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A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
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I’ll have whatever this guy is having. Yeah, the one making the embarrassing noises and eating ambrosia without a care in the world. This ridiculous guy right here. Fermor is kind of my hero. He represents something I've always envied. You know those people who can make a thing, an occasion out of anything, out of doing errands if they must? It’s not just an Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (da da da dah dah da dah da!) thing, it’s a way of not letting a surface presentation of boring be the end of it. Their minds are always working, and can always find something to think about, even at the most mediocre of tourist traps, even at the most average performance of the thousandth rendition of Pachabel’s Canon they’ve been forced to listen to.

Fermor is one of these people. I mean, he tries his best to minimize the reality of it, but he walked across the north of Europe in the depression ridden 1930s in the depths of a horrible winter, where snow covered the otherwise picturesque scenery and where Hitler was in charge. He slept in barns covered in ice, had his belongings stolen, had to go door to door peddling his sketching hobby in order to feed himself, and again, need I say it, NAZIS. This trip could have been a nightmare, or he could have sketched it as one. Who would question that in a narrative written about Europe of 1933, with the clouds closing in? But instead of touting himself as a prophet or a self-important chronicler of the troubles of the interwar years, Fermor makes himself a magician. He is the Guide, the Gandalf, the ghosts of Christmas Past, the curator, the Brothers Grimm, the wise child who knows the way through the woods. There is darkness, but it is the kind of darkness that the story needs, a supportive depth that allows us to appreciate the worth of our Guide.

Fermor has two gifts that allow him to do this. One is a breathtaking capacity for rapture. I can think of no other word for it. He is able to section off a moment and a place and rope it away from the world and declare it Divine. Guy Gavriel Kay, the great Catholic authors and mystics down the centuries, Woolf in her own way, a few others- there are not so many who know this spell and understand the proper way to recite it. Even fewer of them do not require the assistance of a perfectly staged performance and a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain to achieve it. He’s one of them. What is more, he has so many different kinds of rapture- some that stand apart from the rest in isolated glory, some that last a few paragraphs of a pause, and some that are just phrases woven into a surprisingly colloquial and conversational surrounding tale. He allows his 18 year old self to be excited about some conjecture that perhaps doesn’t seem very important now, and lends his additional forty years of experience to help out.

His other great power is a wonderful capacity for digression, footnotes and sidenotes. He has the sort of curiousity that seems to always pay off- adding to his ability to make an occasion out of stopping for lunch. If the trees are boring, well, let’s talk about singing to ourselves in Latin and acting out Henry V on Dutch roads instead, if the German countryside’s rustic Medieval charm cannot be further elaborated upon, why don’t we talk about the Danubian school? First of all, I am jealous that he can do this. Second of all, it is always fascinating. He’s just never, ever at a loss. The depth of knowledge he has to draw on (which, the flattering comparisons to Byronesque behavior aside, prove that books were some of his best friends, no matter what other ones he may have acquired) is just astounding. He couldn’t create the atmosphere he does without formidable ingredients to draw on- luckily he works with only the best. Perhaps this is part of it too- he refuses to descend from the height on which he sits, or to consider a trip to the pub to nudge and wink more than the once or twice he is in the mood for that sort of thing. I got such a sense of Fermor from what he told me on the side, the way that he shaped this story. Which Fermor is of course the question. Sometimes it was old man Fermor shaping the bright young Fermor, at times it seemed like a remnant of the young Fermor broke through the careful old gentleman, whether he wanted him to or not- how artless was it? Was he consciously naïve? Was he overly careful? How much was a portrait of the artist as a young man, and how much was the young man in negatives himself? Of course near the end Fermor gives us a taste of the un-retouched voice of his 18 year old self and leaves us to judge. But perhaps that is merely selective, planted evidence as well. Whatever is the case, Fermor is one of the best artists of the Self that I’ve met, and certainly the one who seems to have worked on it the longest and the most thoroughly. We all of us have many selves on display, and without schizophrenia, it isn’t often that our selves get to talk to each other with an audience around.

He makes much of the memories that never were (the landmarks just a few miles out of his way he never knew about, the events he arrived just after or before, the art he did not properly appreciate), which for an narrative about 1930s Europe seems an appropriate topic. It’s almost as if he had such an obligation to make what memories he could burn brightly- because he had been to a nearly fallen Eden that no one could go again. If his constant allusions to fairy tales, the Middle Ages, ancient myth and artwork irritate you somewhat or seem problematically racist/essentialist I would just say that Europe was robbed of a lot of Stories that no one wanted in the 20th century in favor of an attempt to return to Before. In the absence of history, the brightly painted knights and the Vermeer serving girls were what was left that one could talk about in order to attempt to understand why. Imperfect memory robs you, voluntarily or involuntarily.:

“Apart from that glimpse of tramlines and slush, the mists of the Nibelungenlied might have risen from the Rhine bed and enveloped the town; and not only Mainz; the same vapours of oblivion have coiled upstream, enveloping Oppenheim, Worms and Mannheim on their way. I spent a night in each of them and only a few scattered fragments remain:… Lamplight shines through shields of crimson glass patterned with gold crescents and outlined in lead; but the arch that framed them is gone. And there are lost faces: a chimney sweep, a walrus moustache, a girl’s long fair hair under a tam o’shanter. It is like reconstructing a brontosaur from half an eye socket and a basket full of bones.”

I mean, this is a travel book. It is firmly and gorgeously grounded in a sense of place. It is, in the end, about walking across Europe and having wacky adventures and picturesque scenes. But it is also about experimenting with literary forms, with the past and with the Self. It is about engaging with a history that was not yet ready to be history, telling friends about wacky adventures, about the power of stories and it is about an 18 year old boy growing up. There’s a gleeful silliness that lurks under some of this, a deadly seriousness to other parts, a winking acknowledgement of melodrama, and a creation of it in successive paragraphs, without breaking a certain kind of consistency. It is a meditation on the role of the storyteller himself. How much of the storyteller is in the story, how much should be there? What would be there anyway, without him, and what needs him to make it real. Some storytellers outshine the story- Fermor is one of these. But I don’t resent him for it. There are a lot of good stories in this book, but in the end, he’s the best one.
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Reading Progress

June 11, 2011 – Shelved
June 11, 2011 – Shelved as: 20th-century-postwar-to-late
June 11, 2011 – Shelved as: cultural-meetings
June 11, 2011 – Shelved as: the-continent
July 30, 2011 – Shelved as: 20th-century-early-to-mid
July 30, 2011 – Shelved as: worlds-lost-dead-and-dying
August 7, 2011 –
page 37
11.53% "Imaginary interiors... No wonder they took shape in painting terms! Ever since Rotterdam a three-dimensional Holland had been springing up all around me... in conformity with another Holland which was already in existence... If there is a foreign landscape familiar to the English, it is this one, by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries have done their work"
August 8, 2011 –
page 88
27.41% "Song is universal in Germany, it causes no dismay... But verse was different. Murmuring on the highway caused raised brows and a look of anxious pity...(some passages) called for a fairly mild flourish; but urging the assault-party at Harfleur to close the wall up with English dead would automatically bring a heightened pitch of voice and double one's embarrassment if caught."
August 11, 2011 –
page 130
40.5% "I've made it to Salzburg! Finally! Germany was starting to feel a little selfish for hogging so many pages."
August 12, 2011 –
page 154
47.98% ""The scenes they present have enormous charm. They are not naive pictures, very far from it, but the balance between rusticity and sophistication is such that to contemplate one of them is to sit on a log under a northern welkin while incidents of scripture are wonderingly and urgently whispered in one's ear." -The Danube: Seasons and Castles"
August 12, 2011 – Shelved as: beyond-the-horizon
Started Reading
August 13, 2011 –
page 180
56.07% ""Music might have just fallen silent; unless it were about to begin. In the imagination, instruments assembled- unseen cymbals just ajar; drums an inch below their padded sticks with palms ready.. oboes slanting, their reeds mute for a moment more, brass and woodwinds waiting, fingers stretched motionless across the wires of a harp and fifty invisible bows poised in the air above fifty invisible sets of strings.""
August 13, 2011 –
page 199
61.99% "Vienna, at last!"
August 13, 2011 – Finished Reading
August 14, 2011 –
page 245
76.32% "I had visions of them, candle-lit behind sealed and cobwebbed windows, with think lenses of their spectacles gleaming close to the page as they reunravelled Holy Writ: texts that had been commented on, annotated and bickered over in Babylon, Cordova, Kairouan, Vilna, Troyes, Mainz and Narbonne by fourteen centuries of scholaists. -on Jewish students in Bratslava, "The Edge of the Slav World""
August 14, 2011 –
page 272
84.74% "We have, finally, discovered a Coast of Bohemia. A fake one, which disappeared, but still! We can all relax now."

Comments Showing 1-50 of 56 (56 new)


message 1: by Bram (last edited Jun 13, 2011 06:58AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram I love this book! I think you guys would also really enjoy it. Among all the articles I've been wading through in the wake up Fermor's death, here's a particularly good write-up of his life and work that's actually from a couple years back: http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2006...

Fingers crossed that the third volume was close enough to finished for eventual publication.


message 2: by Bram (last edited Jun 13, 2011 07:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram From the linked article above--Elizabeth, I think this might endear him to you just a bit :)

"I offered at least to book [Fermor] a cabin, since the night could be cold. (This to a man who knows as much as anyone alive about sleeping under the stars.) He smiled and replied that he would prefer a chair on deck, adding, “My dear boy, I have a bottle of red wine and a copy of Persuasion. What more could I possibly need?” Within that question lay the two competing virtues that have fed his prose and fuelled his inimitable life: a settled wisdom, plus the itch to be elsewhere. Here he was, at eighty-three, taking ship in the company of Jane Austen, one of his few peers in the art of the imperturbable. I could well imagine the pair of them at close of day: side by side, exchanging compliments, taking a little wine, and watching the old world slip away."


Kelly That's lovely! Fermor sounds like such a charming and interesting person! Id've liked to be at a dinner party with him. :)

I do hope for that third volume to work out!


Kelly I think we should start a poll in the group for our August book soon, and this should definitely be on it!


Carl It seems like such an odd conclusion (given the genre, maybe? Or its unabashed nostalgia?), but I keep coming back to the idea that this book, together with it's sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, might just be the best English language book(s) of the 20th century. You're definitely in for a treat.


Kelly That's what I keep hearing! I'm only a few pages in so far, so I will reserve judgment. At least until page 11 or so. :)


message 7: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell I totally need to get this, too. It sounds wonderful.


Kelly It is! I'm so shocked I had never heard of it before goodreads. It's wonderful.


DoctorM Kelly--- I'm glad you liked this. Fermor is wonderful.


message 10: by Eric (last edited Aug 24, 2011 09:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Fermor has two gifts that allow him to do this. One is a breathtaking capacity for rapture. I can think of no other word for it...His other great power is a wonderful capacity for digression, footnotes and sidenotes. He has the sort of curiousity that seems to always pay off- adding to his ability to make an occasion out of stopping for lunch. If the trees are boring, well, let’s talk about singing to ourselves in Latin and acting out Henry V on Dutch roads instead, if the German countryside’s rustic Medieval charm cannot be further elaborated upon, why don’t we talk about the Danubian school? First of all, I am jealous that he can do this. Second of all, it is always fascinating. He’s just never, ever at a loss.

You get straight to the heart of the matter, Kelly, as always! Awesome review.


message 11: by Mir (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mir I wonder if the beginning note, that short bit about being a foster child who ran wild and solitary, is they key to this. Because I feel like I and many other children had this capacity for rapture and appreciation of experience, but it is crushed early in our development by voices of criticism, pragmatism, and mockery.


message 12: by Allie (new)

Allie I'd never even heard of this book before, and probably wouldn't have considered it if I hadn't read this review. I can't remember which of your reviews I first saw, but man, they rival the books you rave about. They're little masterpieces!


message 13: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Allie wrote: "I'd never even heard of this book before, and probably wouldn't have considered it if I hadn't read this review. I can't remember which of your reviews I first saw, but man, they rival the books yo..." What Allie said, a masterful review. I think the first review of yours I have read but not the last.


Kelly Thanks so much everyone! So sad I missed all these comments last night when I went to bed.

I wonder if the beginning note, that short bit about being a foster child who ran wild and solitary, is they key to this. Because I feel like I and many other children had this capacity for rapture and appreciation of experience, but it is crushed early in our development by voices of criticism, pragmatism, and mockery.

That seems plausible, definitely. I agree at least that him being left to his own devices to figure things out probably helped to give him that ability to weave a story. He definitely stayed a Lost Boy long past when most usually do. Though I'm not sure that I would idealize his childhood too much. Fermor is very good at covering up a lot of bad things or casting them in a better light, but it seems like his childhood was definitely filled with a lot of things that would have disappointed him, and people who mocked him. He definitely had a hard time with those schools he was in. Wasn't there a part about him having a somewhat difficult relationship with his father? It almost seems like he could have developed this ability in spite of what happened to him. Of course this is all just speculation, but I do think this line of thinking is useful to think about. Perhaps this also illuminates a little bit about why the fairy tales hang about his writing so much as well.

I like that you compared him to Kay. :-)

My frame of reference is slightly less... lofty than Fermor's, but I use what comes to hand. :)


message 15: by Mir (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mir I'm not sure that I would idealize his childhood too much. Fermor is very good at covering up a lot of bad things or casting them in a better light

No, I certainly wouldn't imply that his childhood was ideal by any stretch -- abandoned for the formative early years with indifferent strangers? But it seems to have allowed hm to keep a more flexible mind. And for sure you are right about him seeming to have a gift for making the best of things.


Kelly Yeah, I think we're on the same page. I think you're right about him keeping a flexible mind. Fermor even makes it seem like that was why he rebelled. Wasn't there a special school he went to for 'troubled kids' that he liked because everyone seemed to think more "weirdly" (awesomely, fascinatingly) than him? That seems to have made a strong impression.


Kelly PS- I went to get Between Woods and Water from my library, and it had the most awful, inappropriate cover that I couldn't bring myself to check it out. Here it is: (http://www.amazon.com/Between-Woods-W... )

WTF? Is his book suddenly a Western? Is our young boy hero learning Lessons at school while investigating the Case of the Missing Eraser? The poor book, being hidden inside such a thing.


message 18: by Carl (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carl The cover is not that attractive, but it does capture the peak moment of magic in the whole book - one of the most transcendent moments in both books, in fact. You'll see (hint: it involves a glass of milk).


Kelly Yes, but someone looking at that book from the outside will not know that. I'm just trying to find where the other cowboys and Indians are hiding. What is inside is more than worth the cover, I'm just saying that Fermor deserves better advertising than that!


message 20: by Mir (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mir That actually matches the cover of my version, although mine doesn't have a horse.




Kelly Ugh! The pastels! The font! Thank the gods for the NYRB.


message 22: by Mir (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mir My particular copy is much more lavander than this image.


message 23: by Jude (new)

Jude kelly- another amazing review-your own capacity for joyful comprehension and evocative language are such gifts.


Kelly Thank you, Jude! If you like this sort of thing I really do recommend Fermor! The depths he has to draw on for language and understanding are wonderful.


message 25: by Jude (last edited Aug 26, 2011 09:30AM) (new)

Jude oh-forgot a bit of pedantry I am compelled to insert.

A 'font' is an alphabet that has been designed for reproduction. In the past the letters were cut from wood or metal or cast in metal, so that text could be' set in type' rather than hand copied. Fonts are styles of type- we now use a keyboard, and each 'a' looks like all the other ones.

So when you see lettering like that on this book jacket, you are looking at letters drawn by hand in a particular style: the 2 F's, the 2 I's, the 2moro T's-each are different from each other.

I know ' lettering' or 'lettering style' are a mouthful, but 'font' is a precise term that is frequently misused & I don't want it creeping into acceptable parlance ;-)


Kelly Duly noted.


message 27: by Jude (new)

Jude now now- there's some weird russian folk art feel...


message 28: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Beautiful review, Kelly.

I love the idea of a long walk with footnotes (not to mention sidenotes and digressions).

Apparently, in the 1840's when the term "footnote" was first used, there was a battle as to whether they should be called "bottom notes".


message 29: by Kelly (last edited Aug 28, 2011 01:50PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I read a whole article about the history of the footnote once- it has a surprisingly contentious history. Though I guess it isn't that surprising in the end, now that I think about it. :)

But anyway, thanks and you should give this a try!


message 30: by Mir (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mir Was it Tony Grafton, Kelly?


Kelly That's right!


message 32: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Kelly wrote: "I read a whole article about the history of the footnote once- it has a surprisingly contentious history. Though I guess it isn't that surprising in the end. :)"

Speaking of "bottom notes" reminds me of "bum notes" or "wrong notes".

Again, there seems to be some conflict as to who said what: Art Tatum or Thelonious Monk.

However, they were always being accused of hitting bum notes.

Art Tatum is supposed to have said, "There is no such thing as a bum [wrong] note, it all depends on how you resolve them."

Monk apparently said, “Tell the guy on the air, the piano ain’t got no wrong notes."


Kelly I think that Fermor might have agreed with the quote about it all depending on how you resolve them. He had some bad breaks on his trip, but always made them come out somehow.


message 34: by Bram (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram The third volume to be published! http://patrickleighfermor.wordpress.c...


Kelly HOORAY! That is excellent news! I'm a little concerned about the fact that they're saying its going to be based on a "draft of the book from the 1960s"- it makes me wonder how far the manuscript he was working on had advanced and how much of it is going to be completed by the person editing it. Perhaps they'll just give us his diaries verbatim at whatever point the manuscript stops? Argh, I am sure I'm needlessly worrying. It seems like they are going to be taking their time to make sure they get it right. So that is good!

PS- I love that you follow a PLF blog. :)


message 36: by Grace Tjan (last edited Dec 18, 2011 06:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Grace Tjan Kelly wrote: "HOORAY! That is excellent news! I'm a little concerned about the fact that they're saying its going to be based on a "draft of the book from the 1960s"- it makes me wonder how far the manuscript he..."

If the manuscript that he has been working on for (presumably) the last 20 years is in an advanced state, I doubt it that they would need to resort to a 1960's draft. Hopefully, it will do justice to the series --- I'm looking forward to his impressions of Constantinople. Surely, with all those ancient architecture and history, they must have been even more stupendous than the abbey of Melk's.


message 37: by Kelly (last edited Dec 18, 2011 06:28AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Surely, with all those ancient architecture and history, they must have been even more stupendous than the abbey of Melk's.

I know, right? I am expecting him to be in some sort of obscene public ecstasy by the end of this. How is he going to react to the Hagia Sophia after his raptures at broken down abbeys? That or speaking in tongues. Which, knowing Fermor, would include Ancient Greek, obscure medieval Romanian dialects and dirty limerick Gaelic. :)

I'm hoping you're right about the draft- I thought that was a weird line too after it said he'd been working on the draft for twenty years. Maybe they just mean that that's a source that they're using in addition to the more modern manuscript?

E- we should add the second volume to the next group read poll!


Grace Tjan Kelly wrote: "Surely, with all those ancient architecture and history, they must have been even more stupendous than the abbey of Melk's.

I know, right? I am expecting him to be in some sort of obscene public ..."


The Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi, the Bosphorus yalis; all of those Byzantine/Crusader/ Ottoman history --- he must have been in seventh heaven.

If you guys are going to read the second book together, I'd love to join in.


Kelly Great! If we do that we will definitely let you know if we do that. Fermor is fun as a group read.


message 40: by Bram (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram Kelly wrote: "PS- I love that you follow a PLF blog. :) "

Haha, the email updates I get from there are not usually so exciting.


Kelly I'd imagine that's the case, but I hope you keep following so we'll be the first ones to know when the book actually comes out in 2013! :)


message 42: by J.C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

J.C. I love your review, Kelly - I really struggled with my (inferior) review and was glad I hadn't read yours first or I wouldn't have done it at all! Have you followed in PLF's footsteps yet?


Kelly I wish! One day that would be amazing. And thanks for your compliments, your review is great too!


message 44: by Mir (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mir It sounds awesome, but I suspect I'd regret it after a few days of walking! It would probably take me twice as long as it took him, especially if I had to be true to his plan of charming strangers into accommodating me!


message 45: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Ansbacher What a wonderful and enthusiastic review!


Kelly Thanks!


message 47: by Yvonne (new) - added it

Yvonne Warren Fabulous review. This book is now on my list.


Kelly Thanks hope you love it!


message 49: by Richard (new)

Richard Hannay Such a beautiful review Kelly. Thanks


Kelly Thanks! Fermor is wonderful.


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