Monday, February 14, 2022

First Paragraph

 Anyone who reads around the travel books of the Thirties must, in the end, conclude that Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana is the masterpiece. Byron was a gentleman, a scholar and an aesthetic, who drowned in 1941 when his ship to West Africa was torpedoed. In his short life he travelled as far as China and Tibet, and most of the countries nearer home. In 1928 he published The Station, an account of a visit to the monasteries of Mount Athos, and followed it up with two pioneering volumes on Byzantine civilisation, which, at that time, received scant consideration from academic circles. He had some lively prejudices. Among the targets of his abuse were the Catholic (as opposed to the Orthodox) Church; the art of Classical Greece; the paintings of Rembrandt; Shakespeare - and when his Intourist guide protested that the plays could never have been written by a grocer from Stratford-upon-Avon, he murmured, 'They are exactly the sort of plays I would expect a grocer to write.' In 1932, attracted by the photo of a Seljuk tomb-tower on the Turkoman steppe, he set out on a quest for the origins of Islamic architecture. And, if it is fair to place his earlier books as the work of a dazzlingly gifted young amateur, it is equally fair to rank The Road to Oxiana as a work of genius.

- From "A Lament for Afghanistan" in What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin

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