Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

That's Dame Rose Macaulay to you greasy peasants. Yes, it's weird and anachronistic that England still has knighthoods--to go with all their goofy classes of nobility--but as long as they're going to, I quite approve of the way they've decided that these should be awarded to people for their cultural contributions. So Dame Rose! Why not?

'Course, it's an open question as to whether the relevant knighthood-granting committee thinks, in retrospect, that this particular knighthood was a good idea. Macaulay was a prolific writer of novels and travel books, but her star has certainly fallen. Justly or unjustly, these days she seems to be known--to the extent that she is at all--pretty much exclusively for this, her last novel. Is that enough to warrant knighthood? Dunno. But there are certainly worse things one could be remembered for...

Our narrator is Laurie, a young woman of no fixed profession, who is accompanying her Aunt Dot on a trip through Turkey. Dot is a gung-ho, sixty-ish woman who wants to scout Turkey with the possibility of establishing an Anglican mission there, but who is just as interested in fishing and generally seeing the sights. They are also accompanied by an Anglican priest, Father Chantry-Pigg, and an unnamed camel of questionable mental faculties (and since seemingly everyone who's ever written about this book has quoted its opening sentence, I suppose I'll jump on the bandwagon: "'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass").

What follows is a mixture of travelogue and character study. The tone of Laurie's narration is difficult to convey; it's not really like anything else I've read. It is, I suppose, sort of bemused with a strong undercurrent of British irony, but with a core of sincerity at bottom, and it often expresses itself in breathless run-on sentences. She's an engaging travel companion, and Macaulay's descriptions of the landscapes and cultures are enchanting. Trebizond is an old name for the city of Trabzon, and Macaulay and her characters are perfectly aware of this. Laurie specifically uses the old name to denote an Orientalist kind of conception of the country and its people that she only half buys into.

Her drama is the question of her religious belief or lack thereof (which, I understand, mirrors Macaulay's own). She's nominally an Anglican (of course), but she doesn't feel she's very good at it and keenly aware of all of religion's contradictions; also, she has the feeling that she's disqualified herself by the fact of her being involved in a long-term affair with a married man. Here's a passage I like that more or less encapsulates her attitude toward Christianity, and also provides an idea of her narrative voice:

Of course from one point of view she was right about the Church, which grew so far, almost at once, from anything which can have been intended, and became so blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important, and tried to exclude everything not done in a certain way and by certain people, and stamped out heresies with such cruelty and rage. And this failure of the Christian Church, every branch of it in every country, is one of the saddest things that has happened in all the world. But it is what happens when a magnificent idea has to be worked out by human beings who do not understand much of it but interpret it in their own way and think they are guided by God, whom they have not yet grasped. And yet they had grasped something, so that the Church has always had great magnificence and much courage, and people have died for it in agony, which is supposed to balance all the other people who have had to die in agony because they did not accept it, and it has flowered up in its learning and culture and beauty and art, to set against its darkness and incivility and obscurantism and barbarity and nonsense, and it has produced saints and martyrs and kindness and goodness, though these have also occurred freely outside it, and it is a wonderful and most extraordinary pageant of contradictions, and I, at least, want to be inside it it, though it is foolishness to most of my friends.

Lest anyone should be in doubt, Macaulay nor Laurie think that Christianity is particularly better than Islam or Judaism; it's more a matter of what suits one's individual temperament, and also which has the most aesthetically pleasing accouterments. That sounds cynical, but it's not as much so as you'd think; imagination is undeniably an important component of belief and a feeling of spiritual fulfillment.

I thought this novel was really something special: funny, evocative, profound, all those adjectives. But...though it pains me to say it, Macaulay really does not stick the landing. The last damn chapter of the novel--five pages...well, SPOILERS, should probably go without saying here. Not that I think that knowing what happens will materially affect your enjoyment of the whole, but...

So to be clear, Laurie's adulterous romance doesn't actually play a large part in the novel. Her lover, Vere, isn't traveling with her, and though we see him a few times, we don't really get a sense of him. He's mainly present through occasional allusion, and provides an ever-present subtext for Laurie's doubts. One does, however, feel that the book must surely climax with some turning point or other in their relationship. AND SO IT DOES:


Goddamnit, Macaulay. The novel had been so exquisite up to this point, and then you botch it with this complete artlessness. What ought to happen is that Laurie makes some sort of decision or other, and we see how that impacts her faith or lack thereof. But instead, we get this authorial hand of god, God apparently having decided, well, we're done here, we need a climax, BOOM. It could not feel more artificial, in the worst way possible. And it's not like it even generates any pathos; I liked Laurie fine, but her relationship with Vere was so sketchy that its abrupt, violent termination kindles no emotion in me.  It just feels cheap, and not a little lazy.  It's incredibly frustrating, because this ending is such a tiny fraction of the book's total running time, and yet it casts a pall over the whole thing. I still recommend it, but somewhat less heartily than I would if it ended less ineptly.


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