by Rose Macaulay
Publication Date: January 1, 1956
Project: a century of women, Mt. TBR 2022
"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." So begins The Towers of Trebizond, the greatest novel by Rose Macaulay, one of the eccentric geniuses of English literature. In this fine and funny adventure set in the backlands of modern Turkey, a group of highly unusual travel companions makes its way from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond, encountering potion-dealing sorcerers, recalcitrant policemen, and Billy Graham on tour with a busload of Southern evangelists. But though the dominant note of the novel is humorous, its pages are shadowed by heartbreak as the narrator confronts the specters of ancient empires, religious turmoil, and painful memories of lost love.
What a very strange book this was, although I liked it. Rose Macaulay is a third quarter author-in-residence in one of my Goodreads groups (along with Elizabeth Gaskell), and the NYRB edition of this title had been sitting on my TBR cart since the beginning of 2022. I was saving it up to read as part of that project.
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”
Now that’s a heck of a first line, isn’t it?
Narrated by aunt Dot’s niece, Laurie, the book tells the story of a trip to Turkey undertaken by the two women, with a priest as companion. Aunt Dot and the priest are, more or less, united in their zeal to convert Muslim women to Christianity, although for entirely different reasons. Aunt Dot wants to liberate them from the oppression of their current culture and religion, whether they want to be liberated or not, while the priest just wants to turn them into Anglicans, the higher the better. I got the impression that aunt Dot was largely unconcerned with immortal souls – her primary focus was on the experience of being a woman in a Muslim country.
Published in 1956, the world is decidedly post WWII. The Iron Curtain (which is usually referred to just as the “Curtain,” – it took me a bit to figure out this reference) has come down to separate the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, including Turkey.
So, the very British Laurie and Dot take a priest and a camel to Turkey. High jinks and tomfoolery ensue as they make their way across Turkey by camel. Eventually Dot and the priest, Father Chantry-Pigg (OMG, that name) seem to disappear behind the Curtain, into the Soviet Union, leaving Laurie and the camel behind, but taking most, if not all, of the money with them. From that point on, Laurie travels on her own, into Syria and Israel, and then ultimately meeting up with her married lover, Vere which solves her financial problems. There is a side plot about finding a notebook from an English friend who has been killed in a shark attack and then realizing that his former writing partner is plagiarizing the deceased writer’s material, now that he is dead.
There is a lot of Laurie’s near stream of consciousness rambling about religion, Turkey, ancient history, what she is seeing and experiencing, love, England, and other topics. There is one very funny, in my opinion, bit about her difficulty with the language and a misunderstanding from the phrase book she has brought along. She takes the fact that she has no money more or less in stride, and is resourceful enough to solve her problems by selling pretty much everything that they brought on their trip, and riding the camel across Asia.
“…when the years have all passed, there will gape the uncomfortable and unpredictable dark void of death, and into this I shall at last fall headlong, down and down and down, and the prospect of that fall, that uprooting, that rending apart of body and spirit, that taking off into so blank an unknown, drowns me in mortal fear and mortal grief. After all, life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again.”
The book takes quite a turn into darkness at the end, but it was eccentric, charming and strange, nonetheless.