I finished Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel narrative, A Time of Gifts. Wonderful book, one of my all-time favorites. It begins with Fermor’s departure from England in December 1933, and it covers the first five months of his journey from Holland to Constantinople. It ends with Fermor standing on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, just before the Danube turns south toward Budapest.
Fermor depicts the ecstasy of travel, of youth, of being alive. After taking a boat from London, he lands in Rotterdam:
|I wandered about the silent lanes in exultation. The beetling storeys were nearly joining overhead; then the eaves drew away from each other and frozen canals threaded their way through a succession of hump-backed bridges. Snow was piling up on the shoulders of a statue of Erasmus.|
In February, when Fermor arrives in Vienna, he’s low on money, and tries to support himself by making portraits of people (he had some artistic skill). He knocks on the doors of strangers, and this leads to some comic scenes. Later he falls in with a group of young, well-educated people.
|It was a wild winter; but the angry skies and the wind make the fires and the lamplight glow all the brighter in retrospect. With the first days of March, the Lenten ferocity flagged a little. I was living in a state of exaltation. I couldn’t quite believe I was there; and as though to put it beyond question, I often repeated “I’m in Vienna” to myself when I woke up in the night or as I wandered about the streets.|
One of Fermor’s friends in Vienna was a young man named Baron von der Heydte. Like most aristocrats whom Fermor meets, von der Heydte was cool toward the Nazis. Later von der Heydte became a paratroop officer in the German Army, and fought against Fermor on Crete. Von der Heydte wrote Daedalus Returned, an account of the Battle of Crete.
Vienna was long regarded as the easternmost point in Europe. Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, said, “East of Vienna, the Orient begins. Östlich von Wien fängt der Orient an.” The Ottoman Empire reached to the doorstep of Vienna, and the Turks besieged Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683. Vienna withstood both sieges. During the Cold War, Vienna was the easternmost point of the non-Soviet bloc. The word “Austria” comes from Österreich, meaning “eastern realm.” On the map below, I’ve marked Vienna with a red star.
The Danube and Rhine are the x and y axes of Europe, and they formed the (approximate) borders of the Roman Empire. Both rivers arise near the Swiss-German border. Fermor followed the Rhine south, then the Danube east, sometimes riding on a boat, sometimes walking, sometimes taking detours away from the rivers. The land was flat in Holland, became more mountainous as Fermor approached the Alps, then became flat again when he reached the Hungarian Plain.
During the winter months, Fermor walks through a frozen land. Finally, in April, he spends his first night outside, under an open sky, on the edge of the Danube, looking at the stars, listening to frogs and waterfowl.
|I lay deep in one of those protracted moments of rapture which scatter this journey like asterisks. A little more, I felt, and I would have gone up like a rocket. The notion that I had walked twelve hundred miles since Rotterdam filled me with a legitimate feeling of something achieved.|
He sleeps for several hours and then, before the sun has risen, he’s awakened by two armed policemen who suspect him of being a smuggler of saccharin! Saccharin was heavily taxed, so you could earn a large profit by smuggling it. The policemen finally realize that Fermor isn’t a smuggler, and try to find lodgings for him.
|We walked a mile or two inland across the water-meadows and the moon was beginning to go down when we reached a little farm. I am in the stable now on a soft heap of straw with a hurricane lamp and catching up with the rest of the night’s doings before I forget them [that is, he’s writing in his diary].
Next day. The farm people were from Silesia. He was big and tough and she very handsome, with jet black hair. There was a stuffed otter on the wall — plenty of them lodge in the Danube’s banks. They gave me a lovely breakfast with coffee and black bread and two boiled eggs and some hard white cheese sprinkled with red paprika, and a swig of barack [apricot brandy]. Also, some things wrapped up to eat on the way. I’m beginning to feel like Elijah, fed by ravens.
Fermor with a Greek couple who owned a mill
Fermor often enjoys the hospitality of strangers, and he often sleeps in humble surroundings. But just as often, he sleeps in the castles of the nobility. He stays up late at night, chatting with cultured barons who have fond memories of pre-war Austria-Hungary.
One of the cultured aristocrats whom Fermor met along the Danube told him that the Nibelungenlied is set on the Danube as well as the Rhine. The Nibelungenlied (author anonymous) is one of the three best-known German epics, along with Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. All three epics were written about 1200 AD. The Nibelungenlied inspired Wagner’s long opera, The Ring of the Nibelung; Wagner created shorter operas based on Tristan and Parzival.1
When Fermor is in Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia), he chats with an elderly Hungarian man.
|He talked in rather bad German about the troubles of the Hungarians hereabouts. I do sympathize. It must be terrible having one’s country cut up like this and ending on the wrong side of the border. The Treaty of Trianon  sounds a great mistake as all the local inhabitants, though Hungarians, are compulsory Czech citizens now. The children have to learn Czechoslovakian; the authorities hope to turn them into fervent Czechoslovaks in a couple of generations. The Hungarians hate the Czechs, and the Romanians too, and on the same grounds — they feel less strongly about the Serbs, for some reason — and they mean to get back all their lost territory. This is why Hungary is a Kingdom still though it is governed by a regent.
When a King is crowned on horseback with the old crown of St. Stephen, he has to swear a most sacred oath to keep Hungary’s ancient frontiers intact; so all Hungary’s neighbours look askance on the monarchy. Attempts have been made to steal the actual diadem from the coronation church in Budapest, but it’s impossible to get near it without electrocution. The Habsburgs are not very popular there, the old man said, as they have always looked on the Magyars as rebels. What a frightful problem.
Hungary was once far larger than it is now. It made up a large part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg dynasty. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was called a Dual Monarchy since it was made up of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Austrian Empire. The Hungarians (or “Magyars”) often chafed under Austrian domination, and often rebelled against the Austrians, hence Fermor says that the Habsburgs “have always looked on the Magyars as rebels.”
When revolution swept Europe in 1848, the Hungarians revolted against the Austrians. The Hungarians were led by Lajos Kossuth, who was acclaimed as a hero in England and the U.S. “Kossuth’s bronze bust can be found in the United States Capitol with the inscription: Father of Hungarian Democracy, Hungarian Statesman, Freedom Fighter, 1848-1849.”2
In 895 AD, the Hungarians/Magyars made their way into Hungary, dividing the Slavic peoples into southern Slavs (“Yugoslavs”) and northern Slavs (Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, etc.). Northern Slavs favored the Roman Catholic Church, while southern Slavs favored the Orthodox Church.3
There are still many Hungarians in western/central Romania, that is, Transylvania. The legendary Count Dracula was a Hungarian who claimed descent from Attila the Hun, and lived in Transylvania.
Finally Fermor leaves the tavern where he had listened to the elderly Hungarian bemoan the fate of his people.
|We had hardly said good-bye when a spectacled young man on a bike overtook me and dismounted, with a greeting in Slovak... and asked where I was going. He fell in step beside me. He was a schoolmaster and he enlarged on the past sorrows of Slovakia. It is true that the local villages are Hungarian, but further north they are pure Slovak as far as the Polish border.
They had been under the Magyars for a thousand years and always treated as an inferior race, and when any Slovak rose in the world he was promptly seduced into the lesser Magyar nobility — with the result that all local leadership evaporated. Slovak children used to be taken away from their parents and brought up as Magyars. Even when they were fighting the Austrians in defence of their nationality and language, the Hungarians were busy oppressing and Magyarizing their own Slovak subjects.
The schoolmaster didn’t seem to like the Czechs much either.... It was touch and go in the Dark Ages whether the Slavs of the North became Catholic or Orthodox. Under the proselytizing influence of SS. Cyril and Methodius — the Byzantine missionaries who invented the Cyrillic script and translated the sacred writings into Old Slavonic — it could easily have been the latter. When I asked why it hadn’t, he laughed and said: “The damned Magyars came!” The link was severed, and the Czechs and Slovaks stuck to Rome and the West.
Today the capital of Slovakia is Bratislava (known as “Pressburg” until 1920). In Fermor’s day, Bratislava’s population was largely Hungarian, German, and Jewish; Slovaks were a small minority. The situation was similar in other EastEuropean cities; in Prague, for example, Czechs were probably a minority. Kafka, who lived in Prague, wrote a long Letter to His Father in which he said, “You were capable... of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews, [and] finally nobody was left except yourself.”
Fermor had a special fondness for poetry. One of his favorites was Catullus. “The young are prone,” Fermor writes, “to identify themselves with [Catullus] when feeling angry, lonely, misunderstood, besotted, ill-starred or crossed in love.”
If Catullus represents the discontent of youth, Horace represents the contentment of middle age; if Catullus says “I have much to complain about,” Horace says, “Life is good.” When Fermor’s spirits were low after miles of walking, he found that Horace’s Odes were “infallible mood-changers.” As Henry James said, literature lifts up the heart.
Fermor memorized poems, and recited as he walked.
|Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm.... When this happened I would try to taper off in a cough or weave the words into a tuneless hum and reduce all gestures to a feint at hair-tidying.|
Once at a “moment of crescendo and climax... an old woman tottered out of a wood where she had been gathering sticks. Dropping and scattering them, she took to her heels.” One of the poems Fermor memorized was this Horatian Ode:
See how Soracte rises,
Gleaming white with deep snow,
Trees bent over under the weight,
Rivers frozen with sharp ice.
Throw logs on the fire, Thaliarchus,
Dissolve the cold,
And pour the four-year-old wine
From the Sabine jug.
Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte, nec iam sustineant onus
silvae laborantes, geluque
flumina constiterint acuto?
dissolve frigus ligna super foco
large reponens atque benignius
deprome quadrimum Sabina,
o Thaliarche, merum diota.
Fermor remembered this poem years later, when he abducted General Kreipe on Crete. To get Kreipe off Crete, Fermor and his comrades made long, grueling marches with Kreipe, usually at night. One morning, Fermor writes,
|we woke up among the rocks just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida. We had been toiling over it, through snow and then rain, for the last two days. Looking across the valley at this flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte...” It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off....
The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.
Early in Fermor’s journey, when he was still in Germany, his backpack was stolen, and with it his Loeb edition of Horace. But one of the cultured aristocrats whom he stayed with gave him a replacement Horace, “a small duodecimo volume.... beautifully printed on thin paper in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century, bound in hard green leather with gilt lettering.” It had “small mezzotints” of various Italian scenes, including Soracte.
In my Realms of Gold, I discussed the difficulty of combining literature and life in the age of world war.4 This problem seemed especially acute for Viennese writers. Hermann Broch abandoned literature, Stefan Zweig abandoned life.
A third Viennese writer, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, noticed that the English were more successful at combining life and literature, action and contemplation. “The division between artist (writer) and man of action (politician, explorer, soldier) does not exist in England.”5 The English admired Nelson and Milton equally. As a commando and travel writer, Fermor seems to exemplify the English capacity to combine action and contemplation. Indeed, Fermor was reading widely on the very morning that he abducted General Kreipe.
Fermor mentions several EasternEuropean writers, including Hofmannsthal. Before I read Fermor, I knew nothing about Hofmannsthal. In 1900, Hofmannsthal was the Boy Wonder of German literature. Zweig called him, “This magnificent genius, who already in his sixteenth and seventeenth year had inscribed himself in the eternal annals of the German language with unextinguishable verses and prose.”6
Fermor has an independent streak, a creative bent, and he uses words creatively. He’s fond of puns and unusual words. Speaking of the way cats damage upholstery, he describes his cats as “downholsterers and interior desecrators.” Instead of saying, “I ran through the streets,” he says “I hared through the streets.” Instead of “villages,” he speaks of “thorpes” (“The inns in these remote and winter-bound thorpes were warm and snug”). Playing on the word “landscape,” Fermor speaks of “Rolling Bavarian acres formed in the inscape of the mind.”
Before he begins his journey, Fermor looks forward to learning new words, new languages; he wants to “listen to new tongues that were untainted by a single familiar word.... Flights of unknown syllables would soon be rushing into purged and attentive ears.” Because he learned Greek on his travels, he was recruited to be a commando in Greece.
I saw an interview with John Podhoretz, movie critic for the Weekly Standard. Podhoretz says there are many good TV shows now, both American and foreign. On the other hand, Hollywood movies have declined in quality; Hollywood has become preoccupied with making blockbuster movies that don’t depict how people actually live. Hollywood movies were better in the 1970s (Podhoretz says), when independent filmmakers were pursuing their own visions. Podhoretz recommends a 1969 movie called Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.
Podhoretz also recommends an Israeli TV series called Fauda, which is available on Netflix. I started watching it, and was immediately drawn in. You forget you’re watching a fictional show, you feel that you’re watching reality itself. I stopped watching the news in the evening because Fauda seemed more real.
The person chiefly responsible for Fauda, Lior Raz, was a special-operations soldier, his father was an intelligence agent, and his girlfriend was the victim of a terrorist attack. Fauda has an authentic feel because it’s close to Raz’s own experience. Sherwood Anderson advised Faulkner, “Write what you know.” Raz is writing what he knows.
When you watch Fauda, you learn something about Israeli life. Israelis seem to display their feelings openly — both affection and anger. Israelis seem to resemble Arabs, so if an Israeli speaks Arabic fluently, he can blend into Arab society. The DNA of Israelis and Arabs is almost identical.
A. The best WorldWarTwo documentary is doubtless the BBC’s World At War (1973). It’s a comprehensive, 26-episode, 22-hour documentary that includes numerous interviews with participants.7 PBS doesn’t seem interested in making old films available on their website, though they’re cheaper and better than what’s made now.
B. Hesse: “All experience is occult, whereas all inexperienced knowledge is scientific.” When I read memoirs, which are close to experience, I often find the occult. This quote shows how great writers like Hesse are fascinated by the occult, while academics loathe it.
|1.||Joseph Campbell says, “This wonderful Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach simply has to be read. Humorous, joyous, altogether different both in spirit and in meaning from the ponderous opus of Richard Wagner, it is one of the richest, greatest, most civilized works of the European Middle Ages... perhaps the very greatest love story of all time.” (Myths To Live By, “The Mythology of Love,” p. 166) Campbell recommends the translation by Mustard and Passage. A. T. Hatto translated all three epics — Parzival, Tristan and the Nibelungenlied. back|
|3.||Croats are an exception, they’re southern Slavs who favored the Roman Catholic Church. back|
|4.||“In 1942, depressed by Nazi conquests and the apparent collapse of European civilization, Zweig committed suicide with his wife. One might say that Broch turned against literature because it didn’t match reality, and Zweig turned against reality because it didn’t match literature. It’s difficult for the modern writer to affirm both reality and literature; Erich Heller said that Goethe was ‘the last great poet who lived and worked in a continual effort to save the life of poetry and the poetry of life.’” back|
|6.||Wikipedia. Hofmannsthal was a deep thinker and a talented writer. According to Carl Schorske, author of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Hofmannsthal took a non-rational approach to morality: “Ethics in Hofmannsthal becomes detached from traditional rational moral law and is subsumed under the life of feeling.... The ethical life is for him a life of continually renewed sensibility, a life creating ever-new forms of relationship.” (Ch. 1, #3, p. 20) This rejection of moral law, of rational morality, reminds one of Nietzsche, as does Hofmannsthal’s desire to unify and simplify reality. “Modern society and culture seemed to [Hofmannsthal] hopelessly pluralistic, lacking in cohesion or direction.” The poet’s job is “to knit together the disparate elements of the time... by revealing the hidden forms in which the parts of life are bound to each other.” (Ch. 1, #3, p. 19) back|
|7.||Most episodes are on Youtube; for better video quality, try dailymotion.com. back|