Through its reissues of out-of-print or forgotten books, the New York Review of Books has been fueling the sense of discovery that remains one of the great pleasures of reading. Again and again while bookstore browsing in the last few years, I've come across something the NYRB has published that I've never heard of, taken it home, and felt like I've discovered a little treasure.
That was how I felt reading "The Towers of Trebizond," a small miracle of a novel by Rose Macaulay. Jan Morris' introduction informs us that this 1956 novel, Macaulay's last, was a critical and commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic. How did it ever fall into obscurity?
"The Towers of Trebizond" starts off as a comic novel, a great example of what we think of as the humor particular to English eccentrics. There is scarcely a line in the first third of the book that doesn't provoke laughter or, at the least, a pleasurable sense that someone is tickling your brain.
The narrator is Laurie, a woman who would seem to be in her mid-30s. As Macaulay herself was, she is in a long-term love affair with a married man, though her more constant companion is her Aunt Dot, a hale, elderly woman who justifies her love of world travel by claiming it to be in the service of mission work for the Anglican Church and a project to determine the status of women in the Middle East. Their companion on their tour of Turkey (in addition to an addled camel, a present to Dot from the rich tycoon head of an Orient tribe) is a bigoted Anglican priest with the title of the Rev. the Hon. Father Hugh Chantrey-Pigg.
Roughly the first half of "The Towers of Trebizond" is a satirical picaresque that lampoons Anglican narrowness, and the backbiting competition among the British literary set. With what used to be called "the Levant" all the rage, the place is fairly crawling with literary tourists, each determined to get their travel book out first. (Dot is doing one, too, with Laurie providing illustrations.)
"I wonder who else is rambling about Turkey this spring," wonders Aunt Dot at one point. "Seventh-Day Adventists, Billy Grahamites, writers, diggers, photographers, spies, us, and now the B.B.C." At times the novel feels as if Macaulay has restaged the mad tea party Alice attends and taken it on the road. Her style in the first half of the book is sublime deadpan silliness. Writers and comedians have always gotten laughs out of the Englishman abroad (think of the team of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in "The Lady Vanishes"). The surprise of "The Towers of Trebizond" is how adaptable Aunt Dot is. Macaulay doesn't overplay her imperiousness, but pitches her right between the tourists who complain "this isn't how things are done at home" and the "when in Rome ..." set. She's both adventurous and provincial. When Father Chantrey-Pigg says one ought not to go to Russia because it would mean condoning a government that persecutes Christians, Aunt Dot replies, "If one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult."
It might seem as if the reappearance of "The Towers of Trebizond" was due to the renewed "relevance" (awful word) in its depiction of the Christian West meeting the Islamic East. But that isn't where Macaulay's concerns lie, and when Aunt Dot and Chantrey-Pigg slip over the border into the Soviet Union, leaving Laurie alone, the novel undergoes a subtle but complete tonal shift.
It's here, in the last half of the book, as Laurie wanders Turkey on her camel, running into acquaintances and making do as best she can on the little money she has, that the novel becomes a serious, though never heavy-handed, study of a crisis of faith. Perhaps using the word "crisis" is overstating things and implying a melodramatic approach that Macaulay avoids. Laurie knows herself too well to be thrown into a tizzy over her inability to give herself over to a faith, any faith:
"Nothing in the world, for instance, could be as true as some Anglicans and Calvinists and Moslems think their Churches are, having the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I suppose this must be comfortable and reassuring. But most of us know that nothing is as true as all that, and that no faith can be delivered once for all without change, for new things are being discovered all the time, and old things dropped, like the whole Bible being true, and we have to grope our way through a mist that keeps being lit by shafts of light, so that exploration tends to be patchy, and we can never sit back and say, we have the Truth, this is it, for discovering the truth, if it is ever discovered, means a long journey through a difficult jungle, with clearings every now and then, and paths that have to be hacked out as one walks, and dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light that has lighted every man, which can only come through the dark lanterns of our minds."
What's striking about that passage is the mature acceptance of uncertainty and confusion as part of our natural condition. It feels sensible without being complacent, contemporary as well as timeless. (It's worth noting, for example, that "The Towers of Trebizond" came right about the time that Ingmar Bergman began impressing an awful lot of people with his heavy, Scandinavian angst over "God's silence.")
Yet neither Macaulay (who was to reconcile with the Anglican Church shortly after the book was published; she died two years later) nor her fictional counterpart can be fully content with that. Reassurance that hangs just out of reach is always a tempting thing, even when you know that the only way to accept it is to shortchange your intellect and your own messy experience. Her lover accepts what he calls her "church obsession ... So long," he tells her, "as you don't let it interfere with our lives."
There may be no easy way to describe why that line, coming in the last few pages after the book's devastating denouement, seems so liberating. It's mainly the common sense of it, especially reading it now, in a God-ridden age when religion is, for so many faiths, a retreat from the world rather than a connection to it, an interference with the joys of life (whether or not you believe those joys are God-given). Macaulay never denies the appeal of belief, the longing for reassurance, but like any adult, she never denies that life is a trade-off either. The book ends with Laurie in what she describes as a dual hell, though there is more acceptance than torment in her description. The revelations in "The Towers of Trebizond" are all of the earthly variety, and Macaulay makes that seem, if not everything, then enough for any reasonable person.