Friday, June 16, 2006

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in England in 1915, and in 1933 he set out to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople. More than forty years later, he wrote the first of a pair of books about his journey, A Time of Gifts (1977), recently reissued by the New York Review of Books. I'm not going to write much about it now, in part because I'm busy, and in part because Anthony Lane's article in the May 22nd New Yorker about Fermor, "An Englishman Abroad" is hard to top. It's not online yet, but it's worth seeking out the magazine for.

Instead, I'll just give you a couple of passages that convey some of Fermor's eye for detail, his pleasant nature, and the rich texture of his writing. Here he tells of one of his first days of walking, through a wintry Dutch landscape:
In less than an hour I was crunching steadily along the icy ruts of a dyke road and the outskirts of Rotterdam had already vanished in the falling snow. Lifted in the air and lined with willow trees, the road ran dead straight as far as the eye could see, but not so far as it would have in clear weather, for the escorting willows soon became ghost-like in either direction until they dissolved in the surrounding pallor. A wooden-clogged bicyclist would materialize in a peaked cap with circular black ear pads against frostbite, and sometimes his cigar would leave a floating drift from Java or Sumatra on the air long after the smoker had evaporated. I was pleased by my equipment. The rucksack sat with an easy balance, and the upturned collar of my second-hand greatcoat, fastened with a semi-detachable flap which I had just discovered, formed a snug tunnel; and with my old cord breeches, their strapping soft after long use and the grey puttees and the heavy clouted boots, I was impenetrably greaved and jambed and shod; no chink was left for the blast. I was soon thatched with snow and my ears began to tingle, but I was determined never to stoop to those terrible earpads.

He continues into Germany, meeting, and sharing the surprisingly free hospitality of, many people of all ages and social classes along the way. Though he sees the signs of the growing grip of fascism--signs which were much more fateful by the time of writing, forty years later, than they were when the eighteen-year-old Fermor was travelling--the Germans are overall extremely friendly, giving few signs of the horror that was already taking hold in their midst.

But then Fermor gets to a real beer hall in Munich. A brownshirt is vomiting on the stairs, and a room of S.A. men chant and slam beer steins on the table. It is the civilians, however, that he finds most grotesque:
One must travel east for a hundred and eighty miles from the Upper Rhine and seventy north from the Alpine watershed to form an idea of the transformation that beer, in collusion with almost nonstop eating—meals within meals dovetailing so closely during the hours of waking that there is hardly an interprandial moment—can wreak on the human frame. Intestine strife and the truceless clash of intake and digestion wrecks many German tempers, twists brows into scowls and breaks out in harsh words and deeds.

The trunks of those feasting burghers were as wide as casks. The spread of their buttocks over the oak benches was not far short of a year. They branched at the loins into thighs as thick as the torsos of ten-year-olds and arms on the same scale strained like bolsters at the confining serge. Chin and chest formed a single column, and each close-packed nape was creased with its three deceptive smiles. . . . The youngest of this group, resembling a matinee idol under some cruel spell, was the bulkiest. Under tumbling blond curls his china blue eyes protruded from cheeks that might have been blown up with a bicycle pump, and cherry lips laid bare the sort of teeth that make children squeal. . . . Hands like bundles of sausages flew nimbly, packing in forkload on forkload of ham, salami, frankfurter, krenwurst and blutwurst and stone tankards were lifted for long swallows of liquid which sprang out again instantaneously on cheek and brow. . . . They were followed by colossal joints of meat—unclassifiable helpings which, when they were picked clean, shone on the scoured chargers like calves’ pelvises or the bones of elephants.

The book is full of such carefully wrought descriptions, whether Fermor is telling about the people he meets, the landscape, or the architecture. And despite the above grotesquerie, Fermor does like and get on well with nearly everyone he meets. As he explains, when telling of friends from his pre-travel days in London,
They were very nice to me, because I was the youngest and because genuine rashness, linked with a kind of clownish exhibitionism, whose secret I had learnt long ago and sedulously cultivated, always won a dubious popularity. I was even forgiven, after diving into a lake at a ball, for only remembering when climbing out covered in slime and duckweed that my tails were borrowed.

Within ten years of Fermor's trip, the Europe he wandered had been largely destroyed by war. But through his ability, all those years later, to remember and relate it so clearly, he not only preserved it, he brought it back to life in the way that only great writing can do.

Now it's on to the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water. As Anthony Lane points out in "An Englishman Abroad," we're still waiting for the ninety-one-year-old Fermor to publish the third volume. I know he made it to Constantinople, but I certainly want to know much, much more about how.


  1. Hi, I am wondering whether Leigh Fermor talks of Constantinople-Istanbul in this book... Does he? I am looking for literary descriptions of Constantinople. Silvia

  2. Silvia,
    In this book, he only makes the first part of the journey, so there's no Constantinople that I remember. A second volume takes him partway there, but he hasn't written the third volume (and as he's getting up there in years, he'd probably better do so if he's planning to!), so I don't know that he's got a description of Constantinople anywhere for you.

    I don't know that I have any good suggestions, though you might start by consulting John Julius Norwich's Byzantium; it's possible that he draws on (or includes in his bibliography) some literary works that describe the city. Good luck!