Sunday, July 15, 2012

Allowing the reader the unfamiliar feeling of having time (Books - A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor)

One of the early chapters of this book touches at some retrospective length on the way things began to change; how I moved from the fairly predictable company of fellow army-candidates into older circles which were simultaneously more worldly, more bohemian and more raffish: the remainder, more or less, of the Bright Young People, but ten years and twenty thousand double whiskies after their heyday, and looking extremely well on the regime. This new and captivating world seemed brilliant and rather wicked; I enjoyed being the youngest present, especially during the dissipated nocturnal ramblings in which every evening finished: ("Where's that rather noisy boy got to?  We may as well take him too").  I had reached a stage when one changes very fast: a single year contains a hundred avatars; and while these were flashing kaleidoscopically by, the idea of my unsuitability for peacetime soldiering had began to impinge.  More serious still, the acceptance of two poems and the publication of one of them - admittedly, only on foxhunting - had fired me with the idea of authorship.
But Patrick Leigh Fermor's self-study period as a writer fails to solidify as he had hoped. looked as though opulence from writing might be delayed for a time.  I managed somehow, but gloom and perplexity descended with the start of winter.  Fitful streaks of promise and scrapes and upheavals had marked my progress so far; they still continued; but now I seemed to be floating towards disintegration in a tangle of submerged and ill-marked reefs.  The outlook grew steadily darker and more overcast.  About lamplighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table and then through the panes at the streaming reflections of Shepherd Market, thinking, as Night and Day succeeded Stormy Weather on the gramophone in the room below, that Lazybones couldn't be far behind; when, almost with the abruptness of Herbert's lines at the beginning of these pages, inspiration came.  A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness of a Japanese paper flower.... 
His plan? to walk, or in his words, to tramp across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Unaccompanied. How do the ramblings of a flighty youth struggling to find his next avatar in the hay ricks of Holland and the castles of Austria possibly make for interesting reading, you ask?  The answer is one part happenstance one part technique.  Fermor had the good, bad, or some kind of fortune to begin his tramping through Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakiain in December 1933.  So the boiling stew into which he cluelessly wanders provides a built-in drama of its own. What turned this concoction from naive ramblings into something worth spending valuable reading time on is well summed up in travel writer Jan Morris's introduction to the New York Review Books 2005 reissue of A Time of Gifts.
As Leigh Fermor says himself, at the time he didn't give a damn.  It is one of the fascinations of A Time of Gifts that its journey is in effect evoked for us by two people: the carefree young dropout who experienced it, and stored it up in memory and in diary, and the immensely experienced author who, knowing more about history forty years later, turned it into art.
It is unlike the kind of book I expect from own time, I thought, as I read A Time of Gifts - a work which although based on "real life" and categorized as non-fiction (living somewhere between memoir and travel writing), that the ultimate attention of the writer was put was to creating a work of art.  That is, a product created for the purpose of contemplating it - its utility or uselessness, its intricacy or simplicity.  A product applying its qualities with integrity derived from the consistent application of its own rules (or the very conscious breaking of them) adhering to a form - traditional or new - which meaningfully contains the gesture or meaning therein.  I was conscious as I read this book, of the feeling of a certain sort of idleness that I associate with Edwardian sitting rooms or long summer days and comfortable chairs beneath trees - an unfamiliar feeling of having time.   

This feeling partly came from a sense of the protagonist's own indolence - the boy had nothing to do but to walk, observe, write, and then to eat and bathe whenever he could at the expense of others.  And it came to from his frightful ignorance of the political context he trod through.  An ignorance that began to get infuriating after 100 pages and might have made me abandon the book were it not for his older narrator's awareness
This is a long rigmarole, but it does show how ill-prepared I was for any form of political argument.  In this respect, I might have been sleep walking.  
This saves the book from being merely a curio, a pretty bagatelle.  In fact, Fermor the elder writer either belies this naivete or realizes its consequences for his reader, because not a page later his youthful traveler has a beer-fueled discussion in a Bavarian inn on the difference for English and German young people in considering the phrase "for King and Country."  While Fermor defines it for his German listeners as "an obsolete phrase from an old recruiting poster," one which engenders defiance against an older generation in his contemporaries, his German counterparts hear it as a call-to-arms filling them with sentimental zeal.

The feeling of a generous time horizon is also encouraged by Fermor's powers of observation.  He does more than describe, he marinates the reader in sense of place with the specific diction I rarely read in a contemporary book for a non-specialist.  Knowledge of the exact vocabulary of, for example, elements of decorative architecture or army uniforms requires study.  Thus reader has an area of kindred curiosity, as Fermor would call it with the writer, and reading becomes luxuriating in their complicity.
Lancers' torsoes taper into their sashes like bobbins.  Red and white ribbons cross their breasts and sometimes the Golden Fleece sprouts from those high star-crusted collars.  Hands rest on the hilt of a sabre looped with a double-headed-eage sabretache.  Others nurse a plumed shako, a dragoon's helmet or an uhlan's czapka with a square top like a mortar-board and tuted with a tall aigrette...There are elks' horns from the frontiers of Poland and Lithuania, bears from the Carpathians, the tushes of wild boars twisting up like moustaches, chamois from the Tyrol and bustards, capercaillies and blackcock; along every available inch of the passages...

Pontius Pilate - velvet-clad, mantled in dark sapphire, tasselled and collared like an Elector and turbanned like a Caliph - twists his sprinkled hands between ewer and salver under a magnificent baldaquin of scumbled gold.  Through the lancets and the cinquefoils and beyond the diamond panes, the fluted rocks ascend and the woods and cliffs and cloud-banks of Gethsemance frame a luminous and incandescent sunset that presages Patinir.

Fermor's writing can be hilarious to the point of being mean, but he was barely out of his adolescence.  Take this passage about the diners in a restaurant in a small town on the Rhine:
The trunks of these feasting burghers were as wide as casks.  The spread of their buttocks over the oak benches was not far short of a yard.  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.  Every bristle had been cropped and shaven from their knobbly scalps...The frizzy hair of their wives was wrenched up from scarlet necks and pinned under slides and then hatted with green Bavarian trilbys and round one pair of elephantine shoulders a little fox stole was clasped.  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... There was nothing bleary or stunned about their eyes.  The setting may have reduced their size, but it keyed their glances to a sharper focus.  Hands like bundles of sausages flew nimbly, packing in forkload on forkload of ham, salami, frankfurter, krenworst and blutworst and stone tankards were lifted for long swallows of liquid which sprang out again instantaneously on cheek and brow.  They might have been competing with stop-watches, and their voices, only partly gagged by the cheekfuls of good things they were grinding down, grew louder while their unmodulated laughter jarred the air in frequent claps...

The book is also packed with the mishaps all young travelers enjoy relating after they have survived them.  I was reminded of my own arrival in Hamburg from Denmark on a train one Sunday in 1984 unable to change travellers checks into Deutsche marks.  This was before ATMs and kids barely out of their teens carrying credit cards.  I did mime in the botanical gardens for hours.  I am a very bad mime, but the pity of my audiences earned me enough for a bed in the hostel, dinner in a pizzeria, and a ticket to Ariadne auf Naxos at the Hamburg Staatsoper.

One of the delights for me as a reader interested in the craft of writing came from Fermor's interspersing passages directly from his original diary into the book of an experienced writer and retired army officer.  I enjoyed gaining insight into how his naive writings were fashioned into a narrative informed by broader experience of life.  These asked of his reader more reflection and some delayed gratification in the vicarious enjoyment of his adventures.  In fact, I am now forced to significantly delay my pleasure, as volume one of his wanderings dumps his reader unceremoniously in Hungary with the road sign: TO BE CONTINUED.   Volume II - Between the Woods and the Water is on its way.

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