The Road to Oxiana: the greatest travel book of the 20th century

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

AfghanAccording to Robert Byron’s Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh – never the most reliable witness – the future author of The Road to Oxiana used to delight in shouting “Down with abroad”. Typical in striking a pose, Byron was an aggressive Oxford aesthete of the “Brideshead generation”, a homosexual wanderer whose precocious career as a travel writer and art historian can be traced through a succession of prewar gems. (Robert Byron by James Knox, published by John Murray in 2003, remains the principal biographical source.) Byron wrote The Station, aged 22, after a visit to Mount Athos on a mule, Fortnum & Mason saddlebags bursting with a soda siphon and chicken in aspic. This was followed by The Byzantine Achievement (1929) and The Birth of Western Painting (1930). In 1933, the publication of First Russia, Then Tibet confirmed Byron’s reputation as a traveller and connoisseur. In the same year, accompanied by his friend Christopher Sykes, but tormented by his unrequited love for Desmond Parsons, Byron set out on a journey to Persia and Afghanistan, by way of Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad, in search of the origins of Islamic architecture. After many vicissitudes, The Road to Oxiana (the remote northern borderland of Afghanistan) became the record of his 11-month journey, a fabulous and intoxicating weave of surreal vignettes, journal entries and odd playlets. In these gorgeous pages, poetry, gossip and scholarship become braided into an exotic tapestry that dazzles as much today as it did on publication. As many critics have noted, unlike his contemporaries, such as Peter Fleming and Norman Douglas, Byron has not dated.

An enthusiastic literary critical response ranged from Graham Greene, who admired Byron’s demotic, conversational brilliance, to the rivalrous Evelyn Waugh, who had to concede the book’s high spirits, via the Sunday Times, which linked Byron to his namesake (no relation) and declared him “the last and finest fruit of the insolent humanism of the 18th century”. Today, widely considered to be Byron’s masterpiece, The Road to Oxiana stands as perhaps the greatest travel book of the 20th century.

More here.