The world needs more college students like Patrick Leigh Fermor. Come to think of it, the world needs more writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor. When, as a teenager in the early 1930s, Fermor got himself thrown out of school for giving more attention to a local girl than his studies, he decided to take leave of England and set off on a long walk through the heart of Europe. Starting out from Holland, Fermor more or less paralleled the courses of the Rhine and Danube rivers as he made his way to the golden city of Constantinople, which had been renamed Istanbul only three years earlier. Later in life, Fermor recounted his journey in a pair of books: the first, A Time of Gifts (republished by NYRB Classics in a typically classy package), has been the happiest surprise of my reading summer.
As with all the greatest travel books, A Time of Gifts is as much an interior journey as a travelogue: we get to experience this Brueghelesque landscape through the eyes of an endlessly curious, highly literate and art-mad young man who apparently brought out the maternal instinct in just about everyone he encountered. Tramping eastward along the Danube toward Vienna, Fermor visits Melk Abbey and can describe it only in terms of rich, ornately gorgeous music:
Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues.The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the decor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene. A magnificent and measured polyphony crept in one’s ears. It was accompanied by woodwind at first, then, at shortening intervals, by violins and violas and ‘cellos and then double-basses while a scrollwork of flutes unfurled in mid-air; to be joined at last by a muted fanfare from the ceiling, until everything vibrated with a controlled and pervading splendour. Beyond it, in the church, a dome crowned the void. Light spread in the painted hollows and joined the indirect glow from the ovals and the lunettes and the windows of the rotunda. Galleries and scalloped baldachinos and tiered cornices rose to meet it; and the soft light, falling on the fluted pilasters and circles of gold spokes, and on the obelisks wreathed with their sculpted clouds, suffused the honeycomb side-chapels and then united in a still and universal radiance.
The musical associations aren’t always so lovely. Fermor’s hike through Germany conjures up memories of Wilhelm Muller’s Winterreise and the song-cycle Schubert made of it, but the air is pervaded by the martial music of Nazism, which was tightening its grip on Germany even as Fermor happened to be passing through. Here he is in Munich:
I had expected a different kind of town, more like Nuremberg, perhaps, or Rothenburg. the neo-classical architecture in this boreal and boisterous weather, the giant boulevards, the unleavened pomp — everything struck chill to the heart. The proportion of Storm Troopers and S.S. in the streets was unusually high and still mounting and the Nazi salute flickered about the pavement like a tic douloureaux. Outside the Feldherrnehalle, with its memorial to the sixteen Nazis killed in a 1923 street fight nearby, two S.S. sentries with fixed bayonets and black helmets mounted guard like figures of cast-iron and the right arms of all passers-by shot up as though in reflex to an electric beam. It was perilous to withhold this homage. One heard tales of uninitiated strangers being physically set-upon by zealots.
Though my travels this summer haven’t been nearly as ambitious as Fermor’s, I’ve been reading A Time of Gifts in the same footloose spirit. I read the Melk passage, for example, while watching the sun set from the Fifth Street Pier in Seaside Park, and I’m surprised the ascent from the marshes of Barnegat Bay to the mountains of Central Europe didn’t give me the bends.
A Time of Gifts ends with footloose Fermor on the threshold of adventures in Hungary, Transylvania and the Carpathian mountains. The story continues in Between the Woods and the Water, and I’m torn between my impulse to finish it before the end of the summer and my wish to make this trip last as long as possible.