Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read.
Up this month is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s highly acclaimed and beloved A Time of Gifts, an outstanding real-life travel tale set in a place that no longer exists: pre-WWII central Europe.
At age 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on an ambitious, epic journey starting in the heart of London and ending in Istanbul, known at the time as Constantinople. He intended to walk the entire way.
It was the early 1930s, and chaos had not yet broken out in Europe. Even if some signs of the war ahead were already manifesting, Hitler had only just come into power, and the Communists had not yet taken over in the east. Monarchies were still powerful, old regimes lingered. The clouds of turmoil were yet to close in. Such is the setting of A Time of Gifts, regarded by many as the world’s finest travel book, which recounts Fermor’s adventures on the first part of his journey, as far as Hungary.
A story about a place, a Europe, that no longer exists, and at the same time a gorgeous coming-of-age tale, Leigh Fermor’s writing is delightfully eloquent, a true exposition of what can be achieved with the English language when the pen that writes it is held by a brilliant mind. The best aspect of his writing? To us, it’s his capacity for rapture: Every moment, every step in his path, is an event, something worth noting and sharing. The evocation of a night in a barn, or of tiresome days simply walking is, through his pen, transformed into a nearly divine occurrence.
Now, if there’s one thing that makes this book so special, it’s the way young Leigh Fermor’s boyish appreciation of everything he encounters converges with the wisdom of the old man (also Leigh Fermor) who wisely and wistfully reminisces on his memories. The author penned this book decades after his travels, and while his recollection of events remains mostly intact (thanks, in part, to hundreds of pages of his writings and notes made during his adventure), what makes this book truly inspiring is its sense of remembrance.
Simply put, this could have been a book about a nightmare trip. Or, at the very least, he could have depicted the experience as such. Certainly, a less ethical writer might have. A truly unforgiving winter, a severe lack of funds, having his things stolen, sleeping in whatever freezing-cold, improvised lodgings he could find on the road – this excursion was certainly no easy feat. Yet Leigh Fermor never complains. He never focuses on or laments the hardships, but instead narrates them in a straightforward sense, presenting each to the reader as just one more stone on the path, all the while making magic out of the mundane, the rough and the outright ugly.
The passages about facing the cruel winter, or being stolen from, or whatever hardship he faced in the name of adventure – each is reflected upon with the kindest of attitudes, while never veering into self-righteousness. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that he never comes across as self-important. Also worth noting is the egalitarian treatment he exhibits towards people he meets along the way, as well as his respect for the eclectic settings and lodgings he encounters. Leigh Fermor offers the same amount of passion and fairness, whether he’s describing a middle-of-nowhere barn or a centuries-old castle (yes, literally – somehow he manages to get invited to stay in castles during his trip).
That being said, this book isn’t your average travelogue. Leigh Fermor doesn’t just check off place after place and subject the reader to superficial passages about the snow-covered, picturesque scenery. While that would be fine and enough for many, his sense of curiosity extends beyond mere description. This book is deeply intellectual, profoundly articulate and, some might say, moving. If not by the evocation of stunning landmarks and settings and what those images might stir up or awaken in any sensible soul (“It was an amazing vision. Few stretches of Central Europe have been the theatre for so much history. Beyond which watershed lay the pass where Hannibal’s elephants had slithered downhill? Only a few miles away, the frontier of the Roman Empire had begun.”), then by the author’s beautiful poetic prose and philosophical musings, oftentimes disguised as footnotes, side notes or (long, but worthwhile) digressions. Our advice: Don’t skip any of them: you might miss out on some of the most enrapturing passages in the entire book. Wade through the pages patiently, and, like a true traveller, try to take in every sight, every memory, every word.
As a writer, Leigh Fermor is never-endingly interesting, a true erudite without pretence, whose writing is both fun and intellectual. Most importantly, he has something to say, a unique story to share. Read him only if you’re not afraid of catching a bout of wanderlust.
Explore Further: What To Read & Watch
If you liked A Time of Gifts, you’ll likely want to know what happened to Leigh Fermor after reaching the Middle Danube, so make sure to check out the other two books in the trilogy, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, which will take you all the way to Constantinople. And to explore more of this wide world in the hands of a capable storyteller, check out Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach.