Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Towers of Trebizond

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
1956, 277 pp.

Having recently finished off several books in progress, I took to perusing my shelves for some light work of fiction to read before bed, and discovered that I own Rose Macaulay's Towers of Trebizond for no discernible reason whatsoever. I have a clean, crisp, apparently new copy from the New York Review of Books line of overlooked classics, with a thoughtful introduction and a picture on the front of some rather preposterous British people. The introduction assures me that the opening line is a commonplace in educated British conversation. When did I buy it? And more importantly, why did I buy it? I will never know. Perhaps a shrewd biographer will one day ferret out the answer, though by then it will be too late to tell me.

The Towers of Trebizond concerns the understated non-adventures of the redoubtable and imperturbable Aunt Dot and the militantly ridiculous Father Chantry-Pigg on a Church of England missionary trip to Turkey, as narrated by Dot's niece Laurie. It is not a particularly outrageous travelogue; indeed, I hesitated over including the word "adventures" in the previous sentence, however qualified it may be. It is (mostly) a very wry and mild-mannered sort of book which coasts serenely along on the strength of the long, languid sentences of Laurie's narration, studded with amusing dependent clauses. Take this one, for instance:

"Traveling together is a great test, which has damaged many friendships and even honeymoons, and some people, such as Gray and Horace Walpole, never feel quite the same to one another again, and it is nobody's fault, as one knows if one listens to the stories of both, though it seems to be some people's fault more than others."

Now that is a sentence you can really move around in. I dare you to count the commas. Within the first few chapters I was scrawling in my notes things such as: "Reads like if P.G. Wodehouse went on vacation." The book carries the same sort of sweet innocence and good-natured surprise at how silly everyone in the world is despite how seriously they take themselves. It seemed a world in which one never particularly has to worry about anything ("I too follow professions," Laurie writes, "but at some distance behind, and seldom catch up with them") and travel, even with a camel which eventually loses its mind, is an exotic, charming experience rather than a hell of heat, noise, dirt, squat toilets, interminable waiting, and relentlessly bumpy transportation. The vital question of the church mission is not one of theodicy or theology, but whether Muslim women are ready for hats. A character named Xenophon turns up, which provides for some good Anabasis jokes. I strongly urge you to use an Anabasis joke at your next party. Even when Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappear into Soviet Russia halfway through and are presumed captured, imprisoned, shot, or turned traitor, this is more a subject for bemused indifference than alarm.

Laurie even provides some meaty descriptive passages to back up the novel's spinal travelogue, like this one:

"The real Trebizond, about which the Home listeners would not hear, was in the labyrinth of narrow streets and squares which climbed up from the sea, and in the ruined Byzantine citadel, keep and palace on the heights between the two great wooded ravines that cleft deep valleys down from the table-topped mountain Boz Tepe to the shore, and in the disused, wrecked Byzantine churches that brooded, forlorn, lovely, ravished and apostate ghosts, about the hills and shores of that lost empire."

After Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappear, she rides the camel on to Jerusalem, where she has lunch with her mother, and makes friends with a chap who is pillaging the notebooks of a mutual friend who got eaten by a shark. She returns to England, and teaches a small ape to play chess, drive a car, and ride a bicycle to go buy things in town. Occasionally she has discussions with her endlessly pessimistic Turkish friend Halide about love and adultery. There's some exceedingly mild mannered social criticism: "I went on musing about why it was thought better and higher to love one's country than one's county, or town, or village, or house. Perhaps because it was larger. But then it would be still better to love one's continent, and best of all to love one's planet." It's never particularly clear what Laurie (or Rose Macaulay) thinks about the Church of England and its missions, which occupy a good deal of the book, although there are some endearing jokes at the expense of the odious Billy Graham. There is quite a bit of history of the various factions of mystical English Christianity, and some theological ruminations which can only be interesting to believers. The author was a Christian and an active one, but the narrator is not and seems to find the religious characters rather silly:

"Constantinople," said Father Chantry-Pigg, who did not accept the Turkish conquest.
"Byzantium," I said, not accepting the Roman one.

It's a constantly, almost ponderously and self-consciously British sort of book, and a bit startling to have been written in 1956. It reads almost like a parody of late-Victorian missionary travelogues, and I never could quite shake the suspicion that that is exactly what it is. But then suddenly in the last few chapters the book turns dark and tragic. It is plainly a semi-autobiographical work, so perhaps the change of tone happens in the book because it happened in real life. But I kept wondering why it was included: if it was a real experience, why put it at the end of this otherwise light and amusing travelogue? It seems at once to trivialize the tragedy and pull the rug out from under the comedy. Is it fictional, and if so, why add such a downbeat to a slightly frivolous tune? I thought of the end of A Farewell to Arms, where it seems like Hemingway had just had a terrible day and decides to kill everyone out of spite. Plainly the subject of this book is not a painful loss of innocence or disillusionment with God and the Church. Instead, it seems to read as though suggesting that mainly life is amusing and a bit silly, but sometimes rather nasty as well. So it goes.

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