OK, I don’t think you can truly appreciate this book unless you’re European. Or at least have a knowledge of European art and history, an overall aesthetic sensibility that I do not possess. I’m going to spend some time backing this theory up, but first let me tell you what A Time of Gifts is about.*
When the author was 18, which was 1933 or thereabouts, he was kicked out of school for stealing time with a woman, though really it was a culmination of havoc caused by his inveterate trouble-making that got him the boot. So he decided to walk across Europe, from London to Constantinople. This book — written in 1977 with Fermor’s remarkably acute memories plus a few diary excerpts from the walk itself — details just about half of that journey. I don’t plan to read the rest, so jolly, naive teen Fermor will be gallivanting across Europe forever as far as I’m concerned.
Post World War I, the Old World is supposed to be dead. But, at least in part to being a precocious and over-literate student, Fermor is greeted with non-stop hospitality. People he seems to know for a few minutes put him up in their flats (or estates or castles or couches) for the night. Then call all their friends and set up free stays for his foreseeable future. The world around him is snow capped villages, lumberjacks, barges, peasants. There’s a middle Europe village lifestyle awash with aromatic stews and freshly churned butter and cold ale and pipe-smoking lumberjacks that makes it jarring when modern tech like automobiles or telephones launch into focus and you remember it’s the 1930s, not the 1630s.
The descriptive prose is generally excellent. Even though I honestly didn’t like the book all that much, I kept reading because of how entrancing and memorable certain passages were. I could feel young Fermor crunching through the snow above the Danube, could just about see the magnificence of mountain peaks in the distance. His enthusiasm is often infectious and some of the people he befriends and describes, and the little narratives that surface — Fermor runs out of money and with the assistance of a Don Quixote-esque personage starts going door-to-door selling his portrait-sketching skills to the people of Vienna — are engaging.
So far so good, but here’s where this book, written in a dense style of English filled with many words I did not understand starts failing for me. Fermor, a certain kind of old-school English intellectual, thinks I can read Latin. And French. Or at least this is what I am to assume from all the untranslated Latin and French in the book. German is mercifully translated. He also assumes a knowledge of European art that I lack. Watch my eyes glaze over, sticky and dry, during the lengthy passages where he pontificates on old paintings he assumes the reader is familiar with and how they relate to his surroundings. Indeed, he has this whole notion that painting and travel are inextricably linked because you often see places in paintings before you visit them. This idea is so foreign and counter to my real life experiences (where I might replace ‘painting’ with ‘film’ or ‘tv’ or ‘literature’) that I cannot but guess this is intended for a different generation or culture than the one I presently belong to!
Historic assumptions are rife within this book too, though less bothersome. I don’t have Prague and Vienna built up with such mystique as young Patrick does, so his wonder does not quite resonate with me. The middle European empires I know only in murky, half-forgotten shades. Certainly nothing to match Fermor’s musing on the Hapsburgs. The thing that kills me are the times he engrosses me in some historic element and then completely abandons me out at sea. While stomping through Germany he meets all kinds of different politically minded people, plenty of which want to know why England doesn’t like the Nazis. Fermor responds that his people aren’t so keen on:
- Burning books.
- Concentration camps.
- Persecuting Jews.
Then, instead of telling us what the Germans’ responses were, he says:
Anyway, the reactions and arguments are too familiar for repetition.
Ahh! No they are not familiar to me, Patrick! I wanted to know what the average people of Germany had to say in response. This is the sort of half-brilliant, half-complete drudgery I found this book to be.
*Note all the glowing reviews on Goodreads, many written by Americans, show I’m more-or-less completely wrong about this. But whatever. I’m sticking to it.