Books By Memory: ‘A Time of Gifts’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The way books work in memory can be unexpected. I could make some overblow link to Proust’s madeleines, but that would be rather reductive, as books do not simply work by linking into just one memory. Books, when viewed in retrospect, are more like spiders in that they spin a web linking multiple facets of memory into one continuous understanding.

In trying to peel these facets of understanding back and get a glimpse of the book’s direct effect, I have found that a series of interconnected memories is more useful than something that is focused only on the positive. So here is a rather different form of review which is broadly narrative and focuses on memory, but does not try to flatten the multivalence of reality.

I’d always been aware of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel writing, and had seen his books on a shelf as I dug for some other pertinent volume. I also had vague memories of a copy of A Time of Gifts being given to my brother, some years ago, before he went off on holiday to Central Europe. Yet for all that awareness, I’d never actually read any of his work, even when I saw it referenced in other works that I did read.

In many ways, it was only by chance that I finally had the impulse to pick up a copy of the book.

I was in the British Museum and as I was leaving, I happened to see a small temporary exhibition just to the side of the main exit. That exhibition was called Charmed Lives in Greece and linked a few artists and Patrick Leigh Fermor. I was drawn in by the art, but my lingering memories as I endured the Tube home, were of Patrick Leigh Fermor and the snippets of his books that the exhibition used.

Perhaps those lingering memories alone would have faded, yet by chance I was given an extra push by fate, for when I went to find a copy of a book which I needed for that essay on Etruscan pots, I was distracted by a rather elegantly spined biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and from there cast my eye sideways to see a copy of A Time of Gifts.

As is my habit, I always end up reading far more when I have a deadline, so decided that the sensible thing to do was to pick up the book. Of course, at the time I was just thinking I’d read a few pages to see if it was any good, and then put it down for later, after my work was done. But me being me, I devised some sort of procrastinator’s excuse and started reading it in its entirety.

Although I started reading the book casually, stood next to the bookcase that I had just been perusing with purpose, I ended up giving up all pretence and soon was sitting at my table before dinner with a glass of wine in one hand and the book in the other, alone and free of any academic pretensions.

So, there I was, sat in a slightly dull basement kitchen, with an over thumbed copy of A Time of Gifts. Yet there was a certain synchronicity in reading it with a glass of crisp Riesling as the rain echoed down the lightwell.

I was only drinking my wine from a dull, rather water-stained glass (London water is basically just fluid limescale). But I felt, for a moment, as if I were enjoying the same combination of fruit, minerality and sweetness, as Leigh Fermor did as he sipped Riesling from coloured roemer glasses (a specific type of German wine glass, with a thick green stem), perhaps by the river in student-flocked Heidelberg under the knowing view of the castle.

In many ways the wine I was drinking does not matter, and frankly (pardon the pun) it might as well have been my association of fine wine from Mitteleuropa that linked that memory rather than any specific glass of wine. It is more that each time I drink a flavoursome German wine, be it a Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Weissburgunder, I link it to A Time of Gifts. That is not because of any fluid description of those wines, but the clear enjoyment Leigh Fermor links to them.

I am now just as familiar with those wines as Leigh Fermor must have become, but I also remember the first time I drank them, and as I drank those at a similar time to Leigh Fermor, I can link my memories to his. It does not matter that Leigh Fermor was a master at twisting reality to suit literary needs, and wrote his best works in retrospect.

That is the genius of A Time of Gifts, for it makes memories as real as the present moment, and uses the fluidity of memory to create a fluid story so that the high points of his journey are perfectly situated in the narrative. Perhaps this is another sign of Leigh Fermor’s luck, after all he was hosted by a litany of German nobles. Or maybe it is a sign of his literary skill to tweak memories to fit the desired narrative structure without breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Of course, I do not know enough Grafen or Gräfin (the German equivalent of Count and Countess, and so a generic term that covers most of the nobility Leigh Fermor stayed with) to be entertained throughout Germany, so I cannot bend the reality of such a travel. Instead, I can merely tweak details of my memory as I sat and watched the rain all night, and couldn’t sleep as all the drops fell, so instead read on, imagining my glass of trocken (A German term for Dry used to describe German wine) Riesling to be suddenly exotic and transformative.  

Yet as those drops fell, and as Leigh Fermor told me of the beauty, I could not but think of the ugliness of reality that he elided. As for all its beauty, both described and inherent to its prose, it avoids so much of the political reality. This is easily enough ignored as you read it, taken up in that narrative fuelled by fragrant wine. But in the aftermath, you cannot avoid the understanding of Leigh Fermor’s privilege and so his ability to skirt over the worsening political situation.

I suppose that is what makes people return to such writing. It is easy to imagine A Time of Gifts just through selected memories of happiness, which neatly correspond to Leigh Fermor’s easy assimilation to a life of luxury, in which wine is always good, and sleeping rough can be an adventure, rather than a necessity.

That is really Leigh Fermor’s skill, for even now it is all too easy to dream of such adventure. I know that it would just result in disappointment and spending far too much money getting home once I have given up, yet for the time I was reading I could imagine it to be a possibility, and even now with even more knowledge of hindsight I still dream of that impossibility.

Good travel writing is like that. It captures the essence of what could be, and convinces you that you could also enjoy it. You may not have letters of introduction to half of Europe’s nobility, yet you still can dream of walking out confident only in yourself and the possibility of what is to come.

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