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by Ben Downing
A review of Robert Byron by James Knox
A review of James Knox, by Robert Byron.
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Nuremberg, September 1938: the week-long Parteitag, or Nazi Party Congress, is in full swing. At one session, in the very first row, sits Unity Mitford, indulging to the hilt her groupie’s crush on Hitler. Beside her is an old friend, Robert Byron, unsure how to act. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he throws out an arm in the Nazi salute, when suddenly Hitler himself stomps by. “My fingers,” he will later recall, “were nearly bitten off by the Führer and I half withdrew my arm, thus assuming a position of grotesque flabbiness.”
The incident is vintage Byron, most obviously in its humor—he was renowned for his raucous wit—but in more serious ways as well. He had wheedled an invitation to the event not out of ghoulish curiosity, still less admiration. To the contrary, he had already concluded, while many in Britain wavered over appeasement, that the Nazis were mad dogs, to be put down forthwith. (He half-joked about wanting “warmonger” stamped in his passport.) His purpose in visiting Nuremberg was to study German propaganda techniques, with a view toward improving English ones. Ultimately little came of it, and in 1941 Byron himself was sent to the bottom, his ship torpedoed by a U-boat. In a sense, though, the Parteitag trip represented the culminating deployment of a method he had spent years perfecting. To go and see for himself, to note intently, and finally to set before the world his impassioned opinions on a subject: this was Byron’s procedure. It was precisely his love for civilization—not just deep but wide, taking in efflorescences of which even the learned were largely ignorant—that fueled his hatred of, and determination to resist, its goose-stepping opposite.
Born in 1905, Byron was a member of the so-called Brideshead Generation: that extraordinary cluster of people, marked by high literary talent and charisma (not to mention dipsomania), who burst onto the scene in the Twenties. Like many of them, he attended Eton, then Oxford, and was as incurably stricken as any with Wanderlust.
Not surprisingly, his first effort, Europe in the Looking Glass (1926), was a travel book in the light, cheeky mode popular at the time. But he swiftly became a far less frivolous traveller. Although only distantly related to Lord Byron—who also died just shy of thirty-six—he found that in Greece his name worked open-sesame wonders, and before long he too was a raving Grecophile. Not, however, where the Classical period was concerned. Violently allergic to received ideas, Byron scorned the temples and amphorae. By his lights, it was the Byzantines, still obscured beneath the opprobrium heaped on them by Gibbon, who had brought Greek genius to its apogee. This he first set about demonstrating in The Station (1928), which concerns Mount Athos. Braving ubiquitous bedbugs and ill-cooked octopus, Byron came away with a vivid account of monastic life on the Holy Mountain, hardly changed since medieval times. There followed two scholarly books, The Byzantine Achievement (1929) and The Birth of Western Painting (1930). In the latter, Byron rather quixotically attempted to dethrone Renaissance art in favor of Byzantine. Disappointed at its failure to shake up art-historical hierarchies, he brought his Greek phase to a close and shifted his focus further east. He was to spend much of the next few years roaming through Asia.
The initial results were An Essay on India (1931), an attack on ossified attitudes of the Raj, and First Russia Then Tibet (1933), a yoked pair of travelogues. Then, with the third book, he struck gold. To the extent that Byron is remembered today, it is almost exclusively for The Road to Oxiana (1937), which nearly everyone agrees to be not only his masterpiece but a classic of its genre. The book’s eccentric charm begins with the improbability of its impetus: Byron went haring off across Iran on a single-minded quest to behold, not the marvels of Isfahan, but “a tapering cylinder of café-au-lait brick,” as he describes the eleventh-century tomb tower Gumbad-i-Kabus. In so doing, he was, of course, once again exercising what Anthony Powell termed his “obsessive repugnance for cliché,” and there is in the book a certain amount of sniping at Safavid magnificence, as earlier at Attic or Florentine. Yet the styles he now embraces, Seljuk and especially Timurid, are championed with a new, persuasive restraint. Indeed, the whole book represents a victory over his own worst habits. Its diary-entry format put a brake on his crankishness, polemicism, and tendency to swerve into purple patches. Christopher Sykes, who accompanied him for much of the journey, later claimed that Byron, for all his ornateness, revered H. W. Fowler and longed “to achieve a terse style.” In The Road to Oxiana, we see his nearest approach to one.
Although I had glanced at The Byzantine Achievement and The Birth of Western Painting (both long out of print), until reading James Knox’s biography my main sense of Byron was that he had been a travel writer’s travel writer, a formative inspiration to heirs as different as Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. Knox, while he confirms that impression—Chatwin, we learn, devoured Byron’s books as a youth and placed him alongside Ruskin—also shows that there was much more to his career, which turns out to have been amazingly various. He produced reams of journalism, not all of it on aesthetic matters. (How refreshing to find him fulminating, in the American magazine Mercury, that Communism had caused in the Soviet Union “misery and destruction without parallel in recorded history”—this at a time when rosy-tinted views prevailed.) Perhaps more significantly, he was a prolific architectural critic and photographer, respected to the degree that in 1931 the Architectural Review, to which Byron was a frequent contributor, dedicated an entire issue to his article (with accompanying photos) on Sir Edwin Lutyens’s triumph—and, as Byron saw it, Sir Herbert Baker’s sour-grape perfidiousness—in building New Delhi. Under the spell of Geoffrey Scott, Byron even wrote a short theoretical treatise, The Appreciation of Architecture. And, like John Betjeman and James Lees-Milne, he played an important role in the Georgian Group, dedicated to the preservation of buildings from that period. One of my favorite quotes here is from a 1938 BBC debate on the subject, during which Byron asserted that the Georgian style
corresponds, almost to the point of dinginess, with our national character. Its reserve and dislike of outward show, its reliance on the virtue and dignity of proportions only, and its rare bursts of exquisite detail, all express as no other style has even done that indifference to self-advertisement, that quiet assumption of our own worth, and that sudden vein of lyric affection, which have given us our own part in civilization.
What a fine formulation of essential Englishness! Clearly Byron, for all his wanderings in remote places and forgotten epochs, understood equally well his native soil.
The chief virtue of this biography, then, is that it patiently lays out, and astutely comments on, Byron’s numerous endeavors; as a record of his intellectual life it is full and satisfying. But as a portrait of the man himself the book disappoints. Whereas his subject was reckless and often excessive, Knox, as if by way of compensation, is cautious, unexcitable, and, in his few forays into emotional terrain, perfunctory and shallow. What did if feel like to be Byron—and to be with him? What made him tick? It is the business of biographers to attempt, however tentatively, to answer such questions, and in so doing to conjure up a living image, however distorted. While one is certainly grateful that Knox did not foist on us, say, a psychoanalytic reading—given Byron’s homosexuality and mother-worship, a Freudian would have a field day with him—one also laments the missed opportunity, especially when this is so far the only full-length biography of Byron to have appeared.
Knox’s superficiality might be excusable if his subject had been a mere walking brain with no inner life to speak of. He was quite the opposite. “Impossible to convey to others what utter heaven he was,” recalled Nancy Mitford. “So complex.” Although notoriously belligerent—in his rudeness he could make Evelyn Waugh seem a lamb by comparison, and anyone venturing the wrong opinion in his presence would be drenched in irate spittle—he inspired fierce, undying affection in many of those who knew him. One reason was the excellence of his jokes. With his fleshy face, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria, and did hilarious imitations of her. (Leigh Fermor, who briefly knew Byron, described the performance to me thus: “He’d pull his chin back, puff out his cheeks, put a handkerchief over his head and, as a crown, a coffee cup on a folded napkin.”) And he was surprisingly modest. Sykes, in his memoir —published in Four Studies in Loyalty, and still the first thing to read on Byron—remarked, “Robert’s own opinion was that he figured in the world as a timid little fellow, an unnoticed and courtly nonentity. Referring to the colour of his eyes, he used to describe himself as a ‘green mouse.’ I can think of no one I have ever met whom I would so reluctantly include in the category of green mice, yet this was Robert’s considered view of himself.”
Again, it is a shame that Knox failed to pick up on, and then pursue, such clues to Byron’s innermost nature. All the same, his well-written book is a welcome addition to the literature of Brideshead, and a thoughtful exposition of what Byron’s mentor G. M. Young termed—a perfect epithet, this—his “insolent humanism.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 March 2004, on page 71
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