THE TOWERS OF TREBIZOND begins with one of the great opening lines of the English novel ("'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."), and the first chapter closes with a succinct confession of the narrator's (and author's) faith: "I agree with those who have said that travel is the chief end of life." For readers who share that faith, this book, first published in 1956, must be accounted one of the most pleasurable novels of the century and one of the best travel books of all time. Not since Kinglake's Eothen in 1844 has anyone 'done' Turkey and the Middle East with quite the same inspired sense of when to snap a picture and when not, of showing what is typical without becoming a bore.
An ideal travel book, like an ideal traveler, must be free to wander and associate freely. To this end Rose Macaulay developed a "rather goofy, rambling prose style" (her own description), which reads like a postcard correspondence between Hemingway and Gertrude Stein:
". . . I lay on the grass edge to dry in the sunrise, and thought this was a good expedition we were having, and I was glad that aunt Dot got these notions that took her about the world, which is the chief end of man. And I thought how Turks too had always got about Asia and Europe, with firm determination and religion. Father Chantry-Pigg, who had unfair anti-Turk prejudices, owing to his devotion to Greeks and the Trinity, said that Turkish hordes had always made where they settled barren deserts only fit for camels, and every few centuries they move on somewhere else and make more howling deserts. (Father Chantry-Pigg pronounced it hooling, and I believe this right, like Cowley and owl.)."
To know Turkey inside out and to write of it divertingly is still something less than writing a novel. There is a plot to The Towers of Trebizond , but so slight that I found, rereading it after a 12-year interval, that I'd remembered scarcely a twist of it. There are also characters, too, more memorable than the plot, but all in the Micawber mold, created at a stroke and never varying from their original oddity. Its chief novelistic merit is its central, ever-more elaborated vision of heaven (and/or the Anglican Church) as a city, like Trebizond, that the mortal tourist hungers for and travels toward but never reaches. For all her casual airs, the narrator knows what ruin the centuries have brought to her citadel. Indeed, the novelist in her relishes the very hopelessness of her hope, since there is nothing so productive of vigorous art as an irresolvable dilemna. In her last years, by her own account, Rose Macaulay was able to return to the communion of her own church. In this, her last novel, she resisted the temptation to resolve the conflict on the C-major chord of Faith.
Not that she lacked faith herself, but that she could remember too well what it was like, as an unbeliever, to have to sit still in church and how the mind will wander off; and suddenly, at the most hushed and solemn moment, one is giggling. The satirist in her, who wrote a whole string of brilliant pasquinades in the '20s and '30s (many as deserving of republication as Towers (, can't resist pointing out the absurdity of the missionary impulse and the cross-cultural comedies it necessarily creates, as when Dr. Halide, a modern, emancipated Turkish convert to the Anglican faith, finds herself in disagreement with the "superstitious and extreme" Father Chantry-Pigg on the issue of partial-diluvianism -- "a heresy that the flood had not covered the whole earth, and this had been held by Bishop Colenso in the nineteenth century, and he had told Africans so, and in a novel by Charlotte Yonge the arithmetic book he wrote was condemned on account of this heresy. . ."
Well, I can't quote all the book. But now, when there are so few good books on the best seller list, you must go out and get a copy and read it yourself.