Sunday, December 30, 2007

"A Time of Gifts"

A couple of years ago The Sharp Side ran an hilarious list of genuine winners of British literary awards. At the time I doubted the existence of such books as C.A. Trypanis' The Cocks of Hades, believing it to be Ellis' jest. In order to do that, I had to elide my knowledge of the name of the winner of the 1959 Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. Ellis put me right in another post which also gives staggering examples of eligible books that didn't receive the Duff Cooper.

I knew Patrick Leigh Fermor's name because, when I first started reading, his book Between the Woods and the Water had just been published to the delight of many reviewers. I remember being put off by the anachronistic cover. But the anachronism was appropriate as the book recalls a journey began in the final month of 1933. Over this Christmas I read A Time of Gifts, the first in the series following the 19-year-old author as he walked from the Hook of Holland to Hungary via Germany and Czechoslovakia. This is the kind of journey I would like to make. On arriving in Rotterdam at dawn, all the cafés are closed. But then:
A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten.
When he reveals his intended destination, the café owner produces two glasses and they drink a toast to the journey ahead. While this is moving in the context of the book, there is also a heavy shade of melancholy: the hopeful future is now the dead past. This everyday yet singular moment, once buried under the larger movements of history, is miraculously alive again. Rare moments like this redeem the book which otherwise, perhaps due to the circumstances of its composition, is too frequently padded with impressionistic digressions. For instance, in Prague he says:
Fear, piety, zeal, strife and pride, tempered in the end by the milder impulses of munificence and learning and doucear de vivre, had flung up an unusual array of grand and unenigmatic monuments.
Oh rocks, one wants to say, get back to the journey! Perhaps I want the impossible: to be on the woodland paths myself. There just isn't enough of it here.

By coincidence, the latest NYRB has a review by Colin Thubron of several of Leigh Fermor's books. In particular, the reissue of A Time to Keep Silence, a book that describes "several sojourns in some of Europe's oldest and most venerable monasteries". Silence has apparently drawn criticism for A Time of Gifts. There is "political innocence" as he travels through Germany, where Nazi fervour was taking hold. Though Thubron doesn't name names, this is from the Clive James school of judgmental criticism. Beckett was also perceived to be an innocent (or worse) for not focussing enough on the issue when he was there at the same time (James Knowlson proved it was otherwise of course). If anything, however, such openness enables the reader to experience time as it is experienced: not the determined movement discerned by 20/20 Jamesian hindsight but the incessant, uncertain silence of the everyday. "When no buildings were in sight," Leigh Fermor writes "I was back in the Dark Ages". It reminds me of what Cioran said about Beckett: "He is one of those beings who make you realize that history is a dimension man could have done without."

1 comment:

  1. It seems wrong in a lot of ways to criticize Fermor for not noting more clearly the coming catastrophe in A Time of Gifts.

    First, it's an account of his life at age 18. Should he have been more perceptive? Maybe. Would we all have been at 18? Who knows? And surely anyone who thinks it's valid to criticize him for that would have to agree that their criticisms lose force in light of the clear dedication and bravery Fermor displayed in his later war service?

    Second, he's writing forty years later. If the book had been published in the 1930s and a reader felt that it whitewashed the Nazi menace, that's one thing--then such a reader could reasonably tag him with blindly abetting fascism. But it wasn't: it's a remembered account of a youthful journey, and like you I appreciate Fermor's attempt to present the events as they happened to him, rather than with the aid of hindsight. He adds a patina of loss to his account, but not of better judgment or accumulated wisdom.

    Finally, after having said all that, I have to point out that there is nevertheless a sense of menace loose among the Germans in the book. There's a beer hall scene, with vomiting SA officers and grotesquely depicted civilian gluttony, that's creepy and troubling. He may not say straight out that the Nazis are coming, but the Germany he depicts in that scene does not appear healthy, much less idealized.



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