Some books are just really insistent. I’ve owned three copies of The Towers of Trebizond. The first was my mother’s; she was much given to quoting the famous opening line:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from the animal on her return from High Mass.
As opening lines go, it’s just about perfect. Catchy — who are these people? who combines a camel with High Mass? — and predictive. The Towers of Trebizond is all about the Mysterious East (camels) and the Church (High Mass). It’s also highly artificial, even arch, another important indicator for what’s to follow. (Also quite like my mother, but that’s another story.) Funny, yes, but not in the least bit naturalistic.
I lost my first copy of The Towers somewhere along the way. The second was given to Beloved Husband and me as a Christmas present by the rector of our church, some 30 years ago. This made sense, too. So much of the book is about Anglican affairs. The narrator Laurie, aunt Dot, and the Anglican minister Father Chantry-Pigg travel to the Middle East to evangelize. Aunt Dot has Turkish women in her sights: she wants to liberate them. Father Chantry-Pigg is keen to spread his particular brand of Anglo-Catholicism, which is to say a kind of “everything but the Pope,” highly ceremonial spiritual practice. People who are adept at parsing Anglican worship (all several hundred of us worldwide) will find this part of the book hilarious in a muted Barbara Pym way.
But nobody reads The Towers of Trebizond for gripping narrative and there are times in your life, for instance if you are rearing children, when a book better grip you or it’s going to sift its way down to the bottom of your bedside stack, with the bookmark stuck about 15% in. So it wasn’t until this recent iteration (three’s the charm) that I actually, finally, finished Rose Macaulay’s best-known book. And it was perfectly obvious why it kept elbowing its way into my life. Funny? Oh my goodness. The ideal reader for an audible version would be Maggie Smith. There’s something utterly detached, even disembodied about the narrative voice. Events of great emotional import and mere logistical interest are treated just the same, with the kind of low affect so compelling among some stand-up comics. For instance, Laurie describes the reaction of a pair of American girls to the Dot/camel/Chantry-Pigg menage:
The girls thought the altar and the candles and the Mass very cute; [one was Episcopalian, the other not] … [she] 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.
So you see: not exactly a speedy story-teller, Macaulay. No suspense, little evident drama except for the narrator Laurie’s occasional grappling with spirituality. Which is deeply tragic and quite earnest. And there are flashes of Proustian time-warping, when Laurie meditates on the antique glittering “Trebizond” she and aunt Dot seek and the humdrum Turkish “Trabzon” of the present day.
I felt that I would not mind quite a long stay in Trebizond, and that, hidden in the town and its surroundings, there was something I wanted for myself and could make my own, something exiled and defeated but still alive, long known but since forgotten.
This ruefulness gets shunted aside by the comedy but for me it’s the enduring flavor of the novel.
Publishing note: thanks to a devoted friend, I read the splendid New York Review Books edition with an elegant and very helpful introduction by Jan Morris. Out of print but worth searching for.