A great talent: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts

fermorI’m always eager for a good read and get ecstatic when I find one.  There are so many possibilities out there that I try to choose wisely, usually from several sources such as NPR, The Times Literary Supplement, and my favorite with its nearly 200 reprints of notable works, The New York Review of Books.

The latter is the source for my newest read, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s standout travel saga, A Time of Gifts (1977).  I’m embarrassed at missing out on Fermor these many years, liking travel narratives as I do, but then that’s why I keep the NYRB close-by.

Fermor was just an amazing guy in explorer Sir Richard Burton mold, fiercely independent, assertive and bold; linguistically gifted, courageous and cunning.  Joining the Irish Guards In World War II, he fought in Greece and served with a guerrilla unit on the isle of Crete, where he disguised himself as a shepherd for 18 months, living in mountain caves, while successfully master-minding the abduction of a German general.  He was knighted in 1994, for his service to literature and promotion of British-Greek relations.

In A Time of Gifts, Fermor begins his recall years later (age 62), of his three year walk across Europe to Constantinople as a 19-year with little more than a backpack in 1933. He actually only gets half-way by the close, and so there’s a sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, but even then, you don’t get to the Bosphorus.  It little matters, for what we have is splendid, as we follow this young man hobnobbing with rich and poor, gypsies and priests, occasionally sleeping in ancient monasteries.  His account of Germany in 1933, which saw Hitler becoming Chancellor, fascinates.  On one occasion, he strays into a beer hall filled with Nazis.

What attracted me to A Time of Gifts amid a plethora of can’t go wrong choices were multiple reviewer comments on Fermor’s stylistic talent, one reviewer likening him to Sir Thomas Browne as the best of the best prose masters across the several centuries. As a former teacher of English for some forty years, I’m an aficionado of style, or the mastery of the cadence of the English sentence.  Talented writers know the weave of sentences spun into art, exemplary in the literary world, especially in the 19th century in the likes of Newman, Ruskin, and Pater.

Of course, I’ve only begun A Time of Gifts, but his writing already excites me with its prowess, not only in its trenchant rhythms, but through its sensory capacity for total awareness.  To possess such talent for minutiae down to a grain of sand like this would make Flaubert (le mot juste) proud.  Let me try out a passage on you:

The gables of the Rhine-quays were gliding past and, as we gathered speed and sailed under one of these spans of the first bridge, the lamps of Cologne all went on simultaneously. In a flash the fading city soared out of the dark and expanded in a geometrical infinity of electric bulbs. Diminishing skeletons of yellow dots leaped into being along the banks and joined hands across the flood in a sequence of lamp-strung bridges. Cologne was sliding astern. The spires were the last of the city to survive  and as they too began to dwindle, a dark red sun dropped through bars of amber into a vague Abendland that rolled glimmering away towards the Ardennes.

Informed mastery like this, housed in rhythmic sentences acute with colorful detail, sets Fermor apart as one of our greatest travel writers since John Ruskin.

You can read more about him in Artemis Cooper’s magnificent biography (2012).  Having full access to his papers, she tells us that Fermor left behind a completed draft that gets him to Constantinople and that it will be published soon.

Despite losing some of his sight and hearing, he remained active almost up to the day of his death at age 96 in 2011.

In a book he had been reading, he wrote:  “Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you for a life of great happiness.”  Now that’s an epitaph we can only envy.


My passion for reading

I’m always on the look out for a good read, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s fact or fiction.  Biographies, memoirs, diaries, you name it.  But science fiction, romance, adventure, I like these, too.  And then there are the how-to books from zen to gardening, take your pick.

I probably read from 15 to 20 books yearly, not any record-setting pace, but I think a fair number.  I’ve many interests like gardening and studying Spanish, but I try never to crowd out a daily dose of a good book, investing at least an hour every day.

There are a lot of talented writers and engaging topics out there, so sometimes I find it hard to choose, since obviously you can’t read everything.  Book lists come in handy, but I tend to avoid the more popular ones like those in the New York Times or Amazon.  Sometimes I check-in with Publisher’s Weekly.  I’ll also look at the National Book Awards and Booker Prize listings online.  Occasionally, I’ll pick up a choice item on the recommendation of Fareed Zakaria, who always closes his GPS show with a super read.  And then there’s The New York Review of Books, which has never steered me wrong.

In a post I wrote just a few days ago, I mentioned I’d taken-up Mindfulness Meditation. As one of its weekly exercises, they ask you to break out of your habit modes by altering a specific routine; for example, change where you sit at the table at home.  The idea is to get you in-touch with your senses and stimulate awareness that can help you catch destructive thought patterns.  I’ve extended this habit-breaking strategy to my reading, exploring new vistas.  (By the way, novelty has a way of recharging brain cells, warding off dementia.)

It isn’t often I read a book originally written in a language other than English, the exceptions being classics such as The Divine ComedyLes Miserables, Anna Karenina and the like.  I know this is very parochial, since there are many exceptional reads not written by Anglos.  And so I opted for a different pathway a few days ago, downloading Natsume Sodeki’s The Gate (New York Review Books Classics).  Turns out, I made a wise choice.  I had never heard of Sodeki, nor ever read a Japanese novel.  Sodeki happens to be Japan’s most revered modern novelist, something I didn’t know, but now understand.  Discovering a game-changer, I want to read more works by Sodeki and others outside the groove.

I’m optimistic about the future of reading, despite the closing of many bookstores, the precarious profit margins for publishers, and the plethora of community budget woes putting the  squeeze on one of America’s unique treasures: the public library.  Last year more titles were published than ever, though not necessarily in traditional book format, since the times are a changing.  Like most everything else, books evolve with adaptation a corollary for survival.  Electronic books are here to stay and publishers who don’t render increased access to this new format are unlikely to survive.

A uniquely human endeavor, reading will endure.  A few years ago, it was widely forecast that the DVD would close movie theaters and end the big screen tradition.  Well, that hadn’t happened when last I looked and, similarly, TV never replaced the radio, witness the popularity of 24/7 radio talk shows or stations with dedicated music genres and their many listeners

But why this passion in me for reading? I read to be entertained, informed, inspired and, yes, sometimes to be chastised into seeing a new way of thinking.  But mostly, at least with regard to literary texts, I read to engage my feelings through their imaging in metaphor and articulation, often eloquently, into the truths of human experience.  It’s then I know I’m not alone, but linked with others in that existential quest for meaning and affirmation.  As such, reading grows my empathy and compels my compassion. What more could I ask?

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