[The topic here is neither American nor Catholic, so I was originally going to relegate it strictly to my personal blog, but in the end I found it too interesting to avoid sharing.]
Some years ago, I wrote here about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, a beautifully written travel book about the first stage of the author’s 1933 walk across Europe from from Holland to Constantinople.
The only customer, I unslung my rucksack in a little Gastof. Standing on chairs, the innkeeper’s pretty daughters, who were aged from five to fifteen, were helping their father decorate a Christmas tree; hanging witch-balls, looping tinsel, fixing candles to the branches, and crowning the tip with a wonderful star. They asked me to help and when it was almost done, their father, a tall, thoughtful-looking man, uncorked a slim bottle from the Rudesheim vineyard just over the river. We drank it together and had nearly finished a second by the time the last touches to the tree were complete. Then the family assembled round it and sang. The candles were the only light and the solemn and charming ceremony was made memorable by the candle-lit faces of the girls — and by their beautiful and clear voices. I was rather surprised that they didn’t sing Stille Nacht: it had been much in the air the last few days; but it is a Lutheran hymn and I think this bank of the Rhine is mostly Catholic. Two of the carols they sang have stuck in my memory: O Du Heilige and Es ist ein Reis entsprungen: both were entracing and especially the second, which, they told me, was very old. In the end I went to church with them and stayed the night. When all the inhabitants of Bingen were exchanging greetings with each other outside the church in the small hours, a few flakes began falling. Next morning the household embraced each other, shook hands again, and wished everyone a happy Christmas. The smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper. I wished I’d had something to hand her, neatly done up in holly-patterned ribbon — I thought later of my aluminum pencil-case containing a new Venus or Royal Sovereign [pencil] wound in tissue paper, but too late. The time of gifts.
I’ve since read what was intended to be the second volume of a three part narrative of the trip, Between the Woods and the Water. It is similarly a joy to read.
Fermor died last Friday, June 10th, the third volume still unpublished, and with him passes not only that part of the narrative which remains unwritten, but a man of a kind little seen in this day and age. Christopher Hitchens (who whatever else his faults can certainly recognize brilliant prose) writes about Fermor’s life in Slate, including Fermor’s time with the guerrillas in Greece during World War II. He includes a quote, which if memory serves comes from Time of Gifts, where Fermor recalls in a flash forward (Time of Gifts was not actually written until 1977, though it makes use of his diaries from 1933, so it is consciously written about pre-war Europe by one living with the aftereffects of the war) an incident during one of his more famous wartime escapades — kidnapping the Nazi commander of all German forces in Greece and taking him as a prisoner to Egypt.
We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: Vides et ulta stet nive candidum Soracte. [“See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.”] It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off. … The general’s blue eyes swiveled 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. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a 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.
If you haven’t read any Fermor, treat yourself and do so. You won’t regret it. Seldom do we see his like.
UPDATE: From yet another Fermor book In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor comes this follow-on to the story of his wartime capture of the German general:
from ‘In tearing haste’ letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire, page… 121, May 1972:
(…) I had an extraordinary experience three weeks ago; meeting General Kreipe on a television programme, with all his Cretan captors, after 27 years. After the programme, all the Cretans – about 20 – the General & his wife (very nice), a niece of Field Marshal v. Rundstedt, and I had a huge banquet in a taverna. Lots of Cretan songs and dances, a few German folk songs sung by the General and me, after much wine had flowed. Some journalists got wind of it and broke in. One asked the General how I had treated him when he was my prisoner in the mountains and the Gen said – wait for it! – most energetically: ‘Ritterlich! Wie ein Ritter’ (‘Chivalrously! Like a knight!). I felt a halo forming and it took me days to get back to normal. I took them out to all sorts of meals and, and showered Frau Kreipe with roses when they left (she was extremely nice). She said: ‘You’re just like my husband told me you were all these years!’ (Three cheers again! Forgive me retailing these dewdrops – but nobody else can, you do see.) It was somehow a wonderful rounding off to this ancient story. I’ve just got a charming joint letter from them!