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Old 03-11-2018, 02:52 PM   #1
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The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

'In 1933 the delightfully eccentric Robert Byron set out on a journey through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to Oxiana -the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. His arrival at his destination, the legendary tower of Qabus, although a wonder in itself, it not nearly so amazing as the thoroughly captivating, at times zany, record of his adventures. In addition to its entertainment value, The Road to Oxiana also serves as a rare account of the architectural treasures of a region now inaccessible to most Western travellers.'

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This is the MR Literary Club selection for March 2018. Whether you've already read it or would like to, feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time, and guests are always welcome! So, what are your thoughts on it?

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Old 03-11-2018, 05:30 PM   #2
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Sigh, between the dog-whistling and the outright shouting:
"Christopher took me a tour of the third-class quarters. Had their occupants been animals, a good Englishman would have informed the R.S.P.C.A. But the fares are cheap; and being Jews, one knows they could all pay more if they wanted."

This is the first time I can recall seeing kempt used in a novel:
"S.s. “Martha Washington,” September 4th.—I found Christopher on the pier, adorned with a kempt but reluctant beard five days old."
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Old 03-15-2018, 09:59 AM   #3
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One of the things that stand out for me is the remarkably vivid language which must be a mirror of a very intense, insightful and vigorous mind. We find examples of this quite early on with these whimsical images:

“History in this island [Cyprus] is almost too profuse. It gives one a sort of mental indigestion”

and

“Trees were planted along the immaculate tarmac road that brought me from Larnaca to Nicosia, casuarinas and cypresses. But the wind has defeated them, a furious hot blast which gets up off the sea every afternoon and turns the countless water-wheels. These gaunt iron skeletons stand in groves on the outskirts of the towns: their choral creaking is the island’s chief song”

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Old 03-31-2018, 02:23 PM   #4
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One of the things that stand out for me is the remarkably vivid language which must be a mirror of a very intense, insightful and vigorous mind.
Yes, I’m also enjoying his vivid language. There are some striking similes- “A Persian-speaking infant adorned with eyelashes as long as ospreys conducted us to the necessary officials”; “Dawn, like a smile from the gallows, pierced the gusty, drizzling night.”

What I particularly like are his descriptions of the countryside - “From the pass above Amiriya we looked back over a mounting array of peaks, ranges, and buttresses to the white cone of Demavend in the top of the sky; and forward over a plain of boundless distances, where mountains rippled up and sighed away like the wash of a tide, dark here, shining there, while shadow and sunshine followed their masters the clouds across the earth’s arena. Trees of autumn yellow embowered the lonely villages. Elsewhere, desert; the stony black-lustred desert of eastern Persia.” Here is a view of Mt Damavand: - the photograph does not do justice to his description.

While he often is not funny to the modern ear, I did greatly enjoy his story of the arrival of the bus at Meshed.

One supposes he could be a great travelling companion - resourceful, hardy, cheerful and adventurous.

For anyone curious about the vehicles he travelled on through eastern Persia:

the Morris “The back axle has broken, sixty miles from Teheran”

The Bedford Bus with the pilgrims to Meshed.

And the magnificent Reo Speed Wagon
“Never in all Persia was there such a lorry as I caught at Damghan: a brand new Reo Speed Waggon, on its maiden voyage”
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Old 03-31-2018, 05:19 PM   #5
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Thanks for the links! The language is indeed vivid. I think it will take me awhile to finish this book. It's best enjoyed in small bites.

I was surprised to learn that he died so young at 35 when the boat he was traveling on was torpedoed by a U-boat during the war. I suppose he packed more than a typical lifetime of travel and experience into that short period!
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Old 04-04-2018, 05:30 PM   #6
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I think it will take me awhile to finish this book. It's best enjoyed in small bites.
I think you’re spot-on! I really enjoy dipping into it. While not a page-turner it’s fun to savour the various incidents at one’s leisure. It reminds me a bit of Amelia Edwards in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. Though she isn’t as entertainingly vivid as Byron, she is more academically precise in her descriptions of the people and places she visits.
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Old 04-06-2018, 02:06 PM   #7
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I continue to be entertained by Byron's adventures and his descriptions. Thus, the horses supplied for his return through the mountain passes in winter: "The horses were punctual. One could not put its near foreleg to the ground, and the other two resembled the mount of Death in the Apocalypse."

I assume that Byron was referring to Durer's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an image that surely was familiar to readers of the era. Definitely not transportation up to the requirements; his comments after his first day out "I rode nearly sixty miles today and have just got into bed with a cup of soup. The first cock is crowing."

His hardihood is amazing, finding himself lost in the mountains in the mist:
"We were lost. It was a tiresome predicament in a country where personal safety ceases with the curfew. But it dispelled my pains like magic. I wondered for a minute if the guide had brought me to this pass for some purpose of his own. His moans contradicted the idea; he might be a robber, I thought unjustly, but not an actor. He would not even help me unload the luggage. Finally I shook him out of his despair and he consented to hobble the horses. Then he sank on to his tuft again, refused the food I offered him, and tried to refuse the blanket till I tied it round his shoulders. It was very cold; we were again in a thick damp cloud. I spread my own bedding, dined off some egg, sausage, cheese, and whisky, read a little Boswell, and fell fast asleep among the aromatic herbs with my money-bags between my feet and my big hunting knife unclasped in my fist."

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Old 05-23-2018, 12:43 AM   #8
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I'm still traveling The Road to Oxiana at a leisurely pace. I think this book has been best enjoyed in small bites. I have finally arrived at the last section of the journey. While I love the beautiful writing and how well it paints an image, I wish there were more photos incorporated into the text. It would take ages to stop and research all of the places. I just discovered these helpful links today and hope that others find them useful. I wish that I had found them earlier!

The Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London has allowed a selection of Byron's photos to be published here:
https://archnet.org/collections/18

I also found this wonderful blog that has made a project to research the monuments in the book.
https://squarekufic.com/the-road-to-oxiana-project/

The blog also includes a lovely biography, a map of the monuments with dates and the story of how the book was written. Fascinating! He did achieve the spontaneous effect of one picturing him writing the journal as he traveled.
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In the form of a travelogue, the book is an accurate reportage of the long, exotic journey of Byron and his friend Christopher Sykes. It is extremely romantic thinking of Robert Byron, on those snowy days blocked in Qala i Now, writing the diary at length, writing down the situation of the road and his sickness. Isn’t it evocative? And the reader feels the changes in his writing due to external circumstances, even more so when he records ‘I have been reading Proust for the last three days (and begin to observe the infection of uncontrolled detail creeping into this diary)’.

In fact, the travelogue was written after the journey, and it took him three years of constant work to complete and perfect the book. As Acton reports, he labored hard ‘to obtain an effect of spontaneity’.
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Old 05-23-2018, 05:47 PM   #9
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Thank you so much for the lovely post, Bookworm_Girl. One does get a sense of his great interest in architecture from the book, but his photos really shout that out. One can see why he would have been frustrated by not being able to view some of the holy sites, after taking considerable efforts to get to some of the locations.

I'll be reading the rest of the book with a more informed eye.
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Old 05-26-2018, 03:27 PM   #10
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Robert Byron needs an ereader!

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I wish I were rich enough to endow a prize for the sensible traveller: £10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo's outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another £10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey. He might or might not be naturally observant. But at least he would use what else he had, and would not think it necessary to dress up the result in thrills that never happened and science no deeper than his own jargon.

What I mean is, that if I had some more detective stories instead of Thucydides and some bottles of claret instead of tepid whiskey, I should probably settle here for good.
In seriousness, when you get to the latter passages in the book, I've found interesting the contrast between the winter and spring seasons and its effect on one's mental state in addition to the landscape.
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