Rose Macaulay • The Towers of Trebizond

It used to be that I was afraid to state my opinion without having checked the critics I approved of to make sure my opinion was orthodox. In this, as in many other ways, I’m a coward. I still have this fear, but I’m trying not to let it dominate.

Now I learn as little as possible about a book or a movie before experiencing it to give me the mental space to arrive at my own conclusions, which is pleasant enough, though a solution by avoidance. This new process means I act on much less foreknowledge than before, which has perhaps expanded what I read. When I did a quick search about The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, having heard her name from a friend on Twitter, I found a few glowing statements that made it sound like precisely the sort of book that I’d thoroughly enjoy, so when I saw it at a booksale, I picked it up. Macaulay herself seems like a delightful person, someone to learn more about.

So I’m disappointed to say that I can’t recommend this novel.

Going in I knew that an English novel from the 1950s called The Towers of Trebizond was going to have problematic orientalist content, but even beyond that, of which there is an awful lot, I just didn’t enjoy the experience of reading the book that much.

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond. 1956 novel about an eccentric Englishwoman’s travels in Turkey and the Levant. Not recommended, but almost.

 Eadweard Muybridge, A single humpback camel walking (CC-BY) 

Eadweard Muybridge, A single humpback camel walking (CC-BY) 

The Towers of Trebizond is a curious novel about an English tourist, Laurie, who visits Turkey and nearby areas before heading home to England. It’s set in the present day, that is, the 1950s. Laurie’s primarily interested in history; hence, Trebizond not Trabzon, the modern Turkish city on the Black Sea coast.

She travels in Turkey with her aunt Dot, Dot’s camel, and Father Chantry-Pigg, “an ancient bigot who had run a London church several feet higher than St. Mary’s Bourne Street and some inches above even St. Magnus the Martyr, and, being now just retired, devoted his life to conducting very High retreats and hunting for relics of saints.” The latter two want to see the historical sights and bring Anglicanism to the Muslims of Turkey. Aunt Dot is writing a book on Turkish women, who she’s trying to convert. For the Turkish portion of their journey, they’re joined by a young Greek Turkish man, Xenophon, and an Anglican Turkish doctor, Halide Tanpinar.

They see the sights at camel speed, using old guidebooks to find ruins of older cultures, and are annoyed by the modern Turkish interlopers who now occupy the classical and biblical landscape. There is a large amount of talking about Anglicanism and wanting to convert Muslim Turkish women, as well as some humorous moments involving other people trying to do the same thing, including American followers of Billy Graham.

At a certain point, aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg abscond to Soviet Russia to see the sites, causing an international incident and leaving Laurie to travel by camel to the Levant. These chapters, when Laurie is alone and you don’t need to read about Anglican missionary work, are quite delightful.

Laurie is having an affair with Vere, a wealthy Englishman. This relationship mirrors an extended affair of the author’s, but I don’t know much about that, so I can’t comment on it. Laurie and Vere meet up in Iskenderun, just north of Syria. There’s not much of the affair actually in the novel, although it’s also central to understanding Laurie. She ends up in Jerusalem, before making her way back to England, where among other things she teaches a pet ape to drive her car. Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg appear again, fine, of course.

This recitation of plot is lovely, but rather besides the point. The Towers of Trebizond is a novel of style. It’s written in a wry, detached style in long rambling sentences, which alternately made me smile and annoyed me.

Macaulay loves to join clauses with a simple conjunction, a rhetorical technique known as polysyndeton. Here’s a typical sentence:

But we had not the money for the expedition, and anyhow the heart and zest had gone out of it, and all the time I was wondering what was happening now to aunt Dot, and when we should get any news, and I wanted to get to Trebizond and the consul, and we had melancholy meals by the road and gloomy nights in the tent, grumbling at one another and at the camel, and Halide brooded over the betrayal of Turkey by aunt Dot, and her own breach with the Anglican Church, and the dichotomy between Love and the Islam oppressions of women, and Xenophon brooded over what his grandfather would do to him at Rize about the jeep.

You can see the verve and humour in the writing. Sometimes these sentences are delightful, ending with a tossed off revelation or drily witty observation. But in my experience, with long rambling sentence placed next to long rambling sentence, the whole dragged badly.

As clever or strange as some of the observations are, the book is highly repetitive. You must read a dozen times each over the course of 200 pages about her personal brand of Anglicanism or her take on bathing or how sour-tempered camels are. The first time the observation provokes a smile, the second a straight face, the next ten an exasperated sigh. This style dominates the novel, so stylistically the book was not to my taste. If you were to take it, as I think you should, for the most part, as a satire, it’s still full of wearisome observations.

It’s also difficult to read a book about characters so assured of their upper-class Englishness. I’m no expert in orientalism, so I cannot offer any depth on this topic. Laurie has a blasé attitude towards everything in the novel, drily poking fun at both the English and the Turkish, or observing how the Turks have better manners than the English. She herself is neither interested in nor critical of aunt Dot’s mission to convert Turkish women, a cool attitude that appears throughout:

Then there might be a minaret again on the Parthenon, which looks very pretty like that in the old pictures, and I thought it might improve the Parthenon, these mixtures of styles being often very pleasant. And perhaps the little Turkish houses would come huddling back up the Acropolis and all round it, looking most charming and really setting the Acropolis off.

This is a world that exists solely for her to travel in. The people she meets are charming anecdotes for a later story. Somewhere in her love affair there is deep, sad love, but the detached writing style separates you from feeling. Trebizond is used as a symbol for an unreachable aspect of her self. The book ends with these words:

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 too far outside my range. The pattern should perhaps be easier, the core less hard.

This seems, indeed, the eternal dilemma.

She earlier uses very similar words to explain what she thinks of Christianity, explaining that the “fact that at present I cannot find my way into it does not lessen, but rather heightens, its spell.”
The last few pages contain a shocking event that casts the whole novel in a different light. The flatness of the novel becomes explicable. I’m almost tempted to reread the book in light of its ending.

But I’m not going to. For probably 70% of the time I was reading it, I was bored and vaguely irritated by it. I can’t recommend you read it. I can see, however, how this book could strike the right chord in someone. I’m not claiming it’s a bad book, but based on my reaction, I’d say your time is better spent elsewhere.