A Time Of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977) 291 p.

Patrick Leigh Fermor has been on my TBR pile for quite some time now, and I picked up his seminal book A Time of Gifts at Readings about two months ago, but since he passed away last week it seemed appropriate to advance him to the front of the queue. A Time of Gifts is a travel memoir of a bold endeavour Fermor embarked upon in 1933: to walk all the way across Europe, following the Rhine and the Danube, from Rotterdam to Istanbul – in winter, no less.

What sets Fermor apart from other travel writers is his massive breadth of literary, historical, linguistic and cultural knowledge; he seems, in fact, to have been not just a renaissance man but a genius. While walking through the Swabian counryside he amuses himself by singing and reciting verse, casting his memory back through the swathes of literature he has memorised. He literally fills an entire page with the names of English poems and poets that he has read, then says “My bridgehead in French poetry didn’t penetrate very far: a few nursery rhymes, one poem of Theodore de Banville, two of Baudelaire, part of one of Verlaine, Yeats’ Ronsard sonnet in the original, and another of du Bellay; lastly, more than all the rest put together, large quantities of Villon.” That’s not a bridgehead, that’s D-Day. Either Fermor was exceptionally modest, or standards have slipped in the last century. How many eighteen-year olds today would be able to recite a single English poem, or even name a French one?

Fermor is therefore that kind of traveller, a lifelong scholar with an intense thirst for knowledge – one readily slaked by the majesty of Central Europe. He finds every town and city and province fascinating, detailing their history and customs and fashions and architecture. A Time of Gifts is more than a mere travel memoir: it’s an orgasmic ode to the grandeur of civilisation itself.

I make this sound tedious, and it can be at times, but Fermor’s infatuation with Europe is so genuine it’s hard not to appreciate it, and it can be infectious. I often split travel writers into two groups: witty, conversational types like Bill Bryson, who can easily be read by anyone, and writers like Ted Simon or (I assume) Paul Theroux, whose loftier ruminations on the world can easily turn people off. Fermor certainly belongs to the latter category, but the book isn’t all art and literature. There is a definite sense of adventure and excitement to his travels, as he dosses down in haystacks or befriends wealthy German counts and sleeps in plush four-poster beds; the idea of being a young man with an open road and a pack on his back, something wonderful around every corner. In an early chapter, he hitches a ride on a river-barge, and describes the joy of watching the counryside slide past, the flourishing of flags and horn-blasts from other vessels, the wheeling of seagulls and the shadow and sunlight of the mountains. Not since the ferry chapter in David Mitchell’s Number9dream have I read a passage so suited to “Blitzball Gamblers,” the finest song there is for stirring the excited, triumphant feelings of nautical travel at its finest. (The scene must always be on a water-borne vessel, of course.)

The other thing that sets A Time of Gifts apart is the age in which it took place. The 1930s were arguably the last great era of Europe, before it was devastated by World War II (many places or objects in the book are footnoted as having been destroyed in the war). The scenes in Germany are darkened by the presence of S.S. men with raised forearms and sieg heil salutes – although they also reveal a strong dislike of the Nazis amongst many ordinary Germans. In many other places there is a sense of a vanished age, of towns and cities lost not just to war but to modernity. Fermor’s world of dainty villages and regal cathedrals and ruined castles is a world crammed full of the aesthetic splendour of antiquity, a world full of things made in a time when individual craftsmen took pleasure in their work and created things that were beautiful; before high streets all over the world became identical, selling Nike and McDonalds and IKEA out of pastel-coloured concrete boxes whose fittings can be stripped down and replaced in a day. Fermor’s book is a voyage into a beautiful world that was devoured by the Ballardian nightmare a few decades later. There is still beauty in Europe, as I found last year when I landed in Berlin after five months in the hideous block cities of communist or post-communist Asia. Yet one can’t help but read Fermor’s words and feel that we’ve lost something.

Nowadays if one set off across Europe, there would be hordes of backpackers and tourists in every town. Most nights would be spent in YHA dorms; if strangers did take you into their home, odds would be you arranged it on couchsurfing.com. The castles and monasteries would all be covered in restoration scaffolding. If there are any river-barges left, OHS regulations would prevent them from giving lifts to random vagabond travellers. Yes, the world has definitely lost something.

A Time of Gifts is often considered one of the finest travel books ever written, and I can see why. I can also see how Fermor’s elaborate prose and constant cultural tidbits would put some people off. Although it slowed at times, for the most part I enjoyed it, and it deserves its well-regarded place at the peak of travel literature.