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SEA CHANGE: BYRON, ROBERT, NOT LORD

ROBERT BYRON'S OTHER GAMBLE ON "THE GREAT GAME"

By John M. Edwards

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The Montréal Review, May 2012

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The Station: Athos Treasure and Men

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"There, carried high on a bank of clouds, hovers a shape, a triangle in the sky. This is the Holy Mountain Athos, station of a faith where all the years have stopped."

--Robert Byron, "The Station," 1928, (p. 256)

       

        It was through a family friend named Paul Fussell, author of "Abroad: British Travel Writing Between the Wars" (1982), that I first became familiar with the writing of Robert Byron, who was indeed distantly related to Lord Byron.
        Also like the famous 19th-century clubfooted poet, this other Byron was extremely educated (Eton and Oxford). And like the Romantic bard, who actually fought in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks, Robert Byron was addicted to Homer's "Ulysses" and "Argonaut" Greece. Specifically, the Greece of ancient Byzantium and the lost capital Constantinople. Yet it was Lord Byron's friend Percy Byshe Shelly's romantic death in the Ocean Sea that Robert Byron aped, imitating life rather than art.
        Yes, he, too, drowned.
        Often grouped, according to one of Byron's biographers, neé James Knox,  with "The Bright Young Things" of 1920s England-a descript that included Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Lee Fermor-Robert Byron is best known for his classic book "The Road to Oxiana." This world-famous elegiac and comic take on remote Islamic art and architecture in "Eurasian" Central Asia, land of the so-called Great Game, specifically the wonders created during the time of Tamerlane in what is now known as  "Samarkand" in the ex-SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) of Uzbekistan, is difficult to top.
        The only book that comes close during this productive time period betwixt world warrage, is Peter Fleming's "Brazilian Adventure," wherein nothing was achieved except for the discovery of "a tributary to a tributary to a tributary" of the Amazon river. With obverse PC (Pretend Concern), anyone would laugh at Fleming's neocolonialist imposture, while comically describing Native Amazonian Injuns as "our dusky brethren."
        Understatement.
        Unlike almost everybody, though, I reluctantly judge one of Robert Byron's earlier works, "The Station" (1928) to be slightly superior to "The Road to Oxiana" (1933).  Why? I am hesitant to tell you up front, but please bear with me. I like "The Station" better for one reason alone: stasis. It is not what it is about that is important, but how it is about that wins us over.
        Although, "The Road to Oxiana" is a classic adventure tale of romp and circumstances and derring-do filled with dizzying movement across the mappa mundi, "The Station" remains stationary in time and space, almost like it never happened in the first place. Byron obviously wants us to see that he isn't just scrounging space or mooching moussakas among the black-robed Greek Orthodox brother monks swinging censers for free food and spiritual uplift. No, he is returning to Mount Athos to prove that he really is an expert on Byzantine art, culture, and life. But with spiritus mundi on his side as the only real guide or critic.
        Upon the winged chariot of my armchair traveler, having ordered the only reissue in the 21st century by Phoenix Press from Amazon.com, I prepared myself for a rapid read.
        But wait, is this some kind of joke? Byron begins like many beginning writers by mentioning every flower on the planet in his native England, before he belabors the point that he is going somewhere completely different and much drier: Greece!
        Which was then unfortunately under the laissez-fair landlordship of the destabilizing Ottoman Empire, known far and wide as "The Sick Man of Europe." Though no mention is made of the city of "Istanbul" (in Turkish), we somehow feel, with Byron as our unofficial tour guide and obvious literary spy, that we are actually (albeit briefly) in the famous "Constantinople," the former capital of the Byzantine Empire which fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1453.
        With that in mind, the Turks (then considered by the European elite as "Asiatic Savages") are only mentioned once or twice in the context of The Sultan, while the reader is supposed to decide whether all the "muleteers" might in fact be "Pomaks," Greeks and Slavs and Albanians forcibly converted to Islam, also referred to as, what Captain Haddock, from Hergé's Adventures of Tintin, might agree, "Bashi Bazouks!"
        Wow! After reading "The Station: Athos: Treasure and Men" for the first time, I realized Robert Byron, only 22 years old when this eccentric novelty surfaced on Fleet Street booksellers in London, was actually a genius. Somehow, Byron's claustrophobic poetic book on the environs of Greece was better even than Sir Fitzroy Maclean's '"Eastern Approaches" (called "Escape to Adventure" in America), another "lost" neglected classic written between the wars.
        Byron admits he is not as adventurous as a young man as he is later in his career. Instead of going it alone, he takes along two British companions, David Talbott Rice and Mark Ogilvie Grant, in order to share witness to "the sunlit image of a mountain." Their quest? No less than experiencing "The Soul of Greece" and "The Spirit of Byzantium." Even though Byron was a "vulgarisateur" (a man of action rather than letters), he somehow comes up with some funny ass shit, resembling real prose poetry. We all feel like we have been put under a spell, arriving back in time as a subject inside an El Greco painting.
        Traveling a lot by ferry in the Aegean, Byron is moved to wax poetic, as if he were loaded down with the wings of Icarus flying too close to the sun:

        "Astern, the sun lay poised on an indigo hill, like a fairy tinsel flowing on a Christmas tree." (p. 32)

     Constantipole, created roughly three hundred years after the birth of Christ, and most closely associated with the Emporer Constantine, was way helped out when hundreds of years later Vladimir further north managed to convert all of his subjects in one fell swoop to "Christianity." But Byron never mentions this even once. He is so far beyond us in les mots justes and his brainiac knowledge of Eastern Orthodox art, that even my graduate-level course on "The Byzantine Empire" at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA-so good that all of the students applauded the prof at the end of the semester--left me stumped by much of the specialized vocabulary. I did figure out that the Greek word "eicons" just meant "icons," but what in the hay is a "Trapezuntine chrysobul" or a "Nicephorus Phocas Bible"? (p. 247).
        I felt like a prostrated apostle trying to get the gist of Byron's precise diction. However, one without the signature golden haloed head, resembling an extraterrestrial angel with a space helmet. Yeah, verily, I was at least half human, so it was safe enough breathing in the charmed oxygenating atmosphere of the old ones. Modern day Greeks still line themselves up as plenipotentiary elders and epitropei waited upon for sense at the table as well as in the church.
        One of Byron's saving graces is his force majeure when dealing with saints and sinners living among mountains resembling a "mutilated hand"; he captures souls for Hades (Greek Hell) with comic dialogue.
        Returning to my reiteration that Byron's book is less about what and more about how, we must fast-forward to Byron's actual ascent to the summit of Mount Athos (2,033 meters above earth and under sky), for a giant Roc's view of the lay of the land:

        "We might, had we wished, have put out a hand to pluck the sky, have palmed away a cup of blue. For that broad illimitable space was now reality, possessing an interesting and unsuspecting texture. . ."

        Everywhere confronted by troglodytic cave homes high in the rocks, where Greeks take their ouzo and octopus in the al fresco of chthonic clouds ruled by pagan gods, as well as The Son of God, Christ Pantocrator, Byron is moved to say, "The balcony, in fact, remains the instrument only of suicides." (p. 114). Which is a pretty good line, even if Byron doesn't bother explaining why.
        I thought it strange that Plato, with his theory of a "copy universe" where everything has its interdemensional ideal, is not even vaguely alluded to. Maybe, since Byron was only 22 when he wrote this paeon, he had never cracked the Classics, instead relying upon what Bruce Chatwin--a big fan of both Byrons and a former friend of mine from Tulane University, where the much-older-than-us he "pretended" to be a student for free knowledge)--called "The Eye," thus explaining his visceral visual descriptions of art non appareil.
        Even though Robert Byron is only on vacation and not on vocation, he is sometimes quite mean about the hospitality of the Athos monks, complaining about the food and remaking them into farce. One monk, named Mr. Valentine, was described as. . . . (It is best to buy the book from Amazon.com to find out more).
        Meeting a Russian Orthodox monk, for a slight sea change of pace (Cyrillic instead of Greek), Byron supplies us with some comic relief from his dazzling diction, as flowery as a fleur de lis (whatever that is):

        "We are very tired."
        "So," he replied, "am I."
        "We've come 40 kilometers from Aghia Roumelii."
        "I've been out shooting."
        "Shooting what?" I asked. "Wild ibex?"
        "No; bad men."

        LOL. (How I hate that emoticon!)
        But the genesis of doubt overtakes Byron when he does a sidetrip ferry to Crete, one of the earth's oldest ancient societies, in search of an Attic vase with the dreadful Minotaur, when he comments about the Hellenic terrain in general, with "billowing clouds decapitating the hills." What geomancy leads him also to ordain that the earth had a "deep claret color," as if stuck in an argosy of arguments and blood feuds, caused by the ravages of taverna life, about the real meaning of life, often ending in a cenotaph of Spartan-like warfare and recriminations.
        Also, Byron might not be the first to comment that many Hellenic monasteries with their bee's-nest cells stuck in a rocky crag or cranny, such as scenic "Simopetra" in the Athos environs, do really resemble "Thibet" retreats such as  "Potala Palace" in Lhasa, Tibet, China. The resemblance is startling. Enough to be very careful of what we wish for. The suggestion: early Christianity and early Buddhism both perforce arrived simultaneously, possibly in religious lockstep and spiritual tandem.
        Myself caught in a simulacrum, I poured over "The Station" once again, looking for great quotes, like this comic (and apocryphal) aside to a member of  "local color" turned into "comedic pyrite":

        "Sharks?" they asked.
        "Have you seen them?"
        "I? No, I haven't seen them. But there are quantities."
        "But if you haven't seen them, how do you know?"
        "How do I know? They ate a deacon two hundred and fifty years ago. A lamb was sent as a bait; they caught the shark, and there he was inside." (p. 125)

        With the "They Might Be Giants" song "Istanbul is Constantinople. . . ." in my head, I think about my own journeys in Greece (five times), as well as in Turkey (two times). Why Byron fails to even mention "Ephesus," the crowning achievement in Hellenic ruins, so beautiful in fact that the Virgin Mary supposedly moved there before she died on location, might be because it is on the wrong side of the Bosphorous, where Europe ends and Asia begins.
        Instead, obviously addicted to retsina (that's Greek for cheap wine), which is, I believe, made with pine resin, Byron, begins to tire once again from his religious studies, commenting like a proverbial Dionysius, eager to return to his debauches, on a "service": "Much loth we descended and stood through the hours, supported on the crutch-like arms of the pews and craning at the frescoes we hoped to photograph."
        Suddenly back in England, by whatever route imaginable, Robert Byron ended up dying at the age of 35 or 36, depending on how one reads the conundrum of a "grandfather clause," aboard the SS Jonathan Holt, which was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on 24 February 1941 off the coast of Scotland's fittingly named "Cape Wrath." His death was more famous than his birth, which had occurred, supposedly, on 26 February 1905 in the obscure neighborhood of Wembley, Middlesex.
        My late friend Bruce Chatwin perhaps described his favorite Byron book best (take your pick) as "a sacred text, beyond criticism." (Incidentally, Chatwin's own memorial service was a greek Orthodox ceremony complete with black-robed bearded monks swininging censers and chanting "Bruce!")
        Although Byron was fairly prolific, only a book-length treatise could do lip service above and beyond his actual output, as opposed to essay collections, of which there are many. But here are some things for suggested reading if, like me, you are addicted to Byron's prose over his pose:

Further Reading

1.      The Station (1928)
2.      The Byzantine Architect (1929)
3.      The Appreciation of Architecture (1932)
4.      First Russia, Then Tibet (1933)
5.      The Road to Oxiana (1937)

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John M. Edwards is an award-winning poet. His freelance writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly, Salon.com, Escape, Condé Nast  Traveler, North American Review many other magazines.

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