Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

But is it a novel? (pub.1956) It stretches the fabric a bit thin scarcely covering the bones of a slight frame. Surface anatomy is too evident and two of its chief characters are despatched by shunting them behind the Iron Curtain when they have exhausted their tricks. The personal voice of the narrator protagonist is self-conscious and transparently that of the author in mild disguise. Is it a travel book that is trying to be a novel or a novel that too peripatetic for its own good? Banal as it may seem and a failure to keep up with the post-modern narrative, a slow-reader so to speak, when I’m not involved in the fate of the characters I nod.

The elements are there for travel whimsy and the solid description of the cultural treasures of Trebizond and its surrounding area, the sort of thing that Robert Byron did for Afghanistan in The Road to Oxiania. Abroad is odd but when the travellers are full blooded eccentrics at home the ludic element is cancelled because the Turks don’t realise just how odd these tourists are. For them all English are mad. It was when Laurie comes back to England and begins to train the ape that she has bought in Turkey in the ways of God and man, attendance at Anglo-Catholic service, driving a car and weeding the garden, that the true nature of our narrator is clear.

Laurie’s companions on the Turkey book writing jaunt are Aunt Dot, Aunt Dot’s Camel known as ‘the camel’, and an Anglo-Catholic priest Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg surely a name to curse with in a Muslim country. I wonder if travellers in India are still asked: ‘what is your mission in India’? Their mission in Turkey was Mission to the poor benighted ‘eathen’ Muslim as Kipling put it as well as the collaboration in a travel book between Laurie and her aunt with Aunt Dot doing the words and Laurie the illustrations. Of the group she is the one who is troubled in her faith and taken to adultery. “Feel the guilt and do it anyway” might be her motto. Father Chantry-Pigg tackles her on this in a passage which is good of itself, in itself, but is in the wrong book which would have the review title Travels in Greeneland:

“It’s your business to know. There is no question. You must decide at once. Do you mean to drag on for years more in deliberate sin, refusing grace, denying the Holy Spirit? And when it ends, what then? It will end; such things always end. What then? Shall you come back, when it is taken out of your hands and it will cost you nothing? When you will have nothing to offer to God but a burnt out fire and a fag end? Oh, he’ll take it, he’ll take anything we offer. It is you who will be impoverished for ever by so poor a gift. Offer now what will cost you a great deal, and you’ll be enriched beyond anything you can imagine. How do you know how much of life you still have? It may be many years, it may be a few weeks. You may leave this world without grace, go on into the next stage in the chains you won’t break now. Do you ever think of that, or have you put yourself beyond caring?

Anglicans sorry Anglo-Catholics don’t do angst. There is no ‘but not yet’ aspect to her wish to be reconciled with the Church, Laurie seems to have broken with a tradition and not a faith. This maundering on the edge of belief with its Arnoldian overtones jars with the general lightness of the book. It seems lost in the exoticism which could have been examined in detail in a proper travel book but used as a 'wash’ blurs the real spiritual struggle. When Laurie comes back to England the crisper edge of her writing emerges. I am sure that a book with the rich tapestry of the Home Counties might be better. The World my Wilderness published in 1950 sounds like it might be better. We know that she can write.


skholiast said...

The odd thing about Towers is that you think it's one sort of book, and for about 3/4 or more of it, it is that sort... and then -- bam. A different, much more serious book.

ombhurbhuva said...

Yes it is an abrupt ending that throws no premonitory shadow backwards over the body of the book as though she was bemused by the sorcerer’s potion.