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Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: October 3, 2005
A Time of GiftsOn Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
by Patrick Leigh Fermor, introduction by Jan Morris
At the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey—to walk to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is the rich account of his adventures as far as Hungary, after which Between the Woods and the Water continues the story to the Iron Gates that divide the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. Acclaimed for its sweep and intelligence, Leigh Fermor's book explores a remarkable moment in time. Hitler has just come to power but war is still ahead, as he walks through a Europe soon to be forever changed—through the Lowlands to Mitteleuropa, to Teutonic and Slav heartlands, through the baroque remains of the Holy Roman Empire; up the Rhine, and down to the Danube.
At once a memoir of coming-of-age, an account of a journey, and a dazzling exposition of the English language, A Time of Gifts is also a portrait of a continent already showing ominous signs of the holocaust to come.
Download the Reading Group Guide for A Time of Gifts.by Patrick Leigh Fermor, introduction by Jan Morris
This is a glorious feast, the account of a walk in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. The 18-year-old Fermor began by sleeping in barns but, after meeting some landowners early on, got occasional introductions to castles. So he experienced life from both sides, and with all the senses, absorbing everything: flora and fauna, art and architecture, geography, clothing, music, foods, religions, languages. Writing the book decades after the fact, in a baroque style that is always rigorous, never flowery, he was able to inject historical depth while still retaining the feeling of boyish enthusiasm and boundless curiosity. This is the first of a still uncompleted trilogy; the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him through Hungary and Romania; together they capture better than any books I know the remedial, intoxicating joy of travel.
— Thomas Swick, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The finest traveling companion we could ever have...His head is stocked with enough cultural lore and poetic fancy to make every league an adventure.
— Christopher Hudson, Evening Standard
The greatest of living travel writers...an amazingly complex and subtle evocation of a place that is no more.
— Jan Morris
In these two volumes of extraordinary lyrical beauty and discursive, staggering erudition, Leigh Fermor recounted his first great excursion... They're partially about an older author's encounter with his young self, but they're mostly an evocation of a lost Mitteleuropa of wild horses and dark forests, of ancient synagogues and vivacious Jewish coffeehouses, of Hussars and Uhlans, and of high-spirited and deeply eccentric patricians with vast libraries (such as the Transylvanian count who was a famous entomologist specializing in Far Eastern moths and who spoke perfect English, though with a heavy Scottish accent, thanks to his Highland nanny). These books amply display Leigh Fermor's keen eye and preternatural ear for languages, but what sets them apart, besides the utterly engaging persona of their narrator, is his historical imagination and intricate sense of historical linkage...Few writers are as alive to the persistence of the past (he's ever alert to the historical forces that account for the shifts in custom, language, architecture, and costume that he discerns), and I've read none who are so sensitive to the layers of invasion that define the part of Europe he depicts here. The unusual vantage point of these books lends them great poignancy, for we and the author know what the youthful Leigh Fermor cannot: that the war will tear the scenery and shatter the buildings he evokes; that German and Soviet occupation will uproot the beguiling world of those Tolstoyan nobles; and that in fact very few people who became his friends on this marvelous and sunny journey will survive the coming catastrophe.
— Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic
The book's strong magic derives in part from the atmosphere of miracle that attends Leigh Fermor's peregrinations. He marches with the seven-league boots of youth, fatigue barely registering as whole countries roll beneath his heel. The comforting rhythm of his journey—exertion, encounter, rest, food, sleep—rocks its readers into feelings of happiness and invulnerability. I could do this, you think, I could just start walking and keep going for a day or two, or three, or four, or more...
—Robert Macfarlane, Literary Hub