Classic novel stirs Byzantine dreams
I have long suspected that the two best things in life are travel and good books. Sometimes you get both in one package: a good book about travel.
I’m happy to report that I just found a classic, “The Towers of Trebizond,” by Rose Macaulay, an upper-crust English writer descended from a long line of Anglican clergymen. Witty and satirical -- in the tradition of Oscar Wilde -- the book made a bit of a splash when it was published in 1956, with its unforgettable first line: “ ‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”
Several years after Macaulay died in 1958, a book of confessional letters appeared, written by her to an Anglican priest in America. It revealed that she had carried on a 20-year love affair with a married man, which estranged her from her religion. When he died, she found her way back to the Church of England.
Anglican devotees praised the publication of the letters, but the literati thought it an invasion of the author’s privacy. Poet Elizabeth Bowen called the clergyman who made the letters public “that rat-faced priest,” and writer Rebecca West said all the posthumous tittle-tattle made her “want to vomit.”
Like Macaulay, the narrator of “The Towers of Trebizond” is a young Englishwoman who is enmeshed in an adulterous affair, the rightness and wrongness of which she debates during a trip to Turkey and the Levant.
With Laurie, the narrator, are her eccentric aunt, Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett, who never goes anywhere without her Arabian racing camel, and the benignly bigoted Rev. the Hon. Hugh Chantry-Pigg, retired vicar of St. Gregory’s church, Westminster, London. Dot goes to Turkey to write a book about the wretched lives of Muslim women, and Chantry-Pigg aims to convert nonbelievers while visiting long-lost Byzantine churches.
The plot is nuts: a half-dozen English eggs cracked into a Turkish frying pan. “How everyone gets about,” Dot says at one point. “I wonder who else is rambling around Turkey this spring. Seventh-day Adventists, Billy Grahamites, writers, diggers, photographers, spies, us, and now the BBC.” Dot disappears across the Turkish-Russian border with Chantry-Pigg (spying behind the curtain, London gadflies say later).
Another travel companion, a Turkish doctor, gives up the whole expedition, not to mention Christianity, while Laurie fishes in Turkish mountain lakes and discovers a manuscript written by a young Englishman who was killed by a shark while bathing in the Black Sea.
What rises from it all is Macaulay’s fine understanding of the contradictions and ironies of travel. Laurie notes skeptically that locals break into cheery traditional song whenever the BBC van comes by. Dot is rarely able to make contact with poor, sequestered village women, but as Laurie says, “The less she saw of these women, the more she had to say about them.” It quickly becomes clear that the good father loathes Muslims for the way they turned all the beautiful old Byzantine churches into mosques. Laurie has a good deal of trouble with the Turkish language, though she’s memorized a line about not being able to speak it. Later, she realizes she misread her phrase book and has been saying, “Please phone at once to Mr. Yorum.”
The members of the group bumble around northeastern Turkey, carrying their prejudices with them but in a kind and educated way, because these are classically educated, well-mannered English people. And all travelers do the same, no matter how we try to avoid it.
Along the way, Macaulay gets in some smashing travel description, whetting the appetite of anyone who dreams of far-away, long-lost places, such as Trebizond. It is now a modern Turkish city called Trabzon. But in the Middle Ages, it was the fabled seat of the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Christian church after European crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204.
In 1461, Trebizond’s rulers, the Comnenus dynasty -- late of Constantinople -- were put to the sword by Sultan Mehmed II and it became part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. For a brief halcyon time between the 13th and 15th centuries, it was independent -- a great seat of culture, philosophy and trade with the Far East, pursued by businessmen from Venice and Genoa.
In Macaulay’s book, brief-lived, esoteric Trebizond beguiles, not a place one really plans to visit but a destination of dreams. Rambling among the ruins of the Comnenus castle, set on a plateau between two steep ravines, Laurie can envision the “Trebizond of the world’s 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.”
Trabzon is probably beyond my reach too. The U.S. State Department’s consular information sheet on Turkey mentions terrorist activity, such as the November suicide bombings in Istanbul.
But I would love to cruise into Trabzon some spring, see it spilling down its two ravines into the Black Sea, aflame with azaleas and rhododendron. I would stay at the Zorlu Grand Hotel, said to look like a palace, eat seafood, go to a hamam (or bath), tour the 13th century church-museum of Haghia Sophia with its splendid Byzantine frescoes.
But mostly, I’d wander and think about life, as Laurie did, in the ruins of the Comnenus castle high above the city of dreams.
Susan Spano’s “Postcards From Paris” are posted at www.latimes.com/susanspano. She welcomes comments at email@example.com but regrets that she cannot respond to them individually.