A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
A classic of the travel memoir genre, A Time of Gifts is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his trek by foot from the Netherlands to Turkey in 1933-34. Though, famously, Fermor didn’t actually write the book until decades later. Published in 1977, the account comprises the first of what would be a three-volume memoir. Described by The Guardian as “one of the most romantic books of the twentieth century,” A Time of Gifts is perhaps the best known installment, and tracks the initial leg of the journey made when Fermor was not yet eighteen. The plan was to take little else but his knowledge of history, languages (including Greek), a book of Homer’s Odes, and a few letters of introduction. Fermor, who died in 2011 at the age of ninety-six, was famously peripatetic, described in his New York Times obit as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” Like Hemingway, he had a similar penchant for life abroad and fighting in foreign wars, but the prose style of the two men is poles apart.
As Nosey Parker writes in the Toronto Sun, Fermor’s “near-eidetic” memory enabled the memories to steep. Parker compares a journal entry from Fermor’s teenaged years to its published counterpart written forty years later (the real-time entry comes first in italics):
Bucharest amazing town … Wandered around ages, soaking it in … Lovely town.
…which in A Time of Gifts became
The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow-motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking.
The decades between Fermor’s journey and the writing proved advantageous, to say the least (a trireme, by the way, is an ancient Greek or Roman war galley with three banks of oars).
Fermor’s maximalist style may be too rich for some, especially for fans of Hemingway’s action-packed, austere prose. Yet for readers so inclined, like Ben Downing, the rewards are vast. Here, Downing describes his experience of reading those first pages:
I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts [and] began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life.
I count myself among those who search out “thickness of detail” in their reading. Call it a weakness, or a fixation, or maybe some inherent trait that processes experience bottom-up rather than top-down. It’s simpler to say that detail draws me in, and in the tradition of stylistically “thick” prose, I seek out writers, in fiction and nonfiction, whose detail is permeated by imagination. Given Fermor’s approach to detail, it makes perfect sense that some have designated his books a kind of “psychogeography.”
The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, picks up in Czechoslovakia, and follows the trek further east, to the gorge where the Danube separates what is now Serbia and Romania. The final volume, assembled posthumously from Fermor’s diaries and letters, was released in 2013 as The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos, edited by Artemis Cooper.
Read Ben Downing’s “A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor” in The Paris Review.