Then, between sleeping and waking, there rose before me a vision of Trebizond: not Trebizond as I had seen it, but the Trebizond of the world’s dreams, of my own dreams, shining towers and domes shimmering on a far horizon, yet close at hand, luminously enspelled in the most fantastic unreality, yet the only reality, a walled and gated city, magic and mystical, standing beyond my reach yet I had to be inside, an alien wanderer yet at home, held in the magical enchantment; and at its heart, at the secret heart of the city and the legend and the glory in which I was caught and held, there was some pattern that I could not unravel, some hard core that I could not make my own, and, seeing the pattern and the hard core enshrined within the walls, I turned back from the city and stood outside it, expelled in mortal grief.
The Towers of Trebizond interested and entertained me so much that it seems hardly fair to describe it as a disastrous hodgepodge of a novel — and yet, despite the apparently widely held view that it is some kind of a masterpiece — despite Jan Morris’s confidence that it is a “permanent work of art” or Joanna Trollope’s identifying it as the “book of her life,” to give just two examples of prominent people raving about it — I just can’t get past how strange, uneven, and miscellaneous it is. I notice, too, that these enthusiasts don’t really try to explain why all the parts of the novel fit together, how they add up convincingly to one impressive thing. Maybe unity, for them, is not a particular virtue. I wouldn’t necessarily have identified it as a requirement for literary greatness myself: I don’t demand that every element of a novel be strictly and obviously essential to one fundamental idea or purpose. I don’t, for instance, object to the rather baroque excesses of many of Dickens’s novels, which often digress or effloresce in extraneous ways. But including things you (arguably) didn’t have to isn’t the same as throwing together things that don’t belong together, at least not according to any principle I could discern. Hence my title, which in context is not meant as a criticism but as an embrace of mystery. Much as I loved that transcendent passage and the many others like it in the novel, I could not make The Towers of Trebizond “my own.”
And yet … I can’t entirely disagree with the critic who called it “a little treasure,” or the one who noted that it is both remarkably erudite and very funny. I would have loved the book if it were all in one vein or the other: either a spiritual quest or a farce; either philosophical depth, or social satire. I could have loved the novel with all of these disparate qualities — because Macaulay does them all so well — but I didn’t think she assembled them into a coherent whole. The deranged camel provides much whimsical hilarity — but why is it the vehicle for Aunt Dot’s and then Laurie’s journey – not so much literally (though it’s a reasonable question, too, why they should ride a camel at all) as symbolically?* Aunt Dot’s ultimately fruitless mission to convert the women of Turkey to Anglicanism (and thus, she believes, liberate them from patriarchal injustice) is both entertaining and thought-provoking: “we emancipated Turkish women … must do this from within,” explains a one-time ally, who by the end of the novel has converted back to Islam;
we must speak to them as Moslems, we must tell them that our religion and theirs allows these things that they think they may not do, and this way we shall wake them to ambition and to progress, and make their men ashamed to keep them down.
But what does this rebuke to missionary zeal (both religious and feminist) have to do with the overabundance of literary types all keen to write their “Turkey books,” or with Laurie the narrator’s adulterous affair? What does the ape Laurie adopts and teaches to drive and play chess have to do with anything at all? Why is the travel writing so lyrical when the plot is so farcical? What’s with all the spies — real, imagined, pretend? Why are the religious ruminations sometimes so profound and sometimes so painstakingly literal — several pages on the 39 Articles? really?
I exaggerate my interpretive confusion slightly — but only slightly. If pressed, I would say that the novel’s central concern is the nature of religious faith: a great many of the novel’s other concerns, including gender roles, cultural and national identities, and problems of morality, spiral outward from that, and the travelogue covers geographical territory with historical layers that further highlight the contingency but also the continuity of belief in its many forms. Going abroad always reveals the arbitrariness of values and behaviors that we take for granted, so what counts as “strange” or “exotic” is a good index of our own oddities, and the same, here, is often suggested or even stated about religion: “Other clergyman are so odd,” Aunt Dot says, “compared with ours,” which prompts Laurie to think,
I could see that she was remembering the whole strange world of clergymen; mullahs, Buddhists, Orthodox, Copts, Romans, Old Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Rabbis, and of course they are all odd, for they uphold strange creeds and rites, and that is what they are for, but Aunt Dot may have been right to think Anglicans the least odd, or perhaps it is only that they are the ones we are most used to.
Laurie is an agnostic, but she (probably she, though I was glad to find another reader who thought there was some ambiguity there) is most drawn to Anglicanism (following Macaulay herself, apparently, who returned to the church around the time the novel was written). Laurie’s reasons are not so much theological as pragmatic and emotional, however: she likes that its prayers are “dignified and beautiful and in fine English and not abject or sentimentally pious, or hearty and pally and common, or in Latin,” and that as a faith it has proven amenable to “new light and development” rather than doctrinal rigidity and resistance to change. It’s only the (unforeseen, inexplicable) catastrophe at the novel’s conclusion that makes her really yearn to be inside as a believer, rather than outside as a spectator: if the spiritual journey she is (possibly) on is really just one for comfort, not for truth, that seems an anticlimax, but that’s really no more puzzling than anything else in this literary olla podrida.
There are lots of wonderfully quotable bits from the novel, from the unforgettable first sentence (“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass”) to the many evocative descriptions of the Levantine landscape, in which classical, Biblical, and historical references make it resonate with meaning. Here’s a little bit that captures that quality but also hints at the bathos into which (until the very end) even the novel’s loveliest moments seem inevitably to collapse:
Now we were among the rhododendrons and the azaleas which had supplied the maddening honey to the Ten Thousand, and the May breezes blew about, sweet with the tangs of lemon trees and fig trees and aromatic shrubs; and pomegranates and cucumbers and tobacco plants and gourds and all the fruits you would expect flourished in the woods we went through, and I thought the Garden of Eden had possibly been situated here. When we stopped for lunch in a wood, I asked Father Chantry-Pigg about this but he said no, that garden had been in Mesopotamia.
* “The importance of the camel in The Towers of Trebizond is difficult to define,” says Wikipedia helpfully. But unlike most reviews I looked at, at least they tried!