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.

 


 

Reading list


 

I have a confession. I don’t read novels much anymore.

 

If my thirty-year-old self could hear me saying that, he’d kill himself. Novels, up until recently, were a vital part of my reading diet. I actually learned things from them. The really good ones are well-written too; you can actually read a sentence aloud without embarrassment. (All together now: “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .”)

 

But novels tire me now. One more saga of failed marriage, one more Bildungsroman, one more academic mocking Academia. And they go on, and on, and on.

 

I’m talking about Novel Novels, you understand: the things they review in the New York Times, the big chunky things you talk about with your friends at the Explorer’s Club. I still feed on a steady diet of Other Stuff, as do we all: for me, it’s biography (especially autobiography and letters), diaries, popular science, spirituality (go ahead, mock me!), history, and cultural stuff. And young-adult fiction, which for me fills the need that some people fill with crime novels or science-fiction novels. As Alice noted very astutely, books should have pictures and conversations.

 

But we’re talking about Novel Novels.

 

Here’s what I’ve read over the couple of months:

 

English, August. Upamanyu Chatterjee. Okay, this wasn’t bad. It’s set in modern India, about a guy taking a civil-service job in a city he hates. It’s funny, and the depiction of Indian life is interesting. But he repeats himself too much: too many trips back and forth from the office to the hotel, too many long digressions. I know it’s supposed to depict the main character’s boredom, but all it did was stimulate my own boredom. I put it down about two-thirds of the way through, but I still remember a couple of the scenes vividly, so I’ll probably go back and finish it one of these days.

 

The Towers of Trebizond. Rose Macauley. A reread. A laugh and cry book. “All camels are insane, but this one is more insane than most.” I think, when I die, I want a copy of this book in the coffin with me.

 

Against the Day and Inherent Vice. Thomas Pynchon. I feel about Thomas Pynchon the way you feel about someone who saved your life. I love him, and I will buy every book he writes, and I will tote it around with me, even if (like “Against the Day”) it weighs eighty pounds. But I will never finish “Against the Day.” It’s too scattered, and I’m not sure what he’s getting at (I even tried annotating it, as if it were “Finnegans Wake,” to no avail). “Inherent Vice,” on the other hand, had some good stuff in it, and a little hint of “Crying of Lot 49,” and one of those almost-happy endings that Pynchon does very well. (Most of his endings are pretty dark; when he ends something on a positive note, it’s a good day.)

 

The Violent Bear It Away. Flannery O’Connor. Another reread. Vicious, evil, funny. I picked it up, and I had to finish it, I couldn’t stop. Can you think of a better name for a character than “Tarwater”?

 

What’s For Dinner? James Schuyler. I’d never heard of it. I took a chance on it, and it paid off. Funny, dry, unsentimental, and unexpected. Worth reading.

 

The Western Lands. William Burroughs. I wish I were William Burroughs. I have a copy of his last diaries; he cried for days when his cats died. His books are dark and self-consciously perverse, but I love them anyway, because he was a good writer, dammit.

 

The Summer Before the Dark. Doris Lessing. She throws words at you like lawn darts, and her sentences are long and clumsy. But her books are amazing. The plots don’t matter; people come and go, things generally go downhill, oh well, that’s life. But the people – ah. Remember what I said about actually learning things from novels? I learned something from this one. I coudn’t tell you what it was, but I did. Haunting.

 

Okay. So maybe Novel Novels are okay after all. I just get a sinking feeling sometimes when I walk through the Fiction section in the bookstore, that I’m letting the team down. But I guess we’re okay for now.

 

And what have you been reading lately?

 


 

 

Debo


There was a nice article in the Sunday Times about Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (which is the best alliterative name I’ve ever heard, edging out Marion Mitchell Morrison). Deborah – Debo to her friends – is the last surviving Mitford girl. She is ninety years old, intelligent, charming, loves Elvis Presley, loves her chickens, and still takes care of her privacy (I admire the way she gently hints to the reporter that it’s time to end the interview).

 

I didn’t know any of the Mitford sisters were still with us. Sometimes I try to enumerate them, the way people try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves. Nancy the novelist; Jessica the Communist; Unity the Fascist; Deborah the duchess – who am I forgetting? I had to look. Pamela, who stayed home and raised poultry, and Diana, the beauty (also a Fascist).

 

The Mitfords were born into an upper-class family in England, and tumbled effortlessly through life. They did not struggle upward; they just floated up, up, up. Even when their politics were awful, they never seemed like awful people. They were funny.

 

Money doesn’t hurt, of course. Without money, there’s very little comfort to be had from life. But money came and went for Debo too, and now she has plenty of it again.

 

She reminds me of an Englishman I knew in Morocco. He was in his eighties in 1984, walked with great difficulty, had trouble breathing sometimes, but was very sharp-minded. We were both dinner guests at a friend’s house, and I accidentally quoted Jane Austen, and we were friends after that. He’d been in the British Foreign Service for decades. He had a much younger and very nice Senegalese boyfriend. He’d known Olivia Manning. He said no one liked her; she was always making furtive notes, as if she was going to write a book about you someday. Another day he pressed a copy of “The Towers of Trebizond” on me and said, “Rose Macaulay. Strange woman. But very good book.” I had a long funny letter from him, but I think I’ve lost it, and now I wish I’d been more careful about keeping it.

 

And there was a piece in the Sunday Times about the 94-year-old Eli Wallach, whom Tennessee Williams said “has discovered the secret of pissing people off,” and whose wife of 62 years, Anne Jackson, sometimes walks into interviews and announces that she wants a divorce, just to shake up the interviewer.

 

I think of Maira Kalman visiting Louise Bourgeois (“She is 96 and still works, for God’s sake!”) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (“She dated George Gershwin, for God’s sake!”). They both served Maira Kalman chocolate. It must mean something.

 

I think of Auden’s portrait of Voltaire in old age:

 

. . . He would write

Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight

Against the false and the unfair

Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilise.

 

We’d better get out there and cultivate our gardens, y’all. Time’s a-wastin’.

 


 

 

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