Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Silk Road

Robert Byron's The Road To Oxiana is a funny and casually erudite travel diary, covering 10 months of travel in Persia and Afghanistan. The 1930s, from this distance at least, feels like the last time you could go somewhere in Asia and find its culture not yet Westernized, plus there was still an aristocratic class with the money and free time to meander around the globe, with all the positive and negative results of amateur exploration. The actual writing of the book is odd and varied and quite modernist. Paul Fussell, in his introduction, says the book is to travel writing what Ulysses is to the novel and The Wasteland is to poetry - a pretty heady claim! Byron was specifically in pursuit of certain kinds of Islamic architecture and art that were relatively underrated at the time by the European academic world (have a look at all the photos on this page to get an idea of what he was after).

Having, in a sense, read The Road To Oxiana on Paul Fussell's say-so, I was also reminded of his book The Great War and Modern Memory because the PG Six Band has occasionally covered Fleetwood Mac's "Dust" whose lyrics (despite the lack of credits on the LP sleeve) were adapted from Rupert Brooke, a poet who is usually mentioned in the same breath as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen as one of the quintessential literary figures of World War I. Fussell's book is about the literary culture that grew up around the war and posits its profound impact on 20th century literary consciousness, particularly the almost inevitable predominance of irony as the only way to bridge the gap between the high-minded and neatly structured ideals of war that the British brought with them out of the comparatively peaceful 19th century and the indiscriminate, brutal and often pointless slaughter that was the reality. Also for those (like me) who feel woefully ignorant of the bare facts of WWI (Passchendaele, Somme, Ypres - at best one knows that one doesn't know the significance of these), you can pick up a lot of basic history along with your analysis of sonnets.

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