Saturday, September 2, 2017

Europe, under a Patrick Leigh Fermor hangover

This spring, I fell in love with Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel writing, and this summer, I took a trip to Europe (Trieste and Vienna) under a distinctly Fermorian hangover. While in Vienna, I even made a point of taking the U-Bahn outside the city center to see the real Danube, the river that Leigh Fermor had spent so many months following on foot (the "Danube" in the city center of Vienna is just a canal).

Panorama of the Danube near Donaumarina station, Vienna, sunset, July 9, 2017
I meant to wait to post this until I had also written up my thoughts on the third book in Leigh Fermor's trilogy (The Broken Road) and the biography of him that I read (Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper), but for now, please have my thoughts on the first two books of the trilogy.

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

A Time of Gifts is an embarrassment of riches. No one else could have written it; its very existence seems a miracle. Starting in December 1933, the 18-year-old Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor decided to walk across Europe, following the Rhine and Danube rivers. He knew no one in Central Europe and spoke none of its languages. His budget was a pound a week (roughly $85 in today’s money). He was only vaguely aware of the rise of Nazism and other troubling political developments. Of course, he had no idea that the whole region he walked across would be war-torn and irrevocably altered within a decade. He had a vague notion to write a book about his travels, but he didn’t publish A Time of Gifts till the 1970s. (And it isn’t even the whole story! It covers only the first third of the journey: Holland, the Rhineland, Bavaria, Austria, Prague, and Slovakia. There are sequels.) If any one of a hundred things had been different—if Leigh Fermor had had a less impressionable memory or a less telling eye for detail or a less generous heart; if he had been killed on one of the daring missions he undertook in World War II—this book would not exist.

And what a book it is! Through Leigh Fermor’s eyes, everything is a marvel; everything is romantic. He is hungry for knowledge and beauty and rapture. He portrays his youthful self as always jaunty and adventurous, but there’s a bittersweet undertone that comes from the older man looking back on his long-gone youth in a vanished world. The travelogue also includes extensive meditations on history and art, and some great set-piece narrative scenes. My favorite might be the interlude where two German girls his own age put him up in Stuttgart: it feels like something from a 1930s Lubitsch film, playful eroticism bubbling just under the surface.

Leigh Fermor’s writing is florid and perhaps even ripe for parody; I had to keep looking up arcane vocabulary words and references to obscure historical figures. (Here’s an extreme example: “Watching his lavoltas and corantos, expert hidalgos from Castille with rowels the size of Michaelmas daisies would make the sign of the cross and cry ‘Miraculo!’”) There are times when it’s a bit too much—the Prague chapter is nearly impenetrable. But then he’ll bring you back around with a good-humored aside, or a vivid character sketch, or an exquisite word choice.

In the introduction to this edition, Jan Morris notes that the exact center of the book is Leigh Fermor’s visit to Melk Abbey, in Austria. There, his prose becomes as baroque as the architecture it describes, and some of his sentences could serve as metaphors for the book as a whole: “The faded quicksilver, diffusing a submarine dusk, momentarily touches the invention and the delight of this looking-glass world with a hint of unplanned sadness.” Afterward, the young monk who’s showing Patrick around Melk asks him if all the aesthetic splendor has left him feeling “un peu gris” (a bit tipsy). He admits, in retrospect, that “gris was too mild a word.” It is, Paddy. It is.

Between the Woods and the WaterBetween the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If technology ever reaches the point where great books get adapted into virtual reality environments rather than movies or TV shows, I’ll be the first to sign up for the Patrick Leigh Fermor VR experience. Just think: you’d get lots of exercise (Leigh Fermor walked thousands of miles across Europe), you’d learn languages (he taught himself German from scratch), and you’d bear witness to endless scenes of natural and man-made beauty. To spend a long summer night in a Hungarian aristocrat’s country house drinking cocktails and dancing to Gershwin records, while the raucous sound of folk songs at a peasant wedding drifts in on the breeze from outside… well, that sounds like my idea of heaven.

I didn’t love Between the Woods and the Water quite as much as A Time of Giftswhich is probably because I was slightly less interested in Leigh Fermor’s itinerary. In the first book, he visits notable cities like Munich, Vienna, and Prague; in this book, after he leaves Budapest at the end of Chapter 2, the places he travels are not places I’d ever heard of or thought much about. (The book principally deals with Hungary and Romania.) He is fascinated by all the different waves of migration that swept through the Hungarian basin and made this region of the world what it is, but this history, told in non-chronological order, can get confusing. It also gets hard to distinguish one country house and charmingly eccentric minor aristocrat from another. Leigh Fermor was lucky to meet with such kindness and make great friends on his journey, but I finished the book a bit over a week ago and I can’t remember the difference between Count Lajos and Count Jenö.

All the same, these are minor quibbles. This is a book to get lost in, a book about the joys of getting lost, an evocation of a lost world that very nearly brings it back to life in all its glory.