Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)
Judging from just the famous first line of The Towers of Trebizond (” ‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass”) you might think you were in for a humorous travelogue, sort of a midcentury female Bill Bryson. That’s what I expected, but what I got was something quite different.
Narrator Laurie is accompanying her eccentric Aunt Dot and a very High (in the Anglican sense) priest, who are venturing on a missionary society’s scouting expedition to Turkey with the unlikely hope of finding that the Turks are ripe for converting to Anglicanism. The mission is a failure, but we are treated to a tour of Troy, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and more, with a running commentary on Anglicanism, religion in general, love, the Islamic world, Byzantium, bathing, communism, feminism, and camels.
Not only is this book different from what I expected, it’s different from any other book I have ever read. I was charmed and somewhat baffled by turns, and I at least have an Anglican background; I can’t imagine what someone without at least a rudimentary experience of that peculiarly proper faith would make of it. In addition, it must be said that the English-eye view of the Turkish people is not generally one of tolerance and understanding. This could be meant satirically, but be warned that if taken at face value some of the opinions and attitudes expressed may cause deep offense.
As the medium through which all this comes to us, Laurie’s narrative voice is a comic tour de force. Sometimes, especially toward the beginning, she talks in the run-on sentences of a screwball comedy heroine:
The girls thought the altar and the candles and the Mass very cute; one of them had been sometimes to that kind of service in Cambridge, Mass., at a place she called the Monastery, which Father Chantry-Pigg said was where the Cowley Fathers in America lived, but the other girl and her parents were not Episcopalian, they belonged to one of those sects that Americans have, and that are difficult for English people to grasp, though probably they got over from Britain in the Mayflower originally, and when sects arrive in America they multiply, like rabbits in Australia, so that America has about a hundred to each one in Britain, and this is said to be on account of the encouraging climate, which is different in each of the states, and most encouraging of all in the deep south and in California, where sects breed best.
Later on she turns to a form of laconic understatement that I find funnier and less wearisome:
I mean, with religion you get on a different plane, and everything is most odd. It only goes to show that human beings are odd, because they have always been, on the whole, so religious.
But there’s a somber undercurrent to all the seeming frivolity. Laurie is in a moral quandary with no resolution in sight, and mourning the lost faith that she cannot quite relinquish. Her nattering is a sort of whistling in the dark against the emptiness that faces her when hope and faith are gone. In the end, the dark overtakes her, a disquieting conclusion — but one that underlines the modern questions at the heart of her story. Byzantium is gone; the glittering towers of ancient Trebizond are no more. What will we put in their place? Where will our quest lead us, if not toward supernatural reward and punishment? Rose Macaulay gives no answers, but she takes us on one hell of a trip.