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First Russia, Then Tibet (Travel Library) by…
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First Russia, Then Tibet (Travel Library) (1933)

by Robert Byron

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This work is like the rotten "Curate's Egg" in the old Punch cartoon. Parts of it are excellent. Equal parts for this reader. I have enjoyed Byron's books, some of which are considered 'difficult' - I rarely found them so. But the first part "First Russia' was difficult, not recognisably by this author at all, great deep discussions in detail on "dialectical materialism' and such, little on Russia and rather light on the actual Russians. Perhaps it was the period, and that fashionable obsession with the 'brave new world' just after the revolution?

But the second half, "Then Tibet" sings. Bryon steps quickly into that "voice" that I love, sets feelings aglow, even revulsion as he describes the teams 'yellow, peeling, superating faces' in the bleak high altitude cold. His prose lyrically describes the wonders of Tibet, its people and mountains, the reluctant ponies, the 'off-sick' porters.

Makes you want to go there, read more, visit ... no, better not, just read the second half, tear off and toss the first part and look forward to re-reading this wonderful author.
1 vote John_Vaughan | Oct 2, 2014 |
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.
added by John_Vaughan | editUniversity of Oxford (Sep 24, 2014)
 
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