Friday, February 27, 2015
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley
"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from the High Mass.
The Towers of Trebizond has been on my to-read shelf since 2007. It popped up on some classic book list, possibly The Guardian's list of 1000 Books Everyone Must Read (it's one of the 100 Comedies -- I've read 37 so far). Plus I really liked the cover of the NYRB Classic edition, above, so I bought my own copy which promptly gathered dust for about seven years until I picked it up the other day.
Published in 1956, this is ostensibly a humorous tale about some unlikely companions traveling around Turkey -- the narrator, Laurie, who is a companion and assistant to her widowed Aunt Dot as she embarks on a journey which is part research for a travel book, part missionary work to convert infidels to the Church of England, and part social work to empower women in a highly traditional and sexist culture. They're accompanied by an Anglican priest, Father Chantry-Pigg, and aunt Dot's nameless camel.
It's quirky and the wit is mostly very dry:
It is not, therefore, strange that we should have inherited a firm and tenacious adherence to the Church of our country. With it has come down to most of us a great enthusiasm for catching fish. Aunt Dot maintains that this propensity is peculiarly Church of England; she has perhaps made a slight confusion between the words Anglican and angling. To be sure the French fish even more, as I sometimes point out, and to be sure, the pre-Reformation monks fished greatly. "Mostly in fish-ponds," said Aunt Dot. "Very unsporting, and only for food."
After a time, the group ends up separating and Laurie spends much of the trip alone with the camel. There are a lot of funny observations, but Laurie does a lot of soul-searching about the nature of love and religion -- a lot of the book discusses the differences between the different sects of the Church of England, not to mention the Roman Catholic church and Islam. There's a lot of discussion about the plight of women in Turkey and whether they can be emancipated and empowered. Laurie is actually an agnostic, and spends a lot of time pondering about the nature of religion. This book spends a LOT of time discussing religion. Parts of it are satirical, including some digs at Billy Graham, but some of it is just thoughtful.
There were parts of the book I found delightful and quirky, and there are a lot of lovely travelogue-y bits when Laurie travels on her own through Turkey on the back of the camel, mostly in places where she can barely speak Turkish and few of the locals speak English. Still, she gets by quite well, which is surprising for a woman traveling on her own in a Moslem country in the 1950s. But the end of the book turns quite serious and I did find the ending very melancholy. I went back and read the introduction of the book after I'd finished, and it was easy to see how some of the events in the book were inspired by author Rose Macauley's own life.
This book was extremely popular in the late 1950s when it was published -- apparently people went around quoting the famous first line. I do think that it is definitely a product of its time -- there are some parts in this book that definitely made me uncomfortable, which some readers could find very offensive. However, I do think it was satirizing many religions, not just Islam.
I'm counting this as my Forgotten Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.