Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Time of Gifts

It was the dream of every American of my generation -- to be a vagabond in Europe. Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople -- in 1933! His two-part memoir of that trip has been recently reissued with an introduction by Jan Morris, and it is an enchanting account of the Old World between the wars.

Leigh Fermor, of course, went on to become one of the great travel writers, and this memoir, written more than four decades after the trip based on the diaries he kept, is beautifully written. I'm reading the book as my "installment" reading (pun intended), so I've only begun it. I decided there's no rule I have to finish a book before I blog on it, and there's a couple of things I want to say already.

The trip, coming soon enough after the Great War that feelings were still pretty raw, in the very year Hitler came to power in Germany, and then written well after the horrors of World War II, offers a poignant picture of Europe. Arriving at the Hook of Holland to start his trip, Leigh Fermor spends a night in Rotterdam, evidently a picturesque city before it was destroyed in WWII. Leigh Fermor, writing in the mid-1970s, refers to this later destruction. "I would have lingered, had I known," he said.

Seven words that speak volumes. I would have lingered, had I known. How poignant, regretful. To me, it is something any of us might say about any happy, beautiful moment in our lives, moments we take for granted and then are surprised when they are gone. Moments about which we might also say with the distance of time, I would have lingered, had I known.

Leigh Fermor walks across Germany, where he encounters some animosity from the war and the current political situation, but his overwhelming impression is of the warmth and hospitality of a country he feels ambivalent about. He describes walking into a local inn in Heidelberg on Dec. 30 and having the proprietors insist that he stay with them rather than be wandering about on New Year's Eve. He is taken into the family for Silvester. He is given a room, the maid takes his laundry and he wonders, as he accepts this generous hospitality, "how a German would get on in Oxford if he turned up at The Mitre on a snowy December night."

There are so many glowing passages, as Leigh Fermor writes with such a flourish and such a command of vocabulary that you think perhaps it is all right to use adjectives after all. Through friends in England, he is able to stay with the mayor of Bruchsal, who lives in a baroque palace built in the 18th century for the prince-bishop of Spires.

"It was the first time I had seen such architecture," he writes. "The whole of next day I loitered about the building: hesitating halfway up shallow staircases balustraded by magnificent branching designs of wrought metal; wandering through double doors that led from state room to state room; and gazing with untutored and marvelling eyes down perspectives crossed by the diminishing slants of winter sunbeams. Pastoral scenes unfolded in light-hearted colours across ceilings that were enclosed in a studiously assymetrical icing of scrolls and sheaves; shells and garlands and foliage and ribands depicted myths extravagant enough to stop an unprepared observer in his tracks. The sensation of wintry but glowing interior space, the airiness of the snowy convolutions, the twirl of the metal foliage and the gilt of the arabesques were all made more buoyant still by reflections from the real snow that lay untrodden outside; it came glancing up through the panes, diffusing a still and muted luminosity: a northern variant (I thought years later) of the reflected flicker that canals, during Venetian siestas, send up across the cloud-born apotheoses and rapes that cover the ceilings. Only statues and skeleton trees broke the outdoor whiteness, and a colony of rooks."

Wow! Not every page is this beautiful, but many. A true delight to read.

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