Rose Macaulay’s “The Towers of Trebizond”

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While I was living in Morocco in the 1980s, I fell in with a bunch of British people.  They were a very close-knit group, funny and intelligent and shockingly well-read.  I, who thought myself all of the above, was very outclassed.  But they were all very kind to me, and housed me from time to time as needed, and lent me books, and were generally good to me.

 

 

One (whose name was the same as a great seventeenth-century British biographer and antiquarian – something I was too stupid to realize at the time, as it certainly meant that he was descended from the man, or at least related to him) was an elderly man who’d served in the British Foreign Service for decades.  His first name was John.  He was living in mellow retirement in North Africa with his much younger (and very handsome) Senegalese lover / companion.  John was very serene, and very happy.

 

 

(I’m sure John and his British friends were all quietly amused by the fact that I didn’t recognize his family name. Well, ha ha, I figured it out eventually, thirty years later, didn’t I?)

 

 

One evening at dinner, I accidentally quoted Jane Austen (“I do not cough for my own amusement”).  It was enough to catch John’s attention, and we began to talk.  He talked about Olivia Manning, whom he had worked with, and whom he had not liked (“We knew she was always noting things down, writing about us”).  A few years ago, finally, I bought the NYRB edition of Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy,” and I still have John’s quiet words ringing in my ears, and I still have not read it completely, because I keep thinking: “John said she was a bitch.”

 

 

On another occasion, he said: “Have you read Rose Macauley?  Peculiar woman. You must read ‘Towers of Trebizond.’”

 

 

I made a mental note of it.

 

 

Years – decades! – later (I’m sure John has passed away by now, god bless him), I finally read Rose Macauley’s “Towers of Trebizond.”

 

 

Oh my dears.  Read it.  It is lovely.

 

 

It is about a youngish middle-aged woman who goes with her Aunt Dot and a priggish Anglican clergyman for a tour of the Black Sea coast of Turkey in the 1950s.  Aunt Dot has a camel, which becomes a very important character in the novel. (“Take my camel, dear,” is the first line of the novel.)  Within not too many pages, Aunt Dot and the clergyman have bolted over the Turkey/Russia border to convert the Communist heathen.  Our narrator is left behind in Turkey to ruminate, and travel, and consider what might happen next. 

 

 

This novel is funny, and sad, and has the most astoundingly shocking ending of any novel I’ve ever read.

 

 

John was right.  This is an essential novel.

 

 

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t wait to read it.  It is too funny, and too lovely, and too sad.

 

 

John and I and Rose will love you for it.

 


 

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

2 Responses to Rose Macaulay’s “The Towers of Trebizond”

  1. I’m adding this on Goodreads! I don’t know how much sad I can take but it sounds wonderful and creative.

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