In December 1933, at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to travel by foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. His memoir A Time of Gifts, published in 1977, takes the reader as far as the Hungarian border, which he crosses triumphantly amidst the ringing of Easter bells. (Two more books, Between the Woods and the Water from 1986, and The Broken Road, published posthumously in 2013, would bring the journey to its conclusion in Greece.) Walking between towns and aided by the occasional lift on a lorry or river barge, Fermor is guided by major rivers, first the Rhine and then the Danube; because of this, the resulting narrative feels shaped by forces of nature and history rather than the comparatively recent and unstable political borders. Through engaging (albeit somewhat romanticised) asides, Fermor takes the reader through a history of Continental Europe, where complex wars have drawn in countless empires and principalities from as far away as Asia.
This is a memoir of a less technological world in which travellers on the road pass the time with poetry instead of podcasts, and rather than being shown three thousand travel photos on a mobile phone, we are offered page after page of lush description. Using all five senses, Fermor evokes taverns, landscapes, and weather—the latter, since he leaves England in wet and snowy December, is never far from mind, particularly when he is sleeping rough. This is a degree of detail that can’t possibly repose on memory alone, given the forty-year interval between experiences and publication, so I was gratified by glimpses here and there of eighteen-year-old Fermor spreading his books and notebooks out on an inn-table to record his day. Based on my own memories of trying to sustain a travel journal, he must have been jotting things down at a truly frenetic pace. The importance of this record becomes clear when one journal is lost along with a stolen rucksack, or another rediscovered after an interval of several decades, giving the reader a fascinating insight into the mechanics of how literary memory is constructed.
The language, never less than gorgeous, does occasionally skirt the edge of being too much. When Fermor is paying painterly attention to the light over the Netherlands the effect is breathtaking, but when he starts name-dropping actual painters my interest flags a little, perhaps because I lack the art history background to appreciate it. And after uncounted pages of finials, oriels and mullions, I had to conclude that I do not share his level of interest in architecture or architectural theory. On the other hand, his description of watching the moon rise along the Danube sent a shiver down my spine, so this may simply be my own preference for extravagant evocations of nature rather than buildings. Given that so much of what Fermor saw would be either obliterated or changed beyond recognition by World War Two, the images that he transmits have great value and poignancy. However, the unhurried description-for-description’s-sake demands a different kind of attention from readers who expect a literary travel memoir to analyse contemporary events, recount some kind of personal growth, or both. These threads do exist in A Time of Gifts, but they are woven in discreetly, and come to the surface in a restrained and incidental manner.
The year 1933 is, of course, one that weighs heavy in the history books. Hitler had seized control only ten months earlier, and as Fermor crosses the border from the Netherlands into Germany, swastika flags and armbands begin to impinge on the view, while conversations in public inns become fraught with tension. However, the overwhelming impression is of the kindness and generosity that Fermor encounters from German people happy to give aid and shelter to a poor traveller. His account of a night’s lodging with a postmaster’s loquacious widow gives us one of the warmest, most amusing portraits in the book, and shows the strangely ordinary quality of life even in a time marked by fear, fanaticism, and indifference. The sight of SA men drinking in a tavern is all the more disturbing because they are as likely to be singing a beautiful folk-song as a Nazi anthem.
Fermor’s complacency in visiting a country in the midst of violent upheaval —and the complacency of the adults who let him go— might seem unbelievable, but it reminded me of the years that my younger brother spent teaching abroad, when concerned family friends frequently rang up my parents to ask them about some alarming development on the news which he had considered too unimportant to mention. It is a fact that even within the same city, major events are not felt equally in all neighbourhoods. For example, Fermor actually hitches a ride on a lorry into Vienna at the very moment when left-wing paramilitary forces are clashing with the army, and mistakes the sound of shelling for distant thunder. Only on the following day does he learn from a newspaper that Austria has transitioned to a fascist government, and before long even this event has disappeared from the headlines.
If the teenaged Fermor was, as he puts it, “politically sleepwalking,” this was a condition that he shared with many in Europe. The alarming portents of Nazism vanish from sight as soon as he crosses the border out of Germany, and its threat does not seem to weigh particularly on anyone’s mind. Instead, his passage through Austria leaves an impression of a nation fixated on the glory of its lost empire, and when he reaches Czechoslovakia he must start to educate himself about the unfamiliar web of resentments in eastern Europe, its countries lacerated by a traumatic history of fluctuating frontiers. The gaze is turned pretty firmly towards the past. However, as a writer in 1977, Fermor can overlay this historical perspective with an ominous foreknowledge of what is to come: the footnotes that pepper the book note the wartime fate of this or that person or town, whether survival or destruction.
As he crosses a continent clearly in rapid transformation, the course of Fermor’s personal development is captured in a subtler but nevertheless lovely way. This is set up by the prologue, written as a letter to one of his literary friends in a spare style unlike the rest of the book, and describing his early years. This portrait of a boy for whom formal schooling catastrophically failed to work out struck a moving chord for me. The proposed journey through Europe is meant to provide an escape from the hopeless cycle. “I wondered,” he says, “whether to enlist a companion; but I knew that the enterprise had to be solitary and the break complete.” Fortunately for Fermor, the adults in his life, including a remarkably understanding mother, support his endeavour and make it a success. Five months into the project, he looks back and reflects, “In the past, I had always arrived on any new scene trailing a long history of misdeeds and disasters. Now the continuity was broken.”
The excitement of travelling alone for the first time should ring true for anyone who has left their home in search of adventure, but I suspect that something more than freedom and independence is responsible for this new flourishing. Despite his initial resolve, Fermor’s enterprise turns out to be the farthest thing from solitary. To smooth his way, his mother has written to friends on the Continent, asking them to take care of him, and this has a cascading effect as concerned hosts along the way activate their own networks of acquaintances on his behalf. The longer his journey continues, the more likely Fermor is to be sleeping in a stately manor house instead of under a haystack.
I think that I see a line connecting this youthful character with the occasional excessive prose explosions in the book. In 1977 as in 1933, Fermor is exuberant, importunate, and ever so slightly insecure, but in general he doesn’t think to doubt his welcome, from host or reader. Yet the overwhelming tone of the memoir, expressed so aptly in its title, is one of gratefulness. From the innkeeper’s little daughter who gives him an unexpected Christmas present to the family eager to replace his stolen rucksack, Fermor responds to strangers’ generosity with humility, gratitude and, I think, a deepening maturity. Describing one particularly kind baron in Slovakia who lends him books and takes him out rabbit-shooting, Fermor says, “Being told by someone much older to stop calling him Sir ... was a sort of informal investiture with the toga virilis.” It is a human connection that finally ushers him out of a disastrous adolescence and into adulthood.
This humanity is what gives A Time of Gifts the feeling of a timeless encounter and not merely a static portrait of a vanished Europe. My favourite part of the entire book is a sequence in Vienna in which Fermor, temporarily down and out, meets an equally broke tramp in a Salvation Army hostel and with him hatches a money-making scheme: Fermor, with his modest artistic skills, will go door to door in blocks of flats and offer to make sketches of housewives. What follows is a hilarious and warm-hearted tour through the sitting rooms of the Viennese middle class, including a family of circus performers and an expatriate Englishwoman. It took me back to childhood memories of going out on Hallowe’en, in that era when the holiday was less about candy or costume parties than getting a curious peek at the front hallways of our neighbours. In this memoir Fermor gives the reader a similar glimpse of European history, making it as vivid and familiar as our own sitting rooms.--Mary Thaler