A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I began this book, I fully expected to join the universal chorus of praise. The premise of this book could hardly be more promising: a naïve, bookish nineteen-year-old decides to walk from Holland all the way to Constantinople. We have here all the makings of a literary adventure: an author sensitive enough to language and art to appreciate the finer points of culture, and impetuous enough to get into scraps and misadventures. The only book I can think of that holds comparable promise is Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada, which begins, similarly enough, with the young, bookish Brenan settling down in the south of Spain to read Spinoza.
Well, to get straight to the point, even by the end of the introduction I found myself disappointed. This was surprising. At first I thought I was misinterpreting my own feelings. The book had everything I expected: fine prose, snippets of culture and history, a few youthful misdeeds here and there. Why the persistent feeling of letdown? Is it me? But in the end, true to form, I have decided that my instincts are not misfiring, and that this book is not quite the masterpiece it has been made out to be.
To me, Leigh Fermor is the epitome of superficial learning. No doubt he is well-educated. His vocabulary is vast; he has a solid grasp of art history and a fine appreciation of architecture; he can speak and read several languages; his knowledge of English poetry borders on encyclopedic. And yet all this learning functions, in him, as the feathers in a peacock’s tail: as a bright, beautiful, and at times intimidating display—but a mere display, nonetheless. Leigh Fermor deploys recondite words, the names of painters and poets, and the weighty facts of history, neither to express deep sentiment nor to communicate insights, but as mere ornament.
George Elliot both anticipated and perfectly summed up Leigh Fermor in Middlemarch, in the character of Will Ladislaw—another young Englishman with vague literary and artistic ambitions who travels to the continent to bask in the culture: “rambling in Italy sketching plans for several dramas, trying prose and finding it too jejune, trying verse and finding it too artificial, beginning to copy ‘bits’ from old pictures, leaving off because they were ‘no good,’ and observing that, after all, self-culture was the principal point.” This description fits Leigh Fermor to a T—the total aimlessness, the nebulous hopes of someday writing a book, the amateurish sketching that Leigh Fermor himself is careful to denigrate.
I admit that I am lobbing these accusations at Leigh Fermor with an uneasy conscience, because in so many ways he is leaps and bounds more learned and eloquent than I am. Yet to misuse one’s gifts seems more culpable than not having gifts in the first place. But let me stop being vague. Consider this passage from the beginning, right when the writer is setting out and saying goodbye to his loved ones:
Haste and the weather cut short our farewells and our embraces and I sped down the gangway clutching my rucksack and my stick while the others dashed back to the steps—four sodden trouser-legs and two high heels skipping across the puddles—and up them to the waiting taxi; and half a minute later there they were, high over head on the balustrade of the bridge, craning and waving from the cast-iron quatrefoils.
While I like certain aspects of this sentence—specifically the bit about soggy trouser legs and puddles—the final effect is unpleasant and false. First is the curiously passive construction in the beginning, giving agency to haste rather than people; and the ending focus on cast-iron quatrefoils is emotionally leaden (he isn’t thinking about his family?), and implausible (is this really what the young Leigh Fermor was focusing on in that moment?), and, in sum, strikes me as a purely pedantic inclusion—a word used because he knew it and not because it fit.
This tendency to use words just because he knows them often spoils Leigh Fermor’s prose for me. I grant that his verbal facility is extraordinary. But to what purpose? He is like a virtuoso jazz pianist who shows off his chops in every solo, even on the ballads, without tact or taste. This comes out most clearly in his architectural passages:
The archway at the top of these shallow steps, avoiding the threatened anticlimax of a flattened ogee, deviated in two round-topped lobes on either side with a right-angeled central cleft slashed deep between the cusps. There had been days, I was told, when horsemen on the way to the indoor lists rode in full armour up these steps: lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostriche-plumes under a freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep their bright paint that spiraled them unchipped. But in King Vladislav’s vast Hall of Homage the ribs of the vaulting had further to travel, higher to soar. Springing close from the floor from reversed and bisected cones, they sailed aloft curving and spreading across the wide arch of the ceiling: parting, crossing, re-joining, and—once again—enclosing those slim subdivided tulips as they climbed.
Aside from illustrating his penchant for refined obscurity, the bit about the horseman with lances in full armor exemplifies another irksome quality of Leigh Fermor: his romanticism. He seems totally uninterested in actually learning about what he sees. Like Byron, he treats the cathedrals, castles, and local history solely as food for his imagination. The closest thing to a real investigation in these pages is his attempt to explain why, in A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare speaks of Bohemia, a landlocked country, having a “coast.” This line of questioning is somewhat amusing, sure, but also captures Leigh Fermor’s mentality: there he is, in a foreign land, and the question he occupies himself with is how a dead English playwright made a geographical error—a question of scant literary or historical value, a meaningless curiosity.
His tendency to fetishize learning and his romanticism are, I think, both symptoms of a deeper malady: the habit of looking at only the surface of things. Or, to put this another way, the exclusive preference for the specific at the expense of the general.
To be just, Leigh Fermor is marvelous when it comes to surfaces and particularities. He seems to notice every small, fleeting detail of everything he sees: buildings, cities, people, sunsets, landscapes. His love of strange words and foreign phrases fits equally well with this wont—the verbal flavor of an unusual term more important to him than its ability to communicate meaning. Leigh Fermor’s propensity to drown in an ecstasy of aesthetic observation—rendered in gloriously profuse prose—often reminded me of Walter Pater’s similar flights. But even Pater, an extreme aesthete, is not as wholly superficial as Leigh Fermor—who seems entirely incapable of holding abstract ideas in his mind.
Now, I am being rather unduly harsh towards a book that is generally good-natured and light-hearted. Partly this hostility comes from defensiveness: If I am to accuse someone as highly respected as Leigh Fermor of writing badly, I must make a strong case. As the final exhibit in my prosecution, I include this snippet of a description from a bar in Munich:
The vaults of the great chamber faded into infinity through blue strata of smoke. Hobnails grated, mugs clashed and the combined smell of beer and bodies and old clothes and farmyards sprang at the newcomer. I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips. It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blond beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth.
To my ears, this is just painfully overwritten. Including infinity and blue strata and iron dumb-bells in a simple bar scene is too much. And the final touch of calling a glass of beer a “brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth”—besides being a nonsensical image—is yet another example of his adolescent imagination: he can hardly touch anything German without his fantasy flying off into legendary knights and Germanic sagas. There is something to be said for enlivening a regular scene using colorful language; but there is also something to be said for honest description.
Now, despite all this, was I often astounded by Leigh Fermor’s diction and his fluency? Yes I was. Did I enjoy some parts of this travel book? Undeniably I did—particularly the section where he is taken in by the German girls. Do I think Leigh Fermor is insufferable? Often, yes, but he can also be charming and winsomely jejune. But did I learn something about the places he traveled to? I’m honestly not sure I did; and that, more than anything, is why I felt the necessity to write in opposition to the famous travel-writer.
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