‘A Time of Gifts’


A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Words fail me; they would not have Mr. Fermor. To wit, this beautiful (and grotesque) description of the Hofbrauhaus in Munich:

“One must travel east for a hundred and eighty miles from the Upper Rhine and seventy north from the Alpine watershed to form an idea of the transformation that beer, in collusion with almost nonstop eating — meals within meals dovetailing so closely during the hours of waking that there is hardly an interprandial moment — can wreak on the human frame. Intestine strife and the traceless clash of intake and digestion wrecks many German tempers, twists brows into scowls and breaks out in harsh words and deeds.
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 the torsos of ten-year-olds and arms on the same scale strained like bolsters at the confining serge.”

And so on.

Fermor’s book is a travelogue, a famous one, and I wrote on Goodreads that it “is marvelous, perhaps better than marvelous, and heartily recommended to anyone who loves traveling — and reading. I simply cannot think of a book I enjoyed more in the past two or three years. And it makes me a little ashamed that I had not heard of the author before he died in June.”

All true, and falling short of the mark. The truly resonant note of Fermor’s book is the perspective of time; he started his cross-Europe trek 1933, when he was 19, and wrote the book after World War II. It informs his chance encounters with, for example, S.S. officers — “The window embrasure was piled high with their skull-and-crossbones caps” — with a subtle chill and gravity. But it also allows him to write with a more meaningful voice about art and architecture and, especially, literature. Words were a constant, comforting companion, as he tried to teach himself languages, as he was inspired by the natural scenery.

His wonderful book (this is only the first of two volumes) stirs a wanderlust in the reader, but such a journey perhaps could only have been taken by him.