Winterrreise through a Lost Europe

This is my review of A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Armed with natural charm and the confidence and precocious classical education of a public school boy, the eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out in 1933 to walk from The Hook of Holland, along the Rhine and Danube to what was then Constantinople, although by the end of this first book he has barely reached Budapest.

Prepared to rough it, sleeping in barns, even the vacant cells of local police stations according to a local custom, whenever possible he drew shamelessly on a network of well-heeled connections to cadge more comfortable accommodation in the castles and luxury flats of a succession of middle-European aristocrats.

Despite making copious notes and sketches, some of which were lost, Leigh Fermor did not publish his account until many years later in the 1970s. This has the benefit that he would surely tend to record memories which remained most strongly in his mind, but it also calls into question how much he has embroidered his original impressions. I suspect that his detailed descriptions of, for instance, the paintings of old masters, or the history or geography of an area are based on research or knowledge gained long after his visit. Some recollections are too detailed NOT to have been embellished, but perhaps this does not matter.

At first, I was bowled over by his articulate spate of words, and some will remain impressed by say, his flights of fancy over the murals at Melk – a lusciously Baroque-style former Austrian monastery which is certainly worth a visit. For sure, his writing is often poetical and striking in its original imagery. Yet, it also tends to appear contrived and overblown – at times too convoluted to make much sense and often downright irritating. The notes from his original writing included at the end of the book show the simpler, more direct style of a young man barely out of school, so that the flowery outpourings in which Fermor often indulges seem the creation of an older man. His desire to rely the power of words is laudable, but I longed for some confusing passages to be replaced with a few good clear maps, family trees and timelines to provide a bit of clarity.

Although there is some reference to the rise of Hitler, Nazis tend to be portrayed as buffoons rather than perpetrators of a deadly holocaust and political issues are discussed from the complacent viewpoint of a privileged elite. One of his profounder comments is that the intelligentsia of middle Europe were less likely to be seduced by communism than their liberal English cousins, because they lived closer to the grim realities of communism. I often wanted Leigh Fermor to quit downing vast quantities of beer and wine in different coloured glasses, leave off mooning over obscure legends of unicorns in the Black Forest, and pay attention to what was really going on. What about the Depression, the poverty and inflation inflicting Europe at the time?

Leigh Fermor is at his best in his descriptions of nature: wildlife struggling to survive the cold and boys skating with the aid of a sail in the frozen winter landscape or the Hungarian marches in spring, exploding with croaking, plopping frogs, giant yellow kingcups in the streams, and flocks of migrating storks.

A fairly slow read since it is so densely written, the author arouses nostalgia for a lost world – a privileged, highly educated elite, strong peasant communities, perhaps somewhat romanticised, a refreshing lack of commercialisation, in particular of the cult of the teenager, allowing young men to move directly from the world of the schoolroom to adult freedom. He certainly makes me want to find out more about the Hapsburg Empire which dominated the area for so long, and to unravel the confusing history of the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The third instalment of his planned trilogy is apparently due out in 2013, although compiled from his notes and drafts by others.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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