‘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.