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Old 03-20-2014, 11:42 PM   #16
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Finally of course there are his observations of ways of life which probably no longer exist, and of the looming presence of Nazism in Germany and also in Austria to a lesser extent. With the benefit of hindsight, I was fearful about the future of so many of the people he met, such as the red-headed Jewish baker, the gypsies he saw on the way, and many others.
Great insight! This perspective is what I am finding most interesting in reading the book.

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I wonder a little how much of the insights he shares were actually experienced at the time or whether they grew in the 40 some odd years between recording his initial diaries and the time that he actually wrote the book. Some of my travel experiences have deepened over the years as events took root in the person I was and then merge with new experiences and who I’ve become to change them somewhat.
Very thoughtfully worded! I wonder the same.

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This is the first time I’ve set an annual reading challenge and I notice that some target a number of books and others a number of pages. I think I’ll stick with a book goal because I don’t read every book at the same speed.
I read a combination of fiction and nonfiction, some short & some long. I set a target for both number of books and pages. I set the number of books more aggressively as a challenge than pages.
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Old 03-21-2014, 11:37 AM   #17
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First off I really enjoyed this book. As others have noted the writing, the description of places an people, reflected a high command of English (and a few other languages*), and his impressive palette of appropriate passages from great works of literature was something. Perhaps though sometimes leaving me to wonder if it was all a true reflection of reality at the time or maybe there was more than a little of the way he now (at the time the book was written) remembered it, or the way he would have liked it to be. The book after all was written in 1977 about experiences in 1933-1934, and I definitely feel that in the intervening decades a rose-colored patina had developed over it all.

I also loved the style of writing. I felt that I was simultaneously receiving a recounting of a youthful travel across Central Europe from Holland to the Balkans (if at times fanciful), a history lesson, a education in literature that was in anyway pertinent, and a look at a world that is now gone forever. I have to say though that reflecting on the book-of-the-month for the other club—On the Trail of Genghis Khan—that A Time of Gifts was the more enjoyable read, certainly reflected superior writing, and is a book I will probably want to read again. On the other hand I feel that On the Trail of Genghis Khan gave me a more accurate picture of the actual reality of the people and places of the time.


This book also left me with a deep feeling of nostalgia, but for a time I could never have experienced. The instances of reliance on the kindness of strangers that would not fly today abound. Drinking oneself unconscious in a bar and the result being the owner carrying one up to a room to spend the night? Try being tossed into the street, perhaps after having first being rolled by some other barfly. Being able to sleep in a cell at the local police station? Only if under arrest. They might offer directions to the local homeless shelter, and you better be in line for a spot there by 3:00. The town mayor offering any visitor money for food and lodging? Get real. It was a time of gifts back then indeed.

One other comment on this. I do wonder if Fermor's experience would have been the same and would the idea of such a journey have been possible even back then for a working class English youth? Would the father of an old school friend been willing, or even able, in 1933 to lend Fermor 15 pounds to get him started on his journey. Would his reception throughout Europe been the same as a wandering lower-class 18-year old with the corresponding level of education?


*Time have changed and certainly education has. It was a bit frustrating to encounter passages in Latin that of course were “all Greek” to me. That and many of his references to historical figures and events, as well as passages from classics, were unknown to me. I think that at sometime in the future I will have to slowly read this again with a computer handy to Google references and at least roughly translate passages in Latin and other languages.

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Old 03-21-2014, 06:26 PM   #18
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Yes, I agree with you Hamlet, and others, that there has to be an overlay of later knowledge and maturity, given that the book was written so much later. For example, when he talks about (and quotes from) the recovered journal, he makes a comment along the lines that it wasn't anything like as good as he had remembered it as being - probably what he thought was deep and perceptive turned out to be something written by a kid of 19 who still had a lot to learn!

At the same time, compared with most 19 year olds these days, I think he was well read and able to appreciate literature, history, art and architecture. As another example, his loving descriptions of the glories of Prague were about a place that, at the time of writing, was not a place he had been able to revisit. (I found his feelings of guilt about what had happened to Eastern Europe after the war interesting too, and he wasn't to know in 1977 that even the iron curtain would eventually fall.)

No, a young man of working class background and education wouldn't have been able to make that journey. But I don't see that as a criticism of him, and he certainly seemed to be equally at home in a peasant's cottage or a palace and comfortable mixing with all sorts of people.

I found him delightful company, and I got the impression that the people he encountered along the way did so too.
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Old 03-24-2014, 11:47 PM   #19
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After travelling to Hungary from the east with Tim Cope, I am now very slowly coming to it from the west, with Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Unlike some of the other members of this group, I found Tim Cope's book much easier to read. For me, the very long paragraphs of descriptive prose in "A Time of Gifts", and the long, sometimes convoluted, sentences, proved very hard going. This is one book which may have been easier to read in print rather than on my ereader - sometimes I found myself going back over the pages to check where a paragraph actually began. After a while I tended to gloss over those long descriptive passages, no matter how well they were written.

I did enjoy the anecdotes about the people Leigh Fermor met on his journey. Part way through the book it suddenly hit me that I had known a few people like him decades ago, when I was a young university student. Boys studying Classics or the Humanities, drunk with literature, music, art, and full of excitement about new places they had visited, people they had met from different walks of life.

I'll continue reading this, but it will be some time before I reach Hungary from this direction. I've decided I need a break, and I am enjoying reading one of Pat McIntosh's Gil Cunningham mysteries for a change! ("On the Trail of Genghis Khan", on the other hand, I was happy to read straight through.)
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Old 03-25-2014, 10:37 AM   #20
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I too read both books at the same time, but moved through Cope's book with ease and finished it first. Cope's linear journey was informative and interesting, particularly because a lot of it sheds light on our view of current events.
Fermor's book provided a more interior journey and actually felt more like historical fiction to me. Although some sentences were long, I didn't find any that I would describe as convoluted. I found he had a rather remarkable grasp of language. This may sound a little strange, but while I benefited greatly from the pictures in Cope's book to shape the reading around, I have no desire to see any pictures of Fermor's trip because it may destroy some of the images his writing provided.
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Old 03-25-2014, 12:36 PM   #21
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Interesting perspectives. Maybe it goes back to some of the other threads in the past few weeks about how one visualizes when they read. I certainly agree that he had a firm grasp on language, and I enjoyed his writing style. However, there were multiple long sections where I felt like I glossed over many pages because the lofty exposition just didn't hold my attention. Whenever I found my mind wandering, I forced myself to go back and read those passages again. Often looking at images or reading a bit of historical background was the key to unlocking that passage for me and to capture my interest again. Definitely images greatly enhanced my appreciation of this book. I want to take a trip to Austria now!
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Old 03-25-2014, 01:41 PM   #22
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A particular item that struck me in this book—and one illustrative of how the author would attempt to force what he observed into some sort of all in compassing insight—was when he hit on Landsknechts being the symbol of much he was seeing in art and architecture. Quoting:

Spoiler:
I had been fumbling for a symbol that might hit off this idiosyncrasy and suddenly I found it! In the girls’ flat in Stuttgart, turning over a picture book of German history, I stopped at a colour plate depicting three arresting figures. ‘Landsknechts in the time of the Emperor Maximilian I,’ was the caption. They were three blond giants. Challenging moustachios luxuriated over the jut of their bushy beards. Their floppy hats were worn at killing angles, and, under the curl of ostrich feathers, the segmented brims spread as incongruously as the petals of a periwinkle. Two of these men grasped pikes with elaborate blades, the third carried a musket; their hands on the hilts of their broadswords tilted up the scabbards behind them. Slashed doublets expanded their shoulders and quilted sleeves puffed out their arms like Zeppelins; but on top of all this, their torsos were wrapped slantwise in wide ribbons, loosely attached to their trunks by a row of bows at an opposite slant, and bright bands fluttered about their already-voluminous arms in similar contradictory spirals: scarlet, vermilion, orange, canary, Prussian blue, grass green, violet and ochre. From buttocks and cod piece to knee, their legs were subjected to the same contradictory ribbon-treatment, and, with cunning asymmetry, the bright bands were arranged differently askew on each leg. They were fluttering criss-cross cages of colour, like maypoles about to unfurl. The tights below, which ended in wide slash-toed duck-bill shoes, were striped and parti-coloured. One soldier, with a breast-plate over his finery, eschewed all ribbons below the fork. Instead, his legs were adorned with tiers of fringes as far as mid-calf—square-ended tapes that sprang out like the umbelliferous rings of foliage on those marsh plants called mare’s tails.

They were swashbuckling, exuberant and preposterous outfits, yet there was nothing foppish about the wearers: under the flutter of this blinding haberdashery, they were grim Teutonic soldiers, and mediaeval still. All this slashing which caught on everywhere, was a Teutonic thing. It began in the late fifteenth century, when miles of plundered silk were sliced up to patch the campaigning tatters of some lucky mercenaries: they went berserk among the bales; then, carried away, they started pulling their underlinen through the gaps and puffing it out. Once launched, the fashion spread to the courts of the Valois and Tudors and Stuarts and broke at last into its fullest flower at the field of the Cloth of Gold.[7] But the Landsknechts were objects of dread. They swore and hacked their way through all the religious and dynastic wars of the Empire; and, while they plied their pikes, buildings were beginning to go up. When Charles V succeeded Maximilian in 1519, the meridian splendour of the Landsknechts coincided with a generation of glory that the Holy Roman Empire had not seen since Charlemagne and would never see again. Through inheritence, conquest, marriage and discovery, Charles’ Empire reached north to the Baltic settlements of the Teutonic knights, to the old Hanseatic world and the Netherlands; it stretched south to include the Duchy of Milan and swallowed up the outpost kingdoms of Naples and Sicily; it marched with Turkey on the Middle Danube and expanded to western Burgundy; then, skipping France—whose King, however, was the Emperor’s prisoner in Madrid—it leapt the Atlantic from the Pyrenees to the Pacific shores of Peru.


So I immediately recalled the attached image—Swiss Mercenary by Urs Graf—from the book Civilisation by Kenneth Clarke in which he presents the history of western civilization (after the fall of the Roman Empire) through art, music, and architecture. Clarke uses this image for this passage:

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The North was full of bully boys who rampaged about the country and took any excuse to beat people up. They appear frequently in sixteenth century art, very pleased with themselves and apparently much admired.
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Old 03-25-2014, 03:11 PM   #23
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Like ClareK, I found this book slow going in the beginning. Perhaps the problem, for me, was the difficulty of visualization, as suggested by Bookworm_Girl. Although I liked the words, I could not see the country.

Just before the halfway point, Fermor talks about the Danube school of art.

Quote:
As I walked along the Danube, I was traversing, without knowing it, an important minor sub-division of art-history.
He goes on to describe 'The Danube School'. Now I could see the scenes as he described them. This is the line where Fermor finally gained my full attention and I started to enjoy the book:

Quote:
When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.
I love Pieter Brueghel and suddenly my visualizer was working overtime: stark bare trees against white snow, charming old buildings, codpieces....okay, so the tendency to visualize half-undone codpieces kept me amused for a good long while. But I was finally engaged with the book.

I also loved the author's description of his venture into free enterprise by going door-to-door soliciting portrait-making business. It was hilarious.

Had I not updated my Kindle PW so that it included flashcards and easy Wikipedia searches, I may never have come to enjoy this book. The author's vocabulary was over my head. I still have dozens of flashcards with mostly architectural terms to go through again. Rarely, or never, has a book added so much to my vocabulary, thanks to the updated Kindle.
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Old 04-10-2014, 05:11 PM   #24
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Rarely, or never, has a book added so much to my vocabulary, thanks to the updated Kindle.
this is a comforting thought for me!

I don't have much to add to what has already been said, and so well - and I also very much doubt that a working class boy of a similar age would have embarked in such a journey - not to mention a girl!
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Boys studying Classics or the Humanities, drunk with literature, music, art, and full of excitement about new places they had visited, people they had met from different walks of life.
Yes, drunk is the word - but what struck me is how much more naive Fermor is when it comes to politics: there are many quite crude generalizations (the checks, the slavs, and so on, let alone the gipsies) which I found quite out of tune with the rest of the narrative.
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Old 04-15-2014, 12:27 PM   #25
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I would agree that the writing is very good. I also enjoyed the picture of life in Europe just before World War II. The knowledge of this gave a definite elegiac quality to the book. We knew that many of these loveable people were gong to perish in the dreadful catastrophe which was to follow.

A fact that cannot be avoided is that the author clearly is remembering those things that he wishes to remember while forgetting those things he wishes to forget. The result--as Ccowie pointed out--is a tendency to present a narrative deeply coloured by Fermor's later retrospective musings on the entire adventure.

Of course, this is not necessarily a negative aspect of the book. It does mean that we do not have here a narrative with a strong emphasis on the accuracy of external historical detail and the terrible political events which would eventually result in the Holocaust, but rather a journey of an individual soul which includes both the young man on his trek and the much older author reflecting on it.

I agree with Hamlet that there is a "nostalgia" (perhaps unintended} that there was once a European Civilisation where even the unknown wanderer could be made generously welcome. The fact that this would exclude Gypsies and Jews does not seem to be a main priority of Fermor's meditations--but then--as I said--historical and political evaluations were not the main purposes of the author and to have included them would have meant writing an entirely different book. What we do have is certainly something quite special.

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Old 04-24-2014, 04:09 PM   #26
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I absolutely loved this book. The writing and atmosphere were both superb and had me in a sort of a trance as I read. One specific uniqueness to this book that I so loved was that it was a mixture of genuine youthful energy, naivety, curiosity and zest for life mixed with the genuine nostalgia, reflectiveness, and sometimes wistful melancholy of an older person looking back on his life, which I thought an intoxicating mixture.

There are so many different wonderful scenes, and some had me laughing, especially the woman at the end of this one:

Spoiler:
“Song is universal in Germany; it causes no dismay; Shuffle off to Buffalo; Bye, Bye, Blackbird; or Shenandoah; or The Raggle Taggle Gypsies sung as I moved along, evoked nothing but tolerant smiles. But verse was different. Murmuring on the highway caused raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity. Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm. Regulus brushing the delaying populace aside as he headed for the Carthaginian executioner, as though to Lacedaemonian Tarentum or the Venafrian fields, called for a fairly mild flourish; but urging the assault-party at Harfleur to close the wall up with English dead would automatically bring on a heightened pitch of voice and action and double one’s embarrassment if caught. 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. But some passages demand an empty road as far as the eye can see before letting fly. The terrible boxing-match, for instance, at the funeral games of Anchises when Entellus sends Dares reeling and spitting blood and teeth across the Sicilian shore—‘ore ejectantem mixtosque in sanguine dentes’!—and then, with his thonged fist, scatters a steer’s brains with one blow between the horns—this needs care. As for the sword-thrust at the bridgehead that brings the great lord of Luna crashing among the augurs like an oak-tree on Mount Alvernus—here the shouts, the walking-stick slashes, the staggering gait and the arms upflung should never be indulged if there is anyone within miles, if then. To a strange eye, one is drunk or a lunatic.

So it was today. I was at this very moment of crescendo and climax, when an old woman tottered out of a wood where she had been gathering sticks. Dropping and scattering them, she took to her heels. I would have liked the earth to have swallowed me, or to have been plucked into the clouds.”

Fermor’s sketchings-for-money escapades with Konrad were also divine and Konrad was such a character.

Sometimes Fermor’s descriptions were so evocative and tinged with imagination or even flights of fancy:

Spoiler:
“Often, half in a bay of the mountains and half on a headland, a small and nearly amphibian Schloss mouldered in the failing light among the geese and the elder-bushes and the apple trees. Dank walls rose between towers that were topped with cones of moulting shingle. Weeds throve in every cranny. Moss mottled the walls. Fissures branched like forked lightning across damp masonry which the rusting iron clamps tried to hold together, and buttresses of brick shored up the perilously leaning walls. The mountains, delaying sunrise and hastening dusk, must have halved again the short winter days. Those buildings looked too forlorn for habitation. But, in the tiny, creeper-smothered windows, a faint light would show at dusk. Who lived in those stone-flagged rooms where the sun never came? Immured in those six-foot-thick walls, overgrown outside with the conquering ivy and within by genealogical trees all moulting with mildew? My thoughts flew at once to solitary figures...a widowed descendant of a lady-in-waiting at the court of Charlemagne, alone with the Sacred Heart and her beads, or a family of wax-pale barons, recklessly inbred; bachelors with walrus moustaches, bent double with rheumatism, shuddering from room to room and coughing among their lurchers, while their cleft palates called to each other down corridors that were all but pitch dark.”

I think the older Fermor realised better than the younger Fermor his youthful personality:

Spoiler:
“I felt so buoyed up by these days, that even the vague speculation as to how I might have struck him failed to damp my elation: precocious, immature, restless, voluble, prone to show off, unreliably bookish perhaps...it didn’t seem to matter a damn. My journey had taken on a new dimension and all prospects glowed.”

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Originally Posted by ccowie View Post
I did find it a little eerie to read about his travels knowing full well what was about to transpire in that area of the world. There was scene in the book (can’t seem to find it now) where he was with some new friends in a restaurant or eating outside and he was confronted by some brownshirts. He seemed a little stymied by the situation. I hope I’m remembering this correctly. It reminded me a little of the movie Cabaret, which I haven’t seen in about 25 years, but where the backdrop of WWII provided a dark shadow over a lot of mundane details of people’s lives who just weren’t waking up to the gravity of the situation.
Cabaret is one of my favourite films. The film and stage musical, and earlier play and film entitled ‘I Am a Camera”, are all based on a 1939 book by Christopher Isherwood entitled “The Berlin Stories”. Though a novel (made up of two novellas actually), it’s somewhat autobiographical and the male protagonist of Cabaret played by Michael York is loosely based on Isherwood. An interesting bit of trivia is that in reality, “Sally” was English, but her nationality became American for the film.

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This book also left me with a deep feeling of nostalgia, but for a time I could never have experienced. The instances of reliance on the kindness of strangers that would not fly today abound. Drinking oneself unconscious in a bar and the result being the owner carrying one up to a room to spend the night? Try being tossed into the street, perhaps after having first being rolled by some other barfly. Being able to sleep in a cell at the local police station? Only if under arrest. They might offer directions to the local homeless shelter, and you better be in line for a spot there by 3:00. The town mayor offering any visitor money for food and lodging? Get real. It was a time of gifts back then indeed.

One other comment on this. I do wonder if Fermor's experience would have been the same and would the idea of such a journey have been possible even back then for a working class English youth? Would the father of an old school friend been willing, or even able, in 1933 to lend Fermor 15 pounds to get him started on his journey. Would his reception throughout Europe been the same as a wandering lower-class 18-year old with the corresponding level of education?
Interesting question; I think his experiences were very unique even for the time. Fermor had a perfect storm of means, intelligence, opportunity, position, exuberance, willingness and charm.

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Part way through the book it suddenly hit me that I had known a few people like him decades ago, when I was a young university student. Boys studying Classics or the Humanities, drunk with literature, music, art, and full of excitement about new places they had visited, people they had met from different walks of life.
Wonderful description!

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…Often looking at images or reading a bit of historical background was the key to unlocking that passage for me and to capture my interest again. Definitely images greatly enhanced my appreciation of this book. I want to take a trip to Austria now!
For better or worse, I’ve become a bit of a Google addict when reading. Every little thing that interests me or piques my curiosity when reading, I often Google. It enhances the reading so much, but of course it does slow it down as well. Because of that, I’ve actually been trying to reduce my amout of Googles!

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…Yes, drunk is the word - but what struck me is how much more naive Fermor is when it comes to politics: there are many quite crude generalizations (the checks, the slavs, and so on, let alone the gipsies) which I found quite out of tune with the rest of the narrative.
I agree, and I’ll go one step further - I actually felt as I was reading as if his younger self had possibly been even cruder, and his older self writing had “cleaned it up” a bit knowing how it’d sound. But for his older self to include some crudeness without comment speaks to his older self as well. I think even his older and more aware self was still a product of his time though and for me those instances in the writing are forgivable.

It is interesting how he can be crude in some descriptions yet so very tactful in others, such as his playful and wry yet utterly respectful and even laudatory description of his evening with Frau Hubner, “a born monolinguist”:

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I soon knew all about their children, and their illnesses and bereavements and joys. This staunchless monologue treated of everyday, even humdrum matters but the resilience and the style of the telling saved it from any trace of dullness. It needed neither prompting nor response, nothing beyond an occasional nod, a few deprecating clicks of the tongue, or an assenting smile. Once, when she asked rhetorically, and with extended hands: “So what was I to do?,” I tried to answer, a little confusedly, as I had lost the thread. But my words were drowned in swelling tones: “There was only one thing to do! I gave that umbrella away next morning to the first stranger I could find! I couldn’t keep it in the house, not after what had happened. And it would have been a pity to burn it...” Arguments were confronted and demolished, condemnations and warnings uttered with the lifting of an admonitory forefinger. Comic and absurd experiences, as she recalled them, seemed to take possession of her: at first, with the unsuccessful stifling of a giggle, then leaning back with laughter until finally she rocked forward with her hands raised and then slapped on her knees in the throes of total hilarity while her tears flowed freely. She would pull herself together, dabbing at her cheeks and straightening her dress and her hair with deprecating self-reproof. A few minutes later, tragedy began to build up; there would be a catch in her voice: “...and next morning all seven goslings were dead, laid out in a row. All seven! They were the only things that poor old man still cared about!” She choked back sobs at the memory until sniffs and renewed dabs with her handkerchief and the self-administered consolations of philosophy came to the rescue and launched her on a fresh sequence.”



“Her soliloquy flowed on as voluminously as the Danube under her window, and the most remarkable aspect of it was the speaker’s complete and almost hypnotic control of her listener. Following her raptly, I found myself, with complete sincerity, merrily laughing, then puckering my brows in commiseration, and a few minutes later, melting in sympathetic sorrow, and never quite sure why. I was putty in her hands.”



“At last she saw I was nodding, and broke off with a repentant cry of self-accusation. I was sorry, as I could have gone on listening for ever.”

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Originally Posted by fantasyfan View Post
A fact that cannot be avoided is that the author clearly is remembering those things that he wishes to remember while forgetting those things he wishes to forget. The result--as Ccowie pointed out--is a tendency to present a narrative deeply coloured by Fermor's later retrospective musings on the entire adventure.
Very well put!

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Old 04-25-2014, 01:20 PM   #27
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When I read the descriptions of the landscapes, the buildings, towns and the various characters Fermor meets. I was immediately impressed with the way a sense of immediacy strikes home. There is a vivid sense of events unfolding and of the swirl and eddies of life itself as well as its still pools. And, of course, all is moderated by that dual narrative structures created by the inter-relationship between the young Fermor and the more deeply mature man he became.

It is quite an amazing book.

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Old 04-25-2014, 08:25 PM   #28
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It certainly is.

A big thank you to issybird who discovered Fermor and got me interested in him.
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Old 04-26-2014, 10:27 AM   #29
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. A big thank you to issybird who discovered Fermor and got me interested in him.
I second that! The book really provided a deepening engagement as I read it.
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Old 04-26-2014, 11:08 AM   #30
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I'm glad of Bookpossum's nomination, as I was on the fence about rereading this and its sequel before embarking on the newly published and wildly anticipated third book. As I slowly reread, it's obvious that was the only choice and I'm embarrassed not to have added anything to the dicussion. I wondered if it could live up to my memory of it and its status as my favorite travel book ever, and indeed it does; I'm delighted that so many here share my appreciation of PLF.

I'm looking forward to reading in the next several months all three books plus the biography by Artemis Cooper published last year. Hmm, I just realized I'm currently reading something else by Cooper; I guess it will be a year for her, also.
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