As a fellow explorer – who has recently crossed Antarctica – and an Oxonian, I was asked to review Robert Byron's First Russia, then Tibet, re-published (along with his book about the monasteries of Mount Athos, The Station – Athos: Treasures and Men) for the fi rst time since 1933.
Byron felt, evidenced by his subtitle, Travels through a Changing World, that the onset of modernity was challenging the political and social fabric of the world and set out to visit the two most contradictory societies on earth. The poetry of the subtitle may be much more appealing but the utilitarian title is structurally and thematically perfect.
Half the book is devoted to Russia, "where the moral influence of the Industrial Revolution has found its grim apotheosis". Byron visits Moscow, Leningrad and a handful of cities that are of interest. But his real motivation is a desire to investigate the arcane Byzantine origins of Russian iconography.
The second half records a breathtaking journey on the first commercial flight to India that even Saint-Exupèry might envy: "I see it now as one of the great experiences of a life, a period of vivid, unclouded enjoyment... of unsuspected and unimagined beauties, of heat and desolation beyond credence, of a new pleasure in physical movement", and then a fascinating expedition into Tibet, rarely visited by a writer of Byron's quality. It is here that I found the greatest imaginative connection, as Byron laments the "monotonous, agonised records of those more adventurous explorers", but nevertheless braves the rigours of the Tibetan plateau, to illuminate the gorgeous landscape and its graceful people.
The balance of the two contradictory journeys, the order implying an ironic inversion of the Russian establishment's assertion of progress – first Russia, then Tibet – makes this a difficult book, two in one, but for the patient reader a rewarding volume. As Byron comments: "This book presents two excursions whose very diversity is symbolic of those formidable contradictions which make it a privilege and a puzzle to be alive in the twentieth century."
Among Byron's 'Brideshead' contemporaries Evelyn Waugh and Peter Fleming, who outsold him at the time, he has proved far more influential on later writers. Byron's subsequent Road to Oxiana was declared by Bruce Chatwin to be a "sacred text" and "beyond criticism", and in the witty Byron – a camp aesthete with an amateur brilliance in art history and a penchant for exotica – it is not hard to see why Chatwin became a devotee.
Many of the qualities admired in Oxiana are present in First Russia, then Tibet: the passages of intensely beautiful description or the deft ability to generalise epigrammatically about a culture; but it lacks the episodic, mosaic quality of Oxiana, which appears to be so carelessly put down but is, in fact, rigorously studied.
Byron writes that "the ideas of Russia are preached and act as a challenge to the West. The ideas of Tibet offer no challenge." The pugnacious Byron cannot help himself. While prescient and perceptive, his description of Bolshevism as a religion followed by a self-indulgent essay on early Russian painting is less rewarding – but in Tibet, when he just observes, the book demonstrates why, in this changed world, affecting writing of any age should be cherished.