“A Ghostly Message of Comfort”

himbeergeist

Another nice bit from A Time of Gifts:

“In cold weather like this,” said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, “I recommend Himbeergeist.” I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost–this crystalline  distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns–or so it seemed after a second glass–like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through snow and ice. White fire, red cheek, heat me and speed me. This discovery cast a glow over the approach of Linz.

I’m not enthralled by A Time of Gifts overall: maybe I was wrong that vicarious voyages are the right antidote for this strange immobile moment, or maybe it’s just that right now, stalled as I otherwise am, I need the forward momentum of plot to keep my attention reliably engaged. He’s also traveling through landscapes that have never been part of my own imaginative life the way other places (England or Greece or Egypt, for instance) have been: I’ve never had any urge to go to Germany myself, never dreamed of wandering the streets of its cities the way I dreamed of visiting London or York and still dream of one day seeing the Valley of the Kings. Even so, there are many passages that I’m pausing over with pleasure and admiration at Fermor’s descriptions. There are so many odd and striking details here, including his reference to fimbria, which I had to look up and which still seem an odd choice in context. I’m not much of a drinker but I think if I ever saw a bottle of Himbeergeist at the NSLC I might now be tempted by the thought of those “ice ferns” doing their comforting work.

There’s also an underlying story that (so far) lurks mostly in the margins: it’s the 1930s, after all, and he’s traveling through Germany:  he sees plenty of swastikas and Nazi salutes and bars full of SS men happily quaffing beer and singing. A Time of Gifts feels strikingly apolitical compared to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (no, I’ve never finished it!), which of course is a very different kind of book in purpose as well as in style. I don’t know if Fermor stays focused primarily on his personal experiences (including his reflections on landscape, art, and literature) or if the building political pressures of the time make that boundary between private and public life impossible for him to sustain.

2 thoughts on ““A Ghostly Message of Comfort”

  1. banff1972 June 15, 2020 / 3:13 pm

    Chiming in to say that I think about this passage all the time, even though I have never had Himbeergeist! So evocative. There’s a passage in v 2 in which he eats some apples that also stays with me. Vivid particularity but also abstract reflection–that’s Fermor for you. (Where he loses me is when he rhapsodizes over architectural details. Lotta finials in those books.)

    • Rohan Maitzen June 17, 2020 / 8:27 am

      I haven’t been to a liquor store since early March but when I do go again I’m definitely going to see if this exists here. 🙂

      Finials at least I would not have to look up. Fimbria, though – that was a weird one.

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