Tag Archives: A Time of Gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915-2011

Friends and neighbors, he explained, sit up all night round the coffin, telling funny and often improper stories, dancing, and drinking rum, and even, after concealing small objects in the mouth or other natural hiding-places of the corpse, playing games of hunt-the-thimble. If the corpse has been a heavy drinker during his lifetime, bottles of rum are poured down his throat; if a dancer, his body may be removed from the coffin and whirled round the room…

~ Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree

Something similar happens when a figure in world affairs or the arts passes over River Styx. By means of print and commentary, the corpse is explored, predilections and achievements are rehearsed for memory’s sake, and the floor is cleared for a posthumous last dance. I was sick over the weekend and only learned today of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s death. His feats of wartime daring are literally the stuff of celluloid legend, but (like others of my generation) I only came to know him through the first two volumes of the unfinished trilogy that he began with A Time of Gifts. Here’s to hoping that the time of gifts isn’t ended just yet and that among the abandoned articles of his long and magnificent life there’s a manuscript copy of that dearly missed third installment.

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Anyone that’s eaten an undercooked bratwurst will feel why the word ‘botulism’ derives from the Latin for sausage.  Similarly dismal results may come of too much drinking.  And yet, in one of the season’s happy conjunctions, the pairing of sausage and beer is universally honored this time of year.

Our local Oktoberfest was celebrated the weekend before last, the main drag closed to all but pedestrian traffic.   It’s only a faint echo at six thousands miles’ distance of the heroic beer halls of Bavaria.  The municipal authorities like to hire Army reservists for security and you’ll find them posted in fatigues around the perimeter of downtown.  It lends the whole thing a martial air that reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s visit to the Munich Hofbrauhaus in 1933 (from A Time of Gifts):

I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips.  It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blonde beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth… The gun-metal-colored cylinders were stamped with a blue HB conjoined under the Bavarian crown, like the foundry-mark on cannon.  The tables, in my mind’s eyes, were becoming batteries where each gunner served a silent and recoil-less piece of ordinance which, trained on himself, pounded away in steady siege.  Mass-gunfire!  Here and there on the tables, with their heads in puddles of beer, isolated bombardiers had been mown down in their emplacements.  The vaults reverberated with the thunder of a creeping barrage…  Supported by comrades, the walking wounded reeled through the battle smoke and a fresh gunner leaped into each place as it fell empty.

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The Man Who Walked

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion.’

The quote is from William Dalrymple’s interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor, conducted at the latter’s home in the Peloponnese.  It’s encouraging to see that Fermor has acuity and humor enough to make such remarks at 93 years old; encouraging, too, to catch Dalrymple’s reported sighting of the “8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.”  It would be a double loss were Fermor himself to end before finishing his planned three-volume travel memoir – the second installment of which arrived over twenty years ago.

Reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water is an education in print, just as the 1933-35 trek recounted in the books served as an alternative university for Fermor, who had a knack for getting kicked out of school.  Without too much posturing -I think- on his own behalf, Fermor becomes in these pages a sort of everyman on pilgrimage to Byzantium, his life a bildungsroman even Childe Harold might envy.  In every wintry starving solitude he is the object of unexpected charity; in every metropolis, the consummate flâneur; under every gothic arch, the questioning, curious student; at the door of every fire-warmed baronial schloss, the adopted cousin of infinite fascination.

That particular Europe is gone.  It was on its way out even then in ’33, the year Hitler was made Chancellor.  The Rhine Valley, the Vienna, Hungary and Transylvania that Fermor describes, from the dual perspective of enthusiastic youth and world-wise soldier turned writer, is a heavy lesson in the cultural and personal costs of war: buried under a merciless weight of history, stamped out by the boots of the two great twentieth-century totalitarianisms.  But Fermor’s prose is an amber preservative, full of golden glimpses of a world-that-was.

About that prose: On first introduction you may experience the briefest hesitation, like a bather stepping into a swift, cold stream.  But then you give yourself to the current and are carried effortlessly, joyfully along.  Fermor’s is not the kind of writing that makes for the convenient collection of aphorisms or that encourages consumption in fits and starts.  It is seductive and intelligent, full of vigor and keen observation (I’m still haunted by his description of a Sunday morning in Germany, when the bells for mass pealed through the liquid atmosphere of a downpour: “We might have been in a submarine among sunk cathredrals,” he says).  Fermor’s is the kind of writing that makes for the slow, warm digestion that assures you that, yes, you’ve dined very well indeed.


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