Musings / Gentile's Relish

One of the most elegant of all 20th-century authors is - though he detests the term - a travel writer.

The Golden Age of Radio that Woody Allen so memorably evokes in his film "Radio Days" had its parallel in Britain. With no television and little opportunity to go to the cinema, radio was the principal cultural resource for children who grew up in those strange days of World War II. The comedy programs and crime serials to which we listened avidly on what was then called "the wireless" were what we discussed with our friends. Even our childhood reading was influenced by the radio. A widely read children's comic was "Radio Fun." It featured in comic-strip form caricatures of radio personalities getting in and out of imagined scrapes. The heroes of these strips were usually radio comedians, but one regular feature of the paper was devoted to sending up a program that was far removed from comedy.

"The Brains Trust" was a long-running and astonishingly popular radio program, on which a panel of intellectuals would address questions posed by listeners. Of the many scholars and academics who took part, there were three who owed their entire celebrity to their regular appearance on the program. The biologist Julian Huxley and the philosopher C.E.M. Joad were certified eggheads, but how the third man slipped in remains an enigma.

Commander Campbell was a bluff sailor and was there, I suppose, to represent the BBC's idea of the common man. The success in the eyes of the public of a radio personality could frequently be attributed to a catch phrase associated with him. Joad, a true disciple of Bertrand Russell, prefaced his replies with the formulaic "It all depends on what you mean by ..." Campbell's catch phrase was "When I was in Patagonia" - a phrase so indelibly identified with him that he cashed in on it by writing a book with it as its title.

Who had then heard of Patagonia, let alone been there? Campbell could have claimed to have been in Arcadia or Illyria for all we knew. But today Patagonia is, it seems, one of the places you have to see before you die. "1000 Places to See Before You Die" is the name of a travel book that headed the best-seller lists in 2003. I have not read the book; nor am I likely to. I have 1,000 books to read before I die and that is not one of them. But it is the title rather than the book that sets off in me a panic attack the like of which used to send Tony Soprano furtively scurrying off to see his glamorous psychotherapist.

I am withholding names to protect the innocent, but ask you to assume a hypothetical septuagenarian who, upon hearing of the book, finds that he is about 984 places shy of his 1,000-place quota and feels that he is rapidly running out of time. Naturally he has to get to Patagonia, but will he be able to meet his Maker without also having been to Lapland to tour Santa's Village or to Romania for a peek at Count Dracula's castle? I concede that it would be perverse to deny the pleasures that travel often brings. What leaves me relatively unmoved is the drive to mark your card, to get shot of one more place before - as contemplated by that book - you finally shuffle off this mortal coil.

My aversion to travel as a cult extends to travel writing. Hard as it is to credit, fine writers like Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene can, when describing their travels, induce as many yawns as the travel bore you find yourself sitting next to at a wedding. Which is why I find it so surprising that one of the most pleasurably elegant of all 20th-century authors is, though he detests the term, a travel writer.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was thrown out of every school he ever attended. As a consequence this autodidact, who never read anything he did not want to read, wrote books remarkable not only for their sparkling style but for a seemingly effortless erudition - historical, linguistic and literary. In December 1933, the 18-year-old Fermor set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He slept in haystacks and lodged in cheap inns and dosshouses, but also in palaces and mansions where, thanks to his charm, he was invited to stay for weeks on end. His memories of the first two legs of that epic journey, reflected in tranquillity 40 years later, form the first two volumes of a planned trilogy.

Fermor is now aged 92, living in Greece. He is reputed to have an iron constitution and probably thinks that he has plenty of time to conclude what many knowledgeable critics believe will be numbered among the masterpieces of English prose of the 20th century. But there are thousands of admirers who will curse his memory if he fails to finish the third book before that man with a scythe inevitably calls on him.

The pleasures of reading and rereading the first two - "A Time of Gifts" (1977) and "Between the Woods and the Water" (1986) - are endless. What strikes you about Fermor, aside from the amazing erudition and the sparkling prose, is that he is so patently likable. You are not at all surprised that he gets on as well with the tramps and bargemen that he encounters on his journey as with the aristocrats who vie with each other to entertain him in their palatial homes. And everywhere he tries to slake his unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

In 1934, in a Hungarian forest, he stumbles upon a group of strangely garbed woodcutters. They are Hasidic Jews from the nearby town of Szatmar. They are bewildered by this amiable teenager, who tells them that he is tramping alone across Europe; it is not the kind of thing that Jews would do, they think. But, good-naturedly, they arrive at an explanation. It is "goyim nachas" - a Yiddish expression that Fermor translates as "gentile's relish." It seemed, he writes, to hit the nail on the head.

Fermor is fascinated by the strange texts that he finds his new friends poring over. His passion for alphabets enables him to recognize the Hebrew letters that he had, some months before, copied from the signs on Jewish shops in Bratislava. But when he realizes that they are studying the Bible, large chunks of which he knows by heart in English translation, he becomes excited. And so do they. They seemed, he says, astonished that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world. As he translates his favorite passages - the Songs of Miriam and of Deborah, the rivers of Babylon - into his inadequate German, they catch on and recite the Hebrew versions with mounting enthusiasm. The climax arrives when Fermor recites David's lament over Saul and Jonathan: "How are the mighty fallen! Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph."

Not to be outdone, they promptly declaim the elegy in its original Hebrew. Writing 50 years later, Fermor knows the almost-certain fate of his friends. But the words of the lament, reproduced in the book in transliterated Ashkenazi Hebrew, serve as an epitaph for those kindly woodmen and for a Europe that has gone forever.