A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977) NYRB Classics (2005) 321 pp
A few years ago I read and reviewed Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short A Time to Keep Silence (here). At that time I also picked up several of his other books, excited for the day when I’d sit down and read them. As happens, they fell back in line, but when my brother and I put down a tentative podcast episode, we both knew we’d soon do Leigh Fermor’s famous A Time of Gifts; it turned out to be our second episode (which you can find here). There is much to love in this book, so many paths to walk down, so many stones to turn over, and Leigh Fermor is a wonderful guide. I’ve thought about the book a lot since I finished it, and it just keeps getting better and better.
A Time of Gifts recounts the first leg of a trip Leigh Fermor made when he was only eighteen years old. Recently expelled from school and finding no success living the writer’s life in London, he decided he could afford to leave it all behind. Here was his plan:
To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp — or, as I characteristically phrased it myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth! All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do.
He left on a barge down the Thames on December 9, 1933, the same year Hitler came into power in Germany, and he takes us to a world on the brink of change. It will never be this way again.
One of the themes in A Time of Gifts is the inevitable passage of time. The walk — passing through towns, leaving friends behind — mimics and underlines the passage of time, and Leigh Fermor injects that sense of movement into his prose. It’s the work of a master. See this passage at the beginning of the book when Leigh Fermor is drifting away from London:
There was a reek of mud, seaweed, slime, salt, smoke and clinkers and nameless jetsam, and the half-sunk barges and the waterlogged palisades unloosed a universal smell of rotting timber. Was there a whiff of spices? It was too late to say: the ship was drawing away from the shore and gathering speed and the details beyond the wider stretch of water and the convolutions of the gulls were growing blurred.
As any good travel writer would, Leigh Fermor details the sights and sounds and smells so that we might feel we are there with him. However, he goes further. Leigh Fermor shows these things as they recede in time and space — “Was there a whiff of spice? It was too late to say.”
This gift for giving us the sensation of the passage of time through prose is also used to show the destruction of time, and given the decade, this effect is emphasized greatly; after all, many of these towns were no longer there just a few years later, and many of the people he met and who showed him hospitality were dead or displaced. It is not consistent, but as we read we often feel the sensation of impending destruction. In our podcast, I spend a bit of time talking about Peter Brueghel the Elder, whose painting Hunters in the Snow is on the cover of this edition. Brueghel lived in a dark time, and in many ways this painting shows peace with a touch of doom in the background.
But, stepping back from the decade and World War II’s approach, Leigh Fermor also shows this in simpler, intimate settings. One of my favorite parts of the book is a small two-page passage. Leigh Fermor has stopped at the home of Frau Hübner, a widow whose children have moved away. As evening drops, Leigh Fermor finds himself sitting down while she tells him stories, but he can’t stay in that moment; in fact, even as it’s happening, he’s drifting away:
Sleep was creeping on. Gradually Frau Hübner’s face, the parrot’s cage, the lamp, the stuffed furniture and the thousand buttons on the upholstery began to lose their outlines and merge. The rise and fall of her rhetoric and Toni’s heckling would be blotted out for seconds, even minutes. At last she saw I was nodding, and broke off with repentant cry of self-accusation. I was sorry, as I could have gone on listening for ever.
It’s a remarkable book for other, perhaps more obvious reasons. For one, much more than an account of impending doom, A Time of Gifts heaps praise on the general goodness of humanity. Everywhere Leigh Fermor went, he found people willing to help him, giving him food and board. But that wasn’t all. He also found deep friendships with many. It’s a heartwarming book through and through, though this also serves to make the upcoming loss that much more poignant.
I have some minor criticisms, which I hesitate to even bring up so much did I enjoy the book as a whole. There are several passages where Leigh Fermor takes a back seat and recounts in an impersonal way the history of some of the places he’s visiting. I had a similar issue with A Time to Keep Silence. With such emotion can Leigh Fermor inject the personal into his book, that when these passages come up the book tends to dry out, no matter how much I enjoyed the history it was recounting.
Still, that’s a minor quibble. It’s not one that will keep me from reading more and more Leigh Fermor; in fact, it’s not one that will keep me from reading A Time of Gifts again in the future and certainly not one to keep me from recommending the book far and wide.