Saturday, September 06, 2008

Moonlight on the Danube

There was a nice article today by William Dalrymple about Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose books include some extraordinarily beautiful descriptions of landscape. Here he is, for example, in A Time of Gifts describing moonlight on The Danube: 'the line of the moon's reflection lay amidstream where the current runs fastest and shivered and flashed there like quicksilver. The reefs and shoals and islands and the unravelling loops of water which had lain hidden till now were all laid bare. Wastes of fen spread from either shore and when the surfaces were broken by undergrowth or sedge or trees, they gleamed like fragments of flawed looking-glass. All was changed. The thin-shadowed light cast a spell of mineral illusion. The rushes and the flags were turned into thin metal; the poplar leaves became a kind of weightless coinage; the lightness of foil had infected the woods. The frosty radiance played tricks with levels and distance until I was surrounded by a dimensionless and inconcrete fiction which was growing paler every second. While the light was seeking out more and more liquid surfaces for reflection, the sky, where the moon was now sailing towards its zenith, seemed to have become an expanse of silvery powder too fine for the grain to be descried. Silence transcended the bitterns' notes and the industry of the frogs. Stillness and infinity were linked in a feeling of tension which, I felt sure, presaged hours of gazing watchfulness. But I was wrong. In a little while my eyes were closing under a shallow tide of sleep.'

This quotation should indicate why Dalrymple talks about Leigh Fermor's 'sublime prose style' and calls him 'arguably our finest living prose-poet.' Out of context this kind of writing may seem a bit full on; but A Time of Gifts is not a dispassionate account - it describes the impressions of a eighteen year old who is awakening to a world 'luminescent with promise'. For the same reason, I enjoyed the way Leigh Fermor started to see the landscape of the Low Countries and Germany through the eyes of painters: Brueghel in particular. Of course in this he was just following the picturesque tradition, but young Leigh Fermor was rediscovering these artistic correspondences for himself. They were part of an appetite for culture and history (fed in part by the erudite and civilised conversations he manages to have en route) which give all his 'landscapes' a vivid connection to the past.

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