Laugh-out-loud funny but undeniably rum, Nige discovers a true original…

Does anyone read Rose Macaulay these days? She seems to be one of those writers who figure large in their own time – their books sell well, they know everybody, are in everybody’s memoirs and letters – and then, after death, fade out of view. Of her novels, The Towers of Trebizond seems the only one that’s still remembered, if only for its famous first sentence: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

What a rum do it is,  The Towers of Trebizond (available for a penny here). Entertaining, colourful, involving, often laugh-aloud funny, packed with ideas and hugely readable – but undeniably rum, and very much of its time (1956 to be precise).

I mean – a novel about a pair of highly educated, upper-class English eccentrics of very High Church views travelling around Turkey with the aim (among others) of converting Turkish womankind to High Anglicanism, which would liberate them to wear hats and sit around in cafes playing tric-trac all day, just like the men… It is hard to imagine such a novel being published in today’s, er, climate. In fact, when it was written the climate was chilled not by anything to do with Islam but by the Cold War, which feeds into the story in often surprising ways.

It is indeed a novel full of surprises – one that starts off appearing to be a jolly, lightly satirical comedy set in a Turkey where every other English visitor is either spying or writing a book. It then starts developing all manner of offshoots, as the narrator, Laurie, niece of the camel-owning Aunt Dot (who, along with her fellow would-be missionary, Father Chantry-Pigg, is a great comic character), carries us along with her into realms of thought, speculation and fantasy on themes related to the ancient world – in particular the Byzantine Empire, of which Trebizond was the last stronghold – Christianity, love, sin, grace, East and West, espionage, Church history, camels, apes, adultery…

Her artless, almost girlish narrative voice, trotting breathlessly from phrase to phrase in long sentences strung together by ‘and’s, propels everything along most enjoyably, and makes a piquant contrast to her subject matter when that turns serious – as it increasingly does after a dramatic turn in the narrative at around the halfway point. Now Laurie herself takes centre stage, and what began as a comedy turns into something quite different, as we find out more about her blissful but guilty relationship with a married man, and follow her attempts to achieve some kind of grace, or at least make herself eligible for it. The focus is more and more on her ‘brand of flimsy and broken-backed but incurable religion’ – to the extent that, towards the end of the book, she devotes almost a whole chapter to theological questions, particularly Predestination and Election and the problematic 39 Articles of the Church of England.

And then, having given the impression that her story is going to peter out amiably and inconclusively, she delivers a devastating shock in the very last chapter that changes everything utterly, and delivers an ending that could hardly be more different from that famous opening: ‘Take my camel, dear…’.

I think I can honestly say I have never read another novel quite like The Towers of Trebizond. It is a true original.

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  1. Rita Byrne Tull on Wednesday 7, 2012

    This is on my top ten favorite novels list – I read it during the summer before I left home for university and it was the only hardback I owned at the time – bought in a used bookstore because the name Trebizond called out to me, a student of the Byzantine Empire. As a junior librarian I made my reputation for book talks with this book – of course just reading that first sentence hooked my audience! It has a rare, strange quality of being dated but timeless.

  2. Philip Wilkinson on Wednesday 7, 2012

    I’ve not read The Towers of Trebizond, but Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins is a wonderful book, the loving fruit of much travel, and much grubbing around in libraries: a topophilic wonder.

  3. Worm on Wednesday 7, 2012

    As Philip says , the pleasure of ruins is an excellent book, and well worth purchasing if you see it in a dusty bookshop.

    However, feel free to avoid “The World my Wilderness”, her novel set in the ruins of London after the war. Turgid is the word.