Monday, 23 July 2012

'A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I thought long and hard about what should be the first book I reviewed here, and I eventually settled on what  is the most magnificent travel book I've ever read, 'A Time of Gifts'.

A Time of Gifts is a travel book by acclaimed writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Published in 1977, it is actually based on travels in 1933-34. When the author was just 18 in 1933, he decided to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople (now Istanbul), a journey of more than a thousand miles. This book, the first in what was intended to be a trilogy, covers his journey as far as Hungary. It is based partly on recollections, and partly on a notebook which he rediscovered many decades later in a castle somewhere on his route!

The book is not overly thick, weighing in at almost exactly 300 pages, but the type is small and a lot of words are packed onto each page so it isn't a particularly quick read. Leigh Fermor is a master of the English language, and the book has many lengthy and beautiful descriptions in. It is at its heart a travel book, but covers quite a bit of history as well as art, literature and various other topics.

The book is regarded by many as one of the finest travel books written in the English language, Leigh Fermor is a highly regarded writer and this is considered his masterpiece. So what is it actually like to read?

It starts off with a lengthy letter to a former colleague from WW2, which serves as the book's introduction. I skipped past this at first, eager to get started with the book, but came back to it when I was part way through and found it full of useful backplot and biographical detail. I found the book overall a joy to read, it gives a wonderful view of pre-second world war Europe, painting a picture of a world long gone. Much of the book is beautifully written. The author does use a lot of long words and bits of German and other languages (mostly though not always with translations), as well as references to literature and art which I wasn't familiar with. My advice is just enjoy the book, and don't get bogged down in the sections where he is discussing a (now obscure) old literary text, or an old historical-political situation which has long since evapourated. Just enjoy the book for what it is, a wonderful travelogue.

I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, as it is not an easy read and written in an old fashioned style (i.e. nothing like Bill Bryson). But I loved it. I can't wait to read more books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and it has got me itching to explore more great travelogues. A maximum 10/10.