Sunday, April 30, 2006


The blue crab.

William W. Warner, Beautiful Swimmers (Back Bay).

William Warner wrote this book about the blue crab and the men who go out on Chesapeake Bay to catch them in the early 1970's, and it is a classic in the mold of Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. Warner completely masters his subject. A researcher at the Smithsonian Institute then and today (as near as I can tell), Warner spent many a night sleeping in odd spots to wake up hours before first light so that he could join Maryland and Virginia crab fisherman on the water. It's hard to say whether Warner has more affection for the blue crabs or the men who fish for them. He digests and relates an impressive array of scientific and learning about the crabs and their environment, but I was no less impressed by his ear for the local dialect and his ability to win the trust of and relate to the fishermen. Perhaps things fall slightly flat when Warner turns to the business of shipping and selling the crabs; if so, it is only because his heart is on the water, not at the market.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Europe, on foot.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time Of Gifts (NYRB, 2005).
Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between The Woods And The Water (NYRB, 2005).

As a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a rare combination of talent and trouble. After many brushes with authority, he got himself expelled from school for consorting with a local girl in the town near his boarding school. Studying on his own to gain admission to Sandhurst, Fermor was struck with the idea of a Wanderjahr, a walk across Europe to Constantinople (which he never calls Istanbul). With the most basic of provisions, he caught a freighter from London to Rotterdam in the winter of 1933, and when he got to Holland, he struck out on foot. A Time Of Gifts takes him from the start of this trip to a crossing into Hungary, where the tale continues in Between The Woods And The Water.

Fermor did not write the story of his trip until many decades later, after a heroic turn fighting with insurgents in Crete during World War II (of which more here) and writing other books on the Caribbean and Greece, fiction and non-fiction. A Time Of Gifts was published in 1977 and Between The Woods And The Water was published in 1986. Particularly as his journey continues, he steps out of time to relate later experiences or learning, or simply to apologize for a stretch about which his memory has failed and his notes have been lost. The hindsight and additional learning of an older man inform his account of his exploits, but do not intrude. On the whole, his writing is like a song, a pleasure to read but rarely obtrusive.

A autodidact and a polymath, Fermor's explusion from school in no way dampened his interest in learning. When Fermor found hospitality on his trip -- he struck up key acquaintances in Munich and Vienna, and spent the night in many a schloss thereafter; likewise with Budapest -- he often ended up in his host's library. A self-taught polymath, Fermor roams freely across the humanities, taking interest in the art, history, language, and architecture of the lands he walks through. One frequently suspects that he has left the travelogue to relate things he learned later, but he was so precocious -- for example, consider his deja vu experience of walking through a Holland he had seen in art -- that one is never sure. Nor does it matter. Perhaps to Fermor's biographers, but not to this reader.

Fermor has a facility with languages that I envy, although he has a harder time with vernacular tongues as the number of German speakers around him falls off. (Even in Transylvania, there were long-established communities of ethnic Germans, so German carries him a long way.) He picks up some Hungarian, a notoriously difficult language unlike any of its neighbors, brought from far to the east by the Magyars. Fermor is also fascinated with history, and in particular with the movements of peoples -- Romans, Goths, Slavs, Magyars, and so on -- who passed before him, and entomology is often a portal to such things. Even with language, he has a remarkable knack for finding signs of this history in the landscape and built environment around him. One wonders how much of this history has been destroyed or paved over since Fermor passed through -- in particular, motor vehicles do not intrude all that often in his journeys, something that has surely changed quite a bit.

At that point in his life, Fermor was more interested in matters historical than current events, which is to say, do not turn to this book for an eyewitness account of European politics in the 1930s. The nature of his trip was to spend more time in the countryside than in cities, which keeps him away from most political activity. (To be fair, his itinerary included some long stays, but of these he says less, perhaps because notes or memories are no longer with him.) He describes an encounter with a Nazi in a bar in Germany which seems prophetic in retrospect, and he arrived in Vienna in the midst of street-fighting, but at the time he lacked the broader perspective to place these events in context. All the same, that Europe's fate looms over the book, making Fermor's youthful wonder all the more of a gift.

Through Holland and much of Germany, Fermor makes friendly acquaintances, but as when he reaches central Europe -- as noted, especially in Vienna and Budapest -- Fermor someone falls in with the upper class, and makes friends. As his trip continues, his stops at the odd schloss or country estate grow longer and longer. Since he was not wealthy himself -- indeed, he is completely out of funds when he reaches Vienna and spends his first few days there figuring out how to earn small change -- I marvelled at his ability to cross over social barriers. I think the reason that he could do this is that the premise of his trip reflects a certain luxury of spirit, even if he lacked funds, and placed him apart from the working and middle classes in the lands he passes through. Too, his learning and education signal a background shared with Central European nobility. However he did it, as Fermor travels through Hungary and Transylvania, he spends more and more of his time with aristocrats. Of course, their Europe was fated to pass soon as well.

At the end of Between The Woods And The Water, Fermor has crossed through Transylvania and reunited with the Danube at the river port of Orsova, hundreds of miles from Constantinople, about to cross into Bulgaria. He closes the book with the words, "TO BE CONCLUDED." Fermor, recently knighted, is living in Greece, and one hopes he has been writing.

[May 16, 2006:]
In the May 22 issue of The New Yorker, Anthony Lane profiles Leigh Fermor, and raises "the enticing prospect of a third and concluding volume. Long planned, it would take the author to the banks of the Bosporus and thus to the gates of the East. 'I'm absolutely long to get at it,' he said to me." Lane's profile, which is well worth reading, is not posted on-line.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Hong Kong.

Martin Booth's memoir of growing up in Hong Kong in the early 1950's, Golden Boy, was favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review this weekend. I read a copy purchased overseas (published as Gweilo) some months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but have not found the time to write up books I read before I started this blog. Were I looking for something to read on a flight to Hong Kong, I probably would recommend it over Travelers' Tales: Hong Kong (a decent anthology) or Jan Morris' Hong Kong, and definitely over Paul Theroux's Kowloon Tong, a miserable little novel.

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