People tend to expect me to have read everything, so it always comes as something of an embarrassment when I have to admit to a glaring gap in my literary landscape, to not having read Middlesex, The Corrections or Proust, for instance. I can see their faces fall and a gleam of suspicion enter their eyes as they wonder if I’m no more than a fraud, someone posturing as an avid reader, for really, how can I pretend to talk about books when I’ve not even read any Faulkner.
In such an instance there is always a shameful impulse to lie. Or, as one inevitably knows something about the book or author in question, it’s easy to employ what my old boss used to term ‘an Oxford answer’ – that is responding to a question by answering a different one. For instance:
‘Have you read much Proust?’
‘You know, I found the Proustian connection in The Hare with Amber Eyes completely fascinating. I loved that chunk on Charles Ephrussi, especially that bit about the asparagus!’
Then it’s easy peasy to divert the course of conversation on to firmer ground and the question of Proust is all but forgotten. Never underestimate the power of a good Oxford answer.
Failing that, there are all those silly books with titles like ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’ or ‘An idiots guide to the Classics’ which are of tremendous help to a bluffer. But I think such books are a real shame. Surely the whole point of being able to talk about a book is the pleasure one gets from having read it in the first place?
But, in any case, when one does finally get around to reading one of those books that one is supposed to have read, it is deeply satisfying. So I am very pleased to announce that I have at last read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.
I have a theory that the reason why Patrick Leigh Fermor comes up so often in conversation is because, until he passed away last year, he hung around rather a lot in Gentlemen’s Clubs and at Oxford dinners, so a surprisingly large number of people – usually oldish men – have met him. And everyone loves to indulge in a little name-dropping. ‘Oh you simply must read A Time of Gifts. Such a wonderful book. Oh those descriptions. Marvellous. You know, I met him a couple of times. Terribly nice chap. Fascinating stories.’
I suspect it must be thanks to this that I have been told I must read A Time of Gifts a gazillion times. I even own a rather handsome edition of it, published by the Folio society, that my father gave me a few years ago. (Yes, he met him a couple of times and thought he was fascinating.)
I certainly loved reading such a smart edition. Everyone makes such a fuss about hardbacks being so heavy, but really I am terrifically weak with especially spindly wrists and didn’t find it a problem in the slightest. Although I did feel like I had to be a bit more careful when reading it in the bath, drying my hands a little more assiduously before turning the pages, as it really is too smart to trash and wrinkle. It’s such a lovely book that someone even sparked up a conversation with me in a café, wanting to know where I’d found such a beautiful edition. Alas, as the Folio Society operates by subscription only, for once I couldn’t direct her to my bookshop.
A Time of Gifts is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s record of his journey across Europe in the 1930s. He sets off on a terribly rainy day, when ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly’, to catch a ferry to Holland from where he will walk all the way to ‘Constantinople’, or Istanbul, as we might call it.
Admittedly, it’s a small thing, but therein lay my first disappointment. I was expecting him to reach Constantinople, the destination of which he boasts to anyone he meets en route. I found it increasingly troubling, as the number of remaining pages dwindled and he was still only in Austria, or Czechoslovakia, to imagine how he was going to make it all the way to Istanbul before the end. I wondered if my mental map of Europe was way off, or if he’d cave in and take a train. But no, the book ends when he reaches Hungary. You’ve got to read the next one to get further, and even then you don’t make it to Istanbul. The third and final volume is to be published posthumously, albeit only ‘near-finished’, next year.
His route more-or-less follows the Rhine and then the Danube. It was certainly a fascinating time to tread this ground, just before so much of it would be destroyed by war. Some of the most interesting bits are Patrick Leigh Fermor’s encounters with Nazism. He meets one young man who has covered his room with Nazi memorabilia, who is quick to admit that a year ago it was all Communist. In Munich, he sees ‘a groaning Brownshirt, propped against the wall on a swastika’d arm … unloosing, in a staunchless gush down the steps, the intake of hours’. So many school history lessons were spent studying Nazi Germany and yet these anecdotes seem to capture something unexpected.
Although the journey was made in the thirties, Patrick Leigh Fermor didn’t come to write the book until forty years later. And while the knowledge of what was to come casts a harrowing light on what he sees, all the time elapsed means that the text has lost rather a lot of immediacy. As I read it, I felt like I was moving from one set piece – one polished dinner party story – to another. For instance, here is a snippet of the very long description of Melk:
Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene.
I hate this kind of writing. It is so overblown, over-the-top, pompous. And, if he’s going to indulge in this silly over-extended metaphor, then at least accompany it with a straightforward paragraph saying what Melk actually looks like! Perhaps it’s lucky that, unlike most people, I never met Patrick Leigh Fermor. If he’d gone off on one like this over dinner, I might have nodded off into my soup.
So instead of being able to see Melk in my mind’s eye, I’m left with a complicated musical metaphor. Instead of being able to see the landscape, I can only see Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow, which he uses as a frequent comparison.
Perhaps I found this particularly troubling having so recently read Olivia Laing’s To the River. Alongside her digressions into literature, myth and history, the descriptions are so real that I could smell the meadowsweet, hear the wood pigeons and feel the biting cold of the river water. I missed all that in A Time of Gifts.
And I missed listening to the walker’s rambling thoughts. We don’t get the wonderings meandering through his head as he wanders along the rivers, instead we are given a list of the works of literature that he recites to himself (sometimes backwards) as he walks. It made me curse my terrible memory and made me think that I’d quite like to reread the Aeneid and that I wished I knew anything like the amount of Latin he did. But mostly it made me think that Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bit of a show off. It certainly doesn’t spark much empathy.
At least I’ve read it now. And next time someone asks me if I’ve read A Time of Gifts, I can forestall their bragging about having met Patrick Leigh Fermor, once or twice, by saying, ‘Yes, I’ve read it and I thought it was a bit of a let-down actually. So many people seem to have met him, and they all say he was such a charismatic, fascinating man, so it was a bit of a shame that he comes across as so arrogant and pompous in the book.’ I can already imagine the horrified reaction. I can certainly see it far more clearly than many of the things written about in A Time of Gifts.