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Seen It Before

I first posted this entry in May of 2011. Earlier this year I read The Broken Road, posthumously published conclusion to the story Leigh Fermor began in A Time of Gifts. I highly recommend all three.

Leigh Fermor, Patrick (1977).  A Time of Gifts. NY: The New York Review of Books. 316 pages.

The Library of Congress cataloging data just inside the cover of A Time of Gifts lists the subject headings of ‘Europe-Description and travel’ and ‘Europe,Central-Description and travel’ but one could just as easily describe it as part memoir and part adventure novel.  Travel writing is not generally my reading material of choice, nor do I take easily to memoir, so I’ve been trying to determine the appeal of A Time of Gifts.  Oddly enough, I decided it was the similarity to The Lord of the Rings that drew me in, and has led me to the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water.  In a letter dated  20 September 1963 Tolkien noted that:

“Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.”*

A Time of Gifts possesses some of that same attraction. In 1933 Leigh Fermor is walking across a Europe the reader knows is a few short years from being swept away. The medieval architecture that inspires him to ecstasies in prose will be bombed to the ground along with the rest of Germany,and many of those who shelter him along the way will be end up trapped behind the Iron Curtain. But through his journey Leigh Fermor affords us a view of an even older Europe, one that largely vanished in the wake of what was then called the Great War. In Austria he is given food and shelter in the schloss of an elderly Count, whose visiting card inspires the following passage:

“After his name was printed: K.u.K. Kammerer u. Rittmeister i.R. ‘Imperial and Royal Chamberlain,’ that is, ‘and retired Captain of Horse.’ All through Central Europe the initials ‘K.u.K.’–Kaiserlich und Koniglich –were the alliterative epitome of the old Dual Monarchy. Only candidates with sixteen of thirty-two quarterings, I learnt later,were eligible for the symbolic gold key that court chamberlains wore on the back of their full-dress uniforms. But now the Empire and the Kingdom had been dismembered and their thrones were empty; no doors opened to the gold keys,the heralds were dispersed, the regiments disbanded and the horses dead long ago. The engraved words croaked loud of spent glories.”

More inspiration to seek out a copy of Roth’s Radetzky March.

*The full text of this letter can be found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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