The towers of Trebizond

by Dame. Rose Macaulay

Paper Book, 2003




New York : New York Review Books, 2003.


"'Take my camel, dear, ' said my aunt Dot." So begins Macaulay's greatest novel. Traveling overland from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond, the narrator and her companions have a series of hilarious encounters. The dominant note of this novel is humorous, but the import is often tragic.

User reviews

LibraryThing member alana_leigh
"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

So begins Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, a quietly compelling and incredibly amusing story of various English expats traveling in Turkey. Having completed the novel, I find that
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it's actually surprising how many elements of the story can be captured in this single opening sentence. The dominant present of aunt Dot, the bestowing of a crazy camel, the question of being beholden to others, the Anglican mission. It might seem like a somewhat strange book for a modern reader, but I must say that I found myself oddly captivated by it.

Laurie is our narrator, a young woman without much direction of her own... and not much money, either. She's traveling with her aunt Dot (who, naturally, foots the bill) and their current focus is Turkey. Aunt Dot is seeking to write a book about Turkey (and indeed, everyone they know these days seems to be writing a book about Turkey) with a focus on the plight of women. Laurie will draw the accompanying illustrations while Dot discusses how miserable these Muslim women must be in their current state. The book, however, is a secondary concern, as Dot's true goal in this expedition is to be an Anglican missionary, converting Muslims to the Church of England (again, with particular focus on women). Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg is also accompanying them on their journey, as Dot feels a priest would be a necessary addition to a missionary group, and while Dot and Father Hugh don't quite see eye-to-eye on everything, they all go forth, arguing about who has to ride the camel (which belongs to Aunt Dot and which might be going slowly insane). Laurie recounts their various travels from city to city, encountering acquaintences and exploring on her own. There's certainly a melancholy air to Laurie, more about which one gradually uncovers as the novel goes on, and there's also a rather interesting view of religion expressed by one who has always had it apart of her life and yet who isn't totally convinced of its necessity or even her place within a church should she wish to believe.

As a bit of an Anglophile, this unconventional and casual (yet quite knowledgeable) discussion of the Church of England is certainly interesting... particularly given how ludicrous the overall missionary role is when clearly is ragtag band will get nowhere with any locals. The really captivating part, though, is how much the narrator is struggling with her own religion. I wouldn't necessarily call this book religious in any way (as it's not trying to persuade the reader to any understanding), but it certainly is an articulate account from one who wants to believe and yet has sincere questions. Even more poignant is Laurie's other major struggle (and it isn't giving anything away to simply note that it is, indeed, romantic in nature). The Towers of Trebizond draws you in and catches you unawares -- suddenly, one is completely wrapped up in this odd little volume, a novel that clearly belongs to another time but still possesses timeless concerns and emotions.

There are incredibly funny bits to it all -- I expected Aunt Dot to be a kind of Auntie Mame and while she is not that, she is still a ridiculously amusing aunt without any intention of being so. The total distrust of foreigners is ratcheted up in these particular places where everyone is suspected of being a spy for everyone else. The camel is a riot -- alternately suffering from insanity and amorous moods -- to the point where one almost laments the fact that transportation these days is not quite so independently minded. Almost. The sudden emergence of random people in strange places is delightful -- indicative of the world becoming smaller and the way particular places become trendy. And any reader can understand the idea of certain types of literature rising up to be all the rage, so the fact that everyone seems to be writing a Turkey book, often at the deliberate expense of others, becomes a fascinating background.

I don't quite know what mood you should be in to pick up this novel for prime enjoyment, but I do hope you select it with an open mind and the desire to simply be absorbed in a story that is (most likely) far beyond your immediate life. Drizzly afternoons with tea (aka something that feels just as English as Laurie) strike me as an excellent setting. As a character, Laurie might not do anything wild and adventurous, but I can assure you that her quiet and deep observations will always stay with me. Indeed, the whole of The Towers of Trebizond will stay with you long after you have finished reading it as you think on its contents and what it is that you would consider your own coveted lands, even if they only live on in memory.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Classic comic British novels, from Three men in a boat and Zuleika Dobson to Lucky Jim, have a way of being a good deal funnier when you remember them than they are when you actually have them in front of you: The towers of Trebizond is a case in point. Coming back to it after a long time, I
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remembered all the ludicrous incidents involving the camel, the ape, Mr Yorum, and Father Chantry-Pigg, but I'd forgotten how sad and reflective it gets in the final chapters, as the narrator struggles to come to terms with religious faith. There's an incongruously late-Victorian feel to this part of the book: Matthew Arnold writing in the style of Nancy Mitford, perhaps. Very odd. But not much odder than late Evelyn Waugh, I suppose: probably it didn't seem quite so incongruous in the fifties. And of course there is a long tradition of self-mockery among Anglo-Catholics, continued in recent times by writers like A.N. Wilson.

The other part of the book also has its oddities: once Auntie Dot and the priest have been shunted off over the frontier, there are long stretches where we seem to lose track of the idea that this is a novel, and it reads more like a straightforward Robert-Byronish travel book. It does have rather a thirties feel to it, definitely: it seems odd when we are pulled back into the fifties by a mention of the Cold War or Burgess and MacLean.

Overall, I suspect that this is a better, more complex novel than it's often given credit for: certainly, it's much more than just an amiable send-up of English eccentrics abroad.
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LibraryThing member pitjrw
An odd book that is equally concerned with High Church attitudes, the tradeoff between ethics and fulfillment in adultery, the pleasures of leisurely travel, and our relationship with our animal companions. Most frequently quite funny but veering occasionally and unexpectedly into piquant
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observations on the dissatisfactions of essential compromises.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
Maybe 4½ stars... Although I have little to no interest in the Anglican church, which is a large part of this novel, I found myself laughing out loud more than once and smiling even more frequently. The narrator Laurie has a caustic wit even as she is struggling with her position regarding the
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church while carrying on an adulterous affair.

Her traveling companions include her extremely eccentric aunt, who insists on traveling around Turkey on a racing camel & trying to convert the Turkish women to Anglicanism. Laurie herself has a streak of eccentricity which leads her to acquire an ape, which she takes back to England where she teaches it to drive, garden, and attend Anglican church services!!
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Can you give a book 10 stars? I stumbled across Rose Macaulay while browsing through the "New York Review of Books Classics". It turns out that the Towers of Trebizond was a great hit in the UK and US back in the 1950's. I highly recommend taking a look at those wonderful reprints of older books.
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All praise to the New York Review of Books.

This book is a mostly hilarious sendup of conventional society (primarily British, but others do not escape unscathed) in the form of a travelogue and memoir of a youngish upper middle-class English woman who travels to Turkey with her Aunt Dot and their High Anglican minister Hugh Chantry-Pigg. A camel, Billy Graham sightings, and a disappearance into Soviet Russia are involved in this wonderfully witty tale. Macaulay also sprinkles some philosophy along the way and a sudden and sobering twist at the end.

By turns quirky, eccentric, funny, and thoughtful, The Towers of Trebizond is a nugget well worth rediscovery.
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LibraryThing member devenish
"Take My camel,dear," said my aunt Dot,as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. Thus begins this delightful book,most of which tells of the travels and adventures of Laurie (the narrator),her aunt Dot,and father Chantry-Pigg. They journey through Turkey and various other
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countries on a camel of uncertain temper. The main aim is an attempt to convert the Turks and others to the Anglican Church. At one point Dot and Chantry-Pigg disappear behind the Iron Curtain and the party goes their separate ways for a while. An extremely funny book with a downbeat and rather sad ending. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member mtilleman07
Very, very funny, but with a borderline non-sequitur turn to the depressing and macabre at the end. But very funny until then. If you have any sense, the camel will be your favorite character, or maybe the ape who learns to go to church.
LibraryThing member Petroglyph
Most of the book is a travelogue, in which a trio of upper-class British twits (for various degrees of twittishness) travels around mid-20thC Turkey to gauge the feasibility of converting the local women to High Church Anglicanism. There’s the no-nonsense, no-consideration Aunt, the
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self-congratulatory Priest, and the narrator, who thinks of herself as a characterless hanger-on, but who over the course of the book develops her snarkiness into some degree of coherence and thoughtfulness. Towards the end a little bit of sudden seriousness encroaches, but it isn’t too jarring.

Large parts of this book felt like they had almost been written to cater specifically to my tastes: they’re whimsical, colourful, indulge in the joys of largely obstacle-free travelling, and the characters are archaeology-obsessed know-it-alls who are over-educated in Classical European History and who enjoy their little discussions about random points of Christian theology. It’s all very cute and amiable, and the novelistic parts, lightweight as they are, do not interrupt the travelogue too much.

While the troupe of Brits are presented as too smug even to think of themselves as foreigners when travelling through another country, their twittishness is presented with a dollop of self-irony, and paired with a largely sympathetic portrayal of the people behind the class, a mixture that makes the whole thing much more palatable than it would otherwise have been.

All in all, an easily digestible, whimsical period piece: a pleasant and smooth read through a book that has no real pretensions to profundity. If my review has whetted your appetite, the book is probably for you; if not, it likely won’t be.
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LibraryThing member hallgerd
This book is a marvel. Unless you are extremely learned in the Classics, Middle Eastern geography and history, Literature in general, the history and practices of the extremely high end of Anglicanism, fishing and the Soviet Union you will not understand everything in this book - I certainly don't.
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But it's like meeting someone charming, funny, urbane and a LOT smarter than you who nevertheless grabs your loyalty instantly because they're just so interesting. It's very funny, wistfully sad in parts, incredibly observant and thought provoking. It isn't long but it packs a huge amount in. Look out in particular for Mr Yorum Yorum, absinthe-fueled visions of Hittites, spontaneous singing when the BBC recording van rolls past and British spies strolling in the distance. A feast!
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LibraryThing member anneofia
This really was a good book - the kind that makes you think a lot! It took me longer than usual to read - quitting for a day or two, then going back to it. I think this was because there was so much to think about in it - discourses on history and mythology, comparative religion, and female
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emancipation, to just how psychologically unbalanced the camel actually was. Laurie's rambling, and sometimes giddy, narrative style kept me moving right along with the travelers; but hearing what they heard, seeing what they saw, was tiring. I guess that's what traveling with a disparate group of wayfarers does to you. The fellow travelers were as fascinating as they were opinionated, and I enjoyed the dialog even when I didn't agree with it. I also enjoyed the look at the Anglo-Catholic church. The unexpected ending was heart-rending, but on reflection, I don't see how it could have been different. And life does go on.
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LibraryThing member delphica
(#47 in the 2008 Book Challenge)

I should probably warn people that I'm on a weird kick of 1950s English popular fiction by women. And this was enormously popular when it came out. A young woman accompanies her aunt and a priest on a tour of Turkey. There are a lot of jokes about Anglicanism, many
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more than I thought were possible, actually. This was intriguing on several levels -- it's fairly interesting right there on the surface, and also a great look at the time when it was written, and fun to compare and contrast to what passes for popular literature today. It's also one of those books that ends up being about something quite different than you suspect: it would appear to be a book about touring around Turkey on a camel, and it turns out to really be about personal moral responsibilities and obligations.

Grade: A-
Recommended: It's a strangely good book, but it has that unsettling quality that sometimes happens when a book isn't timeless ... it's very much of its time and reading it involves significant emotional discordance.
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LibraryThing member PollyMoore3
" "Take my camel, dear" said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." I was captivated right from this great opening sentence. Very funny, but with a terribly sad shock at the end.
LibraryThing member wrichard
High church and exoticism - goodness me!
LibraryThing member santhony
This quirky little novel is something of a period piece, written by a female British author in the 1950s. The book documents the travels of a group of British missionaries to post-Ataturk Turkey. The travelers consist of an Anglican priest, a feminist doyenne and her niece assistant.

The doyenne is
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primarily concerned with the plight of Muslim women and seeks to enlighten and “free” them through conversion to Christianity. Along the way, the group picks up assorted fellow travelers as it makes its way by ship and camel through the area of Armenia and most particularly the Byzantine stronghold of Trebizond. At this point, the doyenne and her Anglican escort break off from the group in order to covertly enter communist Russia.

The narrator (the niece), continues through Anatolia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and back to Istanbul and England, all the while pondering the fate of her aunt. As I said, this is a somewhat quirky read and not entirely to my liking. Written in the style of upper class English literature of the era, it is something of a travelogue, with various musings on culture, art, religion and human nature. Periods of entertaining prose scattered throughout an overall snooze of a novel.

While I found most of the short novel tolerable, the final 20-30 pages are virtually unreadable, including a 10-12 page simulated conversation between several religious proponents on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of various faiths. Not recommended.
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LibraryThing member aemurray
This book was puzzling, but I still enjoyed savoring the writing. There were times when I laughed out loud at some of the goings on in this book. I wasn't sure why she introduced the chimp/monkey towards the end, and the tragedy that develops with the lover that she kills is a little mind numbing,
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but well worth the read.
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
Witty and sad all at the same.
LibraryThing member Smiley
A rather silly little novel with a great opening line and a few other interesting passages. The contemplation of Christian faith is a strong point, but Macaulay wimps out in the end. It was an easy, short read.
LibraryThing member abbeyhar
Made it 25% of the way through and just couldn't get into it. Maybe it's a hidden classic but it just seemed like a bit of a snooze fest to mr.- abbey the grouch
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Witty and sad all at the same.
LibraryThing member encephalical
The best bits are fantastic, the rest tends to drag. Can't say I found any of the religious parts anything but tedious.
LibraryThing member LudieGrace
I wanted to love this book. The first 100 pages or so were uproarious and charming, and the Anglo-Catholic humor was amusing, but once I was left alone with Laurie, much of the appeal was sucked out of the narrative for me, even the actual travel bits. His stream-of-consciousness religious musings
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grew tiresome quickly. (Obviously I'm reading Laurie as a man. I thought he was Dot's niece for the first half of the book, then was disconcerted to realize I'd probably been getting that wrong for chapters.)
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
Witty and sad all at the same.


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