. Except when five o’clock veiled them with shadow, surfaces as polished as ostriches’ eggs reflected the lamplight. The frizzy hair of their wives was wrenched up from scarlet necks and pinned under slides and then hatted with green Bavarian trilbys and round one pair of elephantine shoulders a little fox stole was clasped. The youngest of this group, resembling a matinée idol under some cruel spell, was the bulkiest. Under tumbling blonde curls his china blue eyes protruded from cheeks that might have been blown up with a bicycle pump, and cherry lips laid bare the sort of teeth that make children squeal.

Is this repulsion genuine, or concocted after the fact? It hardly matters. The final sentence I quoted – Fermor at his most lyrical – is sheer poetry, and illustrates one of the great joys of reading him: he belongs alongside the very best of 20th century English prose writers.

The title phrase, “a time of gifts,” appears a handful of times throughout the book, always in conjunction with some hospitality Fermor has been shown by a total stranger, but it comes from a poem by Louis MacNeice, “Twelfth Night,” which Fermor quotes from in his introduction:

For now the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will…you will.

The poem speaks to the elegiac quality of Fermor’s work: the time of gifts is behind him, as, perhaps, it is behind us, for the Europe he travels does not survive the Second World War intact, in a literal or spiritual sense. A Time Of Gifts – a travelogue, a meditation on art and history and architecture and literature – is also a eulogy.