EPS Review #180 - A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Penguin, 1977, 304pp.

We selected this walking-tour reminiscence for our book club, which meant I had a second attempt at getting through it, but again bogged down somewhere in Austria. The book is famous for its depiction of Germany in the year that Hitler came to power, and the author, despite having just been kicked out of school, is very erudite. If you enjoy rhapsodies about architectural details then this book is for you.

Fermor's trek fans my interest in Germany as a tourist destination. Too bad that there is no Google Earth path for his walk, as there is for Stevenson and Modestine. One pub that sounds like it is worth a visit is the Red Ox Inn. Less appealing is Fermor's description of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich:

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. Except when five o'clock veiled them with shadow, surfaces as polished as ostriches' eggs reflected the lamplight. 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.

Fermor drinks too much beer and is rolled out in a wheelbarrow, to be put up in a house by friendly German strangers. One thing I like about this tale is how hospitable most people are, and how learned. As often as not he is put up in some castle through the introduction of a friend of a friend. There the inhabitants surpass even Mr Fermor in knowledge of the arcana of European history and culture. Here is some good catfish info:

'The Danube has always been an invasion route,' he said. 'Even above Vienna, you get fish that never venture west of the Black Sea otherwise. At least, extremely seldom. True sturgeon stay in the Delta -- alas! -- but we get plenty of their relations up here.' One of them, the sterlet, was quite common in Vienna. It was delicious, he said. Sometimes they ventured as far upstream as Regensburg and Ulm. The biggest of them, another sturgeon-cousin called the Hausen, or Acipenser Huso, was a giant that sometimes attained the length of twenty-five feet, and, in very rare cases, thirty; and it could weigh as much as two thousand pounds. 'But it's a harmless creature,' he went on. 'It only eats small stuff. All the sturgeon family are short-sighted, like me. They just fumble their way along the bottom with their feelers, grazing on water plants.' He shut his eyes and then, with a comic expression of bewilderment, extended his fingers among the wine glasses with an exploratory flutter. 'It's true home is the Black Sea and the Caspian and the Sea of Azov. But the real terror of the Danube is the Wels!' Maria and the watermen nodded their heads in sad assent, as though a Kraken or the Grendel had been mentioned. The Silurus glanis or Giant Catfish! Though it was smaller than the Hausen, it was the largest purely European fish and it sometimes measured thirteen feet.

'People say they eat babies if they fall in the water,' Maria said, dropping a half-darned sock into her lap.

'Geese, too,' one of the watermen said.

'Ducks,' the other added.



'Dick had better look out!' Maria appended.

My polymath neighbour's reassuring pats on the shaggy scalp at his side were rewarded by a languorous gaze and a few tail-thumps, while his master told me that a swallowed poodle had been cut out of a catfish a year or two before. 'They are terrible creatures,' he said, 'terrible and extraordinary.'

The polymath also discusses in detail the history of the Marcomanni and the Quadi, and all the succeeding tribes and incidents. It is impressive. Classicists will also enjoy Fermor's wartime (Crete) anecdote about completing Horace's Ode Vides ut alta as recited by a captive German officer, to their mutual admiration.

So, why have I never finished the book, or read the sequel? Maybe, as Conrad opined, because there wasn't enough sex! Well, there were naked dances at one of Fermor's weirder boarding schools. And the one incident that I remember from my first read was his interlude with a couple of nice German girls who put him up and take him to parties while their parents are away. But the majority of the book, well-written though it is, is a little heavy-going.

Ed wrote: This is one of my all-time favourite books, although I haven't read it since about 15 years ago.

Interesting that you found it heavy going. I'm a little disappointed to find that, as the years pass, I find books which I raved about before, to be heavy going. Not sure whether it's the length of time since I was at "on form" at university (reading Hegel or Derrida or whatever heavy stuff), or some permanent hardening of the brain, or some general cultural devaluation and trashification, or whether in fact I am now simply correct in my evaluation...