January 2013

Daniel Shvartsman

fiction

Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Towers of Trebizond, Dame Rose Macaulay's final work, is a curious book. The novel is many things, in fact: erudite, quintessentially British, an enchanting travelogue, a cutting take on contemporary mores, a spoof on the Cold War era Macaulay wrote in, a writer's novel, an all too thorough dissection of the Anglican Church, and, often, frustrating. But above all, it is a curious book.

Macaulay's method here is to give us a deadpan narrator surrounded by a bunch of wacky characters and to send them on the road; many a contemporary reality show has its roots in the same concept. Our narrator is Laurie, a lapsed Anglican in her thirties and an illustrator of some talent. She is enlisted by her bold, proto-feminist high Anglican aunt, Dot, to travel to Turkey. Joining them on the trip will be the priggishly pious Father Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot's camel. The mission: to preach to the unwashed masses in Turkey's mountainous East and to liberate Turkey's women from the heavy thumb of Islam. Let hilarity ensue.

It cannot be denied that the book is amusing. For those who like their humor served dry, Towers of Trebizond is a desert. At times, the persistence of the gags hits the right notes, as with Aunt Dot's eagerness to get in the spy game and make up stuff because the money's good, or Laurie's exploitation of the fact that everybody's "writing their Turkey books." At other times, it gets wearying for all but the most patient reader.

Beneath the humor, Macauley employs another tried-and-true technique, that of a deadpan narrator who is currently sorting through profound spiritual and emotional crises. Laurie often turns to her spiritual wonderings as a grounding mechanism amidst the hijinx all around her; at times, she also alludes vaguely to the adultery that keeps her away from the church she was born into. This is the submerged part of the book's iceberg, the emotional heft lying in wait for the reader to crash upon when otherwise amused by the aforementioned ribaldry.

The best part of the book, though, is neither of these things but Macaulay's eye for her characters' surroundings and especially Trebizond. The city, currently known as Trabzon, was once the last bastion of the Byzantine Empire. While its symbolism in the novel grows increasingly obvious, its charm is hardly obscured. Laurie and the reader share their best moments wandering through the city alone, digging through the layers of history that accumulated upon its streets and people over the years. Macaulay's erudition adds to the allure, detailing the many footsteps in which Laurie follows. For one stretch, when Laurie imbibes the mysterious green potion of a Greek sorcerer lurking near the Citadel, the book largely achieves the mystical mixture -- humor, spirituality, and the wilds of Turkey -- that Macaulay has been aiming for all along.

Unfortunately, both the stretch and the potion wear off too quickly, and the balance is lost. The comedy continues to grate and the promised profundity hardly arrives. Toward the end of the book and back in England, Laurie spends an entire chapter trying to domesticate the chess-playing ape she picked up on the boat ride home. When at last the end, the final plot twists, the heft, and the gravity ride to the rescue, it's all too late. It feels cheap, sudden, and, for all the hinting, unearned.

Dame Rose Macaulay was a prolific author, though little remembered stateside, despite the success of Towers of Trebizond when it came out in 1956. If this reprinting, the second in the last ten years (the previous with New York Review of Books, a perfect home), shines a wider light on her oeuvre, that would be a good thing: for example, her previous book, The World My Wilderness, is fantastic.

There's something to Macaulay's writing, but it's unclear whether that something features fully among the busy brew in The Towers of Trebizond. The book is often called Macaulay's crowning achievement; it only deserves the title if we're using crowning to mean "final." Otherwise, for all its directions and qualities, it's hard to say too much about the book. A curious one, indeed.

Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374533632
288 pages