In December 1933, eighteen-year old Patrick Fermor set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It was a journey that would take him away from England for just over three years. A TIME OF GIFTS, published in 1977, is the author's recollections of the first part of his trek - from Holland to Hungary. Between the Woods and the Water (New York Review Books Classics), published in 1986, takes the reader the rest of the way.
Penned from memory with the help of notes taken on the road, the narrative may suffer from time's separation but may also gain from the wisdom acquired over the same period.
During the passage through Germany, we see a country that, whether it collectively knew it or not, is about to come under the complete control of Adolf Hitler; the SA will soon be purged and President Hindenburg die. Fermor's innocent observations about the fervor of German National Socialism in the first months of 1934 are, in retrospect, chilling. As the author traverses Western and Central Europe, he's creating a window through which the reader can view a landscape and social structure that, by 1945, will be changed forever.
Compared with all other travel essayists with whom I'm familiar, Fermor is notable for the lens through which he observes his foreign surroundings, i.e. a knowledge of the classics acquired from an English public school's liberal education. The mind boggles at the poetry he can recite out loud and the literature he can run through his mind as he trudges from points A to B. And some of the Latin extracts he quotes are left untranslated. Oh, puhleeze! I took four years of the language in a private, Catholic, college prep school and can barely remember how to decline the verb "to love" - amo, amas, amat, etc. As for poetry, I can only recall a line or two of "Mandalay" by Rudyard Kipling.
The author's phenomenal literacy shows in the deluge of descriptive metaphors employed when painting for the reader's mind's eye that which he saw first-hand, e.g. qualities of interior church architecture that followed the raising of Melk in Austria:
"A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of artificial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on journeys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded kin bandboxes."
To be quite frank, the mind's eye occasionally glazes over when faced with such a glut of imagery. Perhaps more mentally accessible is something in the nature of Fermor's first encounter with Gypsies:
"Women with chocolate-coloured babies were begging among the pony-carts and a brown Carpathian bear, led by a dancing-master dark as sin, lumbered pigeon-toed over the cobbles. Every few seconds, his leader jangled a tambourine to put the animal through his paces; then he laid a wooden flute to his lips and blew an ascending trill of minims. Sinuous and beautiful fortune-tellers, stagily coifed and ear-ringed and flounced in tiers of yellow and magenta and apple-green, perfunctorily shuffled their cards and proffered them in dog-eared fans as they strolled through the crowds, laying soft-voiced and unrelenting siege to every stranger they met. Sinking flush with the landscape, the town quickly fell to pieces and gave way to an ambiguous fringe of huts and wagons and fires and winter flies where a tangle of brown children scampered and wrestled in the mud among the skirmishing and coupling dogs. I was soon sighted."
A TIME OF GIFTS reminds those of us who are older, but still fancy travel, what it was once like to be footloose and free of the daily responsibilities that perhaps now threaten to grind us down. That is Patrick's greatest gift to the reader.