“Some Pattern That I Could Not Unravel”: Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond

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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?

towers2I 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!

“Why did not anything do?” Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Crewe Train is the first novel by Rose Macaulay I’ve read. I can’t decide if it makes me want to read another! It was easy to read: the prose is brisk, the tone is lightly satirical, the characters and incidents are quirky but mostly engaging. It has something of the flat quality I’ve noticed in other non-modernist novels I’ve read from the twenties and thirties: everything’s just narrated in order, one thing after another, artlessly. Yet of course there is an art to this too: it’s just not an art that makes itself felt.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie, the daughter of a widowed English clergyman who can’t stand chatter and sociability and so tries to find a place to live where he can avoid people who “insist on conversing with you.” Unfortunately for him, the English “cannot stay at home” and his quest for perfect peace is ruined by cheerful, well-meaning, annoying people who “insisted on making friends with him and his grave, square-faced, brown-legged girl.” They end up in Andorra: “enquiring about it, he ascertained that it was very difficult of access, being snowbound from November to May, and mountainous all the year round, and that the approach to it was by mule.” Promising as that sounds, Mr. Dobie nonetheless is still unable to cut himself off from life, and ends up remarried and drawn back into society in spite of himself. The irresistible pull of relationships with other people turns out to be a central idea of the novel.

Denham takes after her father in her dislike of “that strange love of human intercourse, of making talk.” She finds other people mostly just puzzling and troublesome in their demands and expectations: “when she saw anyone whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by.”

Mr. Dobie dies and Denham is taken back to London by her mother’s family, the Greshams. And so the stage is set for the fish-out-of-water comedy that makes up the bulk of the novel. Denham is a perfect device for Macaulay to poke fun at the conventions and morés of high society. She can’t see the point of all the rules–what to wear, what to say, where to sit, when to stand, how to pass one’s time. Since, of course, most of these really are perfectly arbitrary rules, it’s not that hard to satirize the mindless compliance of the Greshams and their friends–but once you get the idea, it’s also not really that interesting or sophisticated a critique. Here’s Denham newly arrived in London, for instance:

London. The problem was, why did so many people live in it? Millions and millions of people, swarming all over the streets, as thick as flies over a dead goat, as buzzing and as busy. Why? Did they all agree with Uncle Peter that nothing was like London and that they must, therefore, be in London, this unique spot? Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere? . . .

And then the streets. Thousands and thousands of omnibuses, taxis, vans and cars, all roaring down the streets together, like an army going into battle, mowing down with angry trumpetings all human life that crossed their path. Were they all necessary? Was human life in London so cheap? Denham, after the first, had no personal anxieties on this head, for she felt competent to evade the assaults of these monsters; neither had she much pity for the victims, for they could probably well be spared, and certainly the population needed thinning; but it seemed a curious way of doing it.

Funny, right, especially that deft little jab at the end? And the theme is funny in all of its variations, even as its underlying point is serious and well-taken:

With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn’t do, mustn’t wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less, you could have got artificial silk or Lisle thread. Why?  Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?

The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. . . You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.

It’s not only expensive living up to these standards, but it is also a lot of trouble, and if there’s one thing Denham hates, it’s going to any trouble. She dreams “of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation.” Awash  in the trivial chatter and clutter of London society, Denham goes along to get along, but it’s all folly, as far as she’s concerned.

The novel follows Denham to marriage (to Arnold Chapel, a writer) and then a pregnancy that (happily, from her perspective) ends in a miscarriage — imagine how much trouble motherhood would be! Despite these gestures towards normalcy, she still craves escape, and she finds what she thinks is the perfect alternative to the Greshams’ lifestyle in an ill-kept Cornish cottage complete with a smuggler’s passage to the sea and a cave she sets up as her parlor. Then, when her privacy in this not-so-bucolic retreat is destroyed by a news story about her eccentric choices, she heads off on a bicycle tour, believing that in constant motion she can free herself from the constraints of society.

No such luck, however. Just as her father was drawn into a second marriage by “madness of the blood” and Denham herself also into marriage by her own passionate response to Arnold’s kisses, so once again it’s passion that thwarts Denham’s plans as she has an affair with a fisherman and becomes pregnant again. Her return home feels something like a failure, as she’s clearly capitulating, of necessity, to the trivialities and domesticities she has always hated. For all that human relationships are troublesome and social conventions pointless, life outside them is an impossibility, a fantasy. “Love,” reflects Denham, “was the great taming emotion”:

Oh, life itself was the trap, and love the piece of toasted cheese that baited it, and, the bait once taken, there was no escape.

It’s a potentially poignant moment, but I felt disoriented at the end of the novel about how Macaulay really meant to steer us. So society is silly and superficial–but Denham’s life and thoughts hardly offer us an exhilarating alternative. She’s no untamed genius, no blooming wildflower ruined by her new unnatural environment, no free spirit caught and tragically tamed. She’s dull, sluggish, literal, unimaginative, anti-intellectual, and, in her own dogged way, entirely selfish. She can’t see any motive for doing anything other than for personal pleasure or satisfaction. She holds up no positive value except individual freedom–and not freedom of a high order (political freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom from oppression, freedom to create or worship or love) but just freedom to do what you feel like doing and nothing else. She thinks books are pointless, plays are “tedious stuff,” children are a nuisance. At times I thought perhaps it was Denham who was being satirized (“What a trade it was, increasing the number of books in a world already stocked with them! As bad as parents, who increased the number of people”). I suppose there’s no reason why the scoffing couldn’t go in both directions. Society: can’t live with it, can’t live without it! But the novel would have been more compelling to me–it would have seemed like more than an eccentrically amusing story–if there had been a clearer sense of what the costs are of the two options. I guess I like my social comedy to have a stronger undercurrent of moral seriousness. Vanity Fair, this isn’t.

Crewe Train is this moth’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I’m posting here a bit early because I have another big deadline at the end of the week; I’ll cross-post it over there on November 17th. I’m looking forward to seeing what the other readers thought of the book!