Day 335: A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube

Cover for A Time of GiftsIn December 1933, nineteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out alone on a great adventure, a walking trip from Amsterdam to Istanbul, or as Fermor still called it, Constantinople. (It was renamed in 1930.) He had no idea when he left that he would not return until 1937. In 1977, he collected his notebooks from the trip and wrote A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water.

Although Leigh Fermor had one notebook stolen from him with all the rest of his gear, he otherwise must have kept careful account and his memories of the trip must still have been vivid, for the result is an entrancing account of scenery and architecture, tales of chance encounters, glimpses of foreign customs and celebrations, and so on. Jan Morris, who wrote the introduction, calls him “one of the great prose stylists of our time,” and Wikipedia, quoting an unnamed British journalist, “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” presumably for his work with the Cretan resistance in World War II as well as his writing. (He was also a friend of Ian Fleming.)

From his drinking bouts with Dutch barge men to his extended stays in various German, Austrian, and Czech castles, Leigh Fermor plunges enthusiastically into every experience on offer. At one moment he is sleeping in a barn, in the next hanging out with fashionable youth in Vienna. Along the banks of the Danube he is mistaken for a 50-year-old smuggler. All of these adventures as well as his observations of nature are described in beautiful, evocative prose. To add interest to the modern reader, he is describing a Europe that no longer exists.

If I have any complaint, it is one of my own education, for Leigh Fermor’s writing assumes for his audience a familiarity with classical culture that is no longer common. The book often alludes to mythology and refers to obscure historical events that I do not fully understand. Finally, in the footnotes, which are Leigh Fermor’s original ones, all utterances in modern languages (some of which I could have taken a stab at) are translated, but the quotations in Latin are not. They are not integral to comprehension, but it is a little frustrating to be unable to understand them. (Of course, I could have googled them, but I was almost always reading this on the bus.) That being said, I look forward to reading the sequel.

Day 208: The Quiet Twin

Cover for The Quiet TwinThe Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta seems to start out as a standard mystery, but it turns out to be something else entirely. I was attracted to it because in reviews it was compared to Rear Window, one of my favorite movies.

In a 1939 Viennese neighborhood, there is a rumor of a serial killer. A man was murdered not far away, and someone has killed Professor Speckstein’s old dog in a similar manner.

The courtyard behind Dr. Beer’s more respectable apartment building is shared by some tenements occupied by poverty-stricken tenants. The view that some apartments have into others sets up the situation reminiscent of Rear Window.

Dr. Beer is called to treat Professor Speckstein’s niece Zuzka, a college student who suffers from periodic paralysis. Speckstein is a disgraced former college professor who was once accused of child molestation but has hung onto his social position by becoming a Nazi party informant. Dr. Beer, a student of Freud, diagnoses Zuzka with hysteria.

Zuzka is bored and sleepless, so she watches the courtyard from the window in the middle of the night. She has seen a man across the way washing off makeup and what appears to be blood, so she decides to investigate whether he is the killer.

Also living in the courtyard is a drunken man and his little girl Lieschen, whose body is badly deformed from an accident. Zuzka befriends Lieschen while Dr. Beer worries what may happen to her under the Nazis, having heard about some of their ideas.

A brutish police detective named Teuben appears to investigate the murders, but his actual plan is to pin them on some hapless person.

Although Vyleta has tried to depict the atmosphere among the common people of Vienna under the Nazis, I am not so sure he succeeds. Dr. Beer seems to be one of the few characters who is aware of any threat. An aura of dread persists, but it seems more dependent upon my knowledge of coming events than on any feeling from the novel, although the novel is certainly bleak. Perhaps because I read In the Garden of the Beasts only a few weeks before, I expected an atmosphere that was much more fraught with peril.