When the Going Was Good

A GOOD number of years have intervened since my first acquaintance with Robert Byron when I began to read his First Russia, Then Tibet (1933) in a futile attempt to dispel my own wanderlust. I had been expecting little more than a better-than-average travel book; what I discovered was a work of genius and literary grace.

My acquaintance with Robert Byron was happily renewed during a trip to Europe two summers ago. In cafes and on trains in between destinations, I savored every sentence, every word of The Road to Oxiana (1937). Literary critic Paul Fussell has stated that "perhaps it may not be going too far to say that what Ulysses is to the novel between the {world} wars and what 'The Waste Land' is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book."

My most recent rediscovery of Byron has been in the form of The Station, Athos: Treasures and Men (1928), published when the author was only 23. It was the product of Byron's 1927 visit to the monasteries of Mount Athos in Macedonian Greece, whence two scholarly works also issued: a collaborative art history with David Talbot Rice, The Birth of Western Painting (1927), and his own remarkable history of Byzantium, The Byzantine Achievement (1930).

Oxford University Press has a paperback edition of The Road to Oxiana. The other books can usually be found in a good public library. WILLIAM R. DAY JR. Baltimore


THERE ARE those of us who admire the classics but who also read the more popular genres; Gothic novels and mysteries, for example. It is for these discriminating few that Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm is matchless. The book was written about 50 years ago and is available in a Penguin paperback edition. Ostensibly written as a satire of Gothics and mysteries, it follows the adventures of Flora Poste as she visits her relatives, the Starkadders in Sussex, and finds herself surrounded by heaving emotion and and seething intrigue.

It is still a remarkably contemporary novel which cannot be read without laughing aloud. It pokes fun at psychiatry, the arts and crafts movement, films and stardom, evangelists, birth control (" . . . 'tes wickedness. 'Tes flyin' in the face of nature . . . All the same, it might be worth trying") and the literary establishment, to name just a few.

Gibbons invents words to fit the situation ("scranleted" the furrows of the farm; "clettered" the dishes), and she has fun even in the organization of her novel. The foreword, addressed to Sir Anthony Pookworthy, purports to be an admiring letter to the mentor whose books taught her much but were never fun. Gibbons, a journalist, admits that she has had to bypass much of her journalistic training to write the novel. "The life of a journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are so adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realize the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after spending ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favorable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible."

To aid the reader and the literary critic, Gibbons adopts the method "perfected by the late Herr Baedeker" and places asterisks, in combinations up to three, to mark those passages she deems most worthy of literary study.

The unsolved mystery of Cold Comfort Farm is that the reader never does get to know the answers to its two major questions: Did the goat die? What was the nasty thing Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed? Despite these unresolved issues, I recommend Cold Comfort Farm to anyone with a sense of humor.



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