In the indispensable walk book A Time of Gifts (1977) Patrick Leigh Fermor introduces a character he calls The Polymath. Fermor, eighteen years old and drummed out of his English school, set off on foot for Constantinople in 1933. It was as audacious as it sounds.
A voracious reader and autodidact, young Fermor commands enough language skills to complete his education along the way. He stops at the castles of Europe’s diminishing aristocracy–he himself is of the right sort and knows people–where his delight at discovering a library that holds the Encyclopedia Britannica, Meyers Konversations-Lexikon or the Larousse XIXème Siècle is only matched when he wanders into Danubian tavern and encounters a learned “man in loden.”
I had chanced on a gold mine! ‘Enquire within about everything’: flora, fauna, history, literature, music, archaeology–it was a richer source than any castle library…He had a delightful Bohemian scholar-gispy touch.
The Polymath tells Fermor the story of the Goths, the Vandals, and also the Macromanni and the Quadi in Central European history,, and, by extension, to the reader. This reader agrees with Fermor when he exclaims “This is the way to be taught history!” From an inhabitant of a Danubian castle, drawing maps of migrations on the tablecloth after a second bottle of Langenlois.
Fermor actually wrote A Time of Gifts forty years later. The Polymath may be a composite character of the kind common to memoirs; he may be a reflection of Fermor himself. The adult writer had now learned some flora, fauna, history, literature, music, archaeology, but ascribed them to a character. (The contrast is sharp with a writer/walker such as W. G. Sebald, whose narrator in The Rings of Saturn simply watches his thoughts turn to, say, a detailed history of the Chinese silk industry as he wanders the coast of Norfolk.)
Truth be told, Fermor, like Sebald, like me, aspires to be a polymath, or, at least, a Bohemian scholar-gipsy. I want to know it all, and to write about it all. When Sebald’s publisher in England asked what category–fiction, travel, memoir, essay– he would like to put his book in, the author replied, “All of them.”