I’m not a big reader of travelogues and in the middle of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s description of the Riders’ Staircase in Prague’s Old Royal Palace, I put my finger on the usual reason for this. Or rather Leigh Fermor did, because it’s precisely that — too much description. On the other hand, what’s the point of reading somebody else’s account of their travels if the writer isn’t actually describing stuff? And who am I to be cranky about a page of words on the dizzying vaulting of the Riders’ Staircase, when a few dozen pages later Leigh Fermor describes spring twilight on the bank of the Danube:
Frog-time had come. Each pace, once more, unloosed a score of ragged parabolas and splashes. Flights of waterfowl detonated like spring-guns loosing off a whirr of missiles across the water. It was a world of scales and webbed feet and feathers and wet whiskers.
He had me at “wet whiskers.” So, yes. Some of A Time of Gifts does go on a bit. But here’s the other thing about travel writing: it’s not just what the author saw that we want to read about. It’s also what he did, whom he met, who he is. And the late Patrick Leigh Fermor was a very winning guy.
Here’s the premise. After a very spotty education (sounds like textbook ADHD to this 21st century mother), Leigh Fermor decided to bail out on a projected Army career and instead to launch himself onto a walking tour across Europe, with a vague notion of eventually writing about it. He was eighteen at the time, and the year was 1933. Eventually he did manage to walk from Holland to Constantinople, but A Time of Gifts takes him only into Esztergöm, Hungary, on Easter Eve in 1934. The book was written mostly in 1977, as recollection. Near the end of the book Leigh Fermor turns to a recovered diary and when he quotes from himself-aged-19 there’s a substantive difference in the prose: less arty, more naive.
But Leigh Fermor at any age is the perfect guide because he’s endlessly curious, observant, and eager to be pleased. The Europe he was traversing dropped him, in many places, back several hundred years. Peasants swathed in sheepskin alternate with sophisticated aristocrats and Leigh Fermor enjoys them both. (His stay with Baron Philipp Schey von Koromla reminded me intensely of Sándor Márai’s Embers, for instance, though lacking the neurotic plot-line.) Paddy, as he was known to his legions of friends, enjoys almost everything.
An emblematie episode is the time in Vienna when he ran out of money. Prompted by a brand-new comrade from a Salvation Army shelter, he knocks on doors, offering to sketch portraits for 2 schillings each. His first would-be clients turn out to be a circus family who listen to his proposal: “athletic, smiling, handsome, slightly stunned-looking and nearly identical figures who continued flexing their knees and feeling their biceps as they spoke, or slowly rotating alternate shoulder blades.” Instead of paying him for portraits, they sent him away with a signed photograph of themselves: “Iss a present! For de Picture, ve take not vun groschen! Not vun! Iss free!”
Oh, and the German word for hangover is Katzenjammer.