The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
Publisher: NYRB (2003 reprint)
Guardian 1000 Category: Comedy
Source: Personal Library
Through its reissues of out-of-print or forgotten books, the New York Review of Books has been fueling the sense of discovery that remains one of the great pleasures of reading. Again and again while bookstore browsing in the last few years, I’ve come across something the NYRB has published that I’ve never heard of, taken it home, and felt like I’ve discovered a little treasure.
That was how I felt reading “The Towers of Trebizond,” a small miracle of a novel by Rose Macaulay. Jan Morris’ introduction informs us that this 1956 novel, Macaulay’s last, was a critical and commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic. How did it ever fall into obscurity?
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon who owned a Levantine hotel near Palmyra… I did not care for the camel, nor the camel for me, but, as I was staying with aunt Dot, I did what she bade me, and dragged the camel by its bridal to the shed which it shared with my little Austin and, till lately, with my aunt’s Morris, but this car had been stolen from her by some Anglican bishop from outside the Athenaeum annexe while she was dining there one evening…”
I wasn’t expecting the depth I found in this novel, rather, I thought I was sitting down to enjoy a delightfully eccentric British comedy. And it was that, at times, but there were far more serious themes addressed. Like religion/atheism, for instance. And adultery. I was surprised but in a very good way, not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed a Wodehouse-ian romp. I certainly would have but what I got was so rich, deep and thoughtful.
I learned much about the Anglican church – the High and Low varieties – as well as British opinion (albeit in a silly way) about American Evangelical Christianity. Not to mention Islam, which is one of the reasons this book was considered timely enough to be reprinted. Islam is slotted into the same category as Evangelical Christianity, interestingly enough, as being filled with fundamentalists. Of course, this was the glorious non-politically correct era, when people could say what they meant and not always be called to task for it. There’s much in the book reflective of the time of increased freedom of thought and speech as well as what has not – unfortunately – changed since it was published in 1956.
Narrator Laurie, her Aunt Dot and the Anglican priest Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg start off together for Turkey, on a mission (for Dot and Hugh, at least) to convert the populace – most especially the women – to Christianity. Dot’s passion is for freeing the women from oppression, Father Hugh’s largely for conversion and locating biblical sites – such as the tower in which Paul is said to have given a sermon so long a man fell asleep, tumbling off the building to what should have been his death but wasn’t. Miracles and all that, you know.
Laurie goes along both for the adventure and also to draw sketches she plans to add to the book her Aunt Dot intends to write about their journey. For Laurie, it’s her first trip, so she’s filled with the romance and adventure of it all. The Middle East is exotic – save for Dot’s annoying camel – and her view is colored through the lens of novelty. Not so for Dot and Father Hugh, who’ve taken these trips before.
As the story unfolds, we learn Laurie is embroiled in a battle within herself as to whether or not she believes in God. Father Chantry-Pigg is well aware of her confusion, so of course tries to sway her toward the Anglican church. She listens to him, hears him out but is still no more certain what she believes, if anything:
“But most of us know that nothing is as true as all that, and that no faith can be delivered once for all without change, for new things are being discovered all the time, and old things dropped, like the whole Bible being true, and we have to grope our way through a mist that keeps being lit by shafts of light, so that exploration tends to be patchy, and we can never sit back and say, we have the Truth, this is it, for discovering the truth, if it ever is discovered, means a long journey through a difficult jungle, with clearings every now and then, and paths that have to be hacked out as one walks, and dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light that has lighted every man, which can only come through the dark lanterns of our minds.”
Partway through their journey, following their visit to Trebizond itself, the group finds itself near the border with Russia. Aunt Dot and Father C-P are desperately interested in crossing over – despite the possible mortal danger to themselves from a hostile government – to see religious sites and try further conversion. After they disappear, Laurie is left with her Aunt Dot’s camel, wondering what on earth she should do. When investigations into their location turn up nothing, Laurie must decide whether to continue on her journey or stay and wait an indefinite length of time for word of her aunt and the reverend. And she doesn’t have the funds to do that.
What to do? Our young heroine is justifiably perplexed and more than a bit annoyed at being left in this situation. She knows other people in the region, thankfully, and lucks upon others in a manner that’s a bit improbable (but allowed, in this novel). Still, the decision is ultimately hers. Will they come back safely? If so, when? If not doesn’t bear thinking.
Just read it. You know you want to.
The plot is filled with other interesting peripheral characters, such as British spies who don’t seem to realize they’re fooling no one. Several times the group runs into them, the first time noting right away they fully realize what they are, mentioning it in a hilariously off-hand way. At the same time, the Rev. Billy Graham is there with his own group, a gaggle of Seventh-Day Adventists are headed to Mt. Ararat (for the end of the world) and the BBC is filming a documentary – for which they basically pay local Turks to perform native dances and do no real news reporting, at which Laurie scoffs mostly because they’re missing the chance to do some real reporting,.
Other characters include two gentlemen, Charles and David, traveling in order to write their own book, jealous and suspicious of Dot and Laurie. They’re afraid of the competition, naturally enough, though a little underhanded and shifty the way they go about it. Though, as it ends up…
Again, read the book.
Ultimately, once Laurie returns home to Britain she’s thrown back into her adulterous affair, to contemplate how it fits in with the overall question of religion and morality that looms so large throughout the novel. Has she changed at all? What has the whole experience taught her?
You know what I’m going to say here. Just do it.
“Still the towers of Trebizond, the fabled city, shimmer on a far horizon, gated and walled and held in a luminous enchantment. It seems that for me, and however much I must stand outside them, this must for ever be. But at the city’s heart lie the pattern and the hard core, and these I can never make my own: they are far to outside my range. The pattern should perhaps be easier, the core less hard.
This seems, indeed, the eternal dilemma.”