From Harry’s Bar to Delhi
‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.’ So says Paul Fussell in the first puff on the back cover of my thirty-year-old paperback edition of Robert Byron’s 1937 masterpiece. Now, as it happens, Professor Fussell – or rather his Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars – is sitting next to me, and what he actually said was, ‘Its distinction tempts one to over-praise, but perhaps it may not be going too far to say that what Ulysses is to the novel . . .’ etc. In the puff, the professorial hedging has been entirely clipped away. Still, it is high praise indeed. Is it deserved? That old stirrer Wilfred Thesiger thought The Road to Oxiana, far from being the great transformative work of twentieth-century travel, was ‘a lot of nonsense’.