Monday, February 17, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

Notable New Zealand playwright and critic Dean Parker generously agreed to contribute a “Something Old” to this blog, and here it is.

“ THE TOWERS OF TREBIZOND” by Rose Macaulay (first published 1956) Reviewed by DEAN PARKER

I had a request from Nicholas Reid that I might want to supply a guest review for SOMETHING OLD. I said, sure, but never did anything about it and felt a bit guilty. Anyway, over the summer my partner passed me a book she’d picked up from the library and which she’d found hugely entertaining.
This was The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956 and which seems to be known the world over though not (to my shame) to me. I took it with me as I motored about the Waitaki Valley after Christmas in a party of three, one of whom was a Dot.
Wikipedia says it’s “partly autobiographical”, which make one’s eyes pop since it’s such an outrageous depiction of Brits in the East keeping up appearances.
I also read that a central character Dorothea (Dot) ffoulkes-Corbett is “eccentric”. Again, this is eye-popping stuff; what about the others?
The novel tells of the imperious adventures in Turkey of a group of English travellers, the narrator, the narrator’s Aunt Dot, and their High Church clergyman friend Fr. Chantry-Pigg.
Aunt Dot and Fr Chantry-Pigg are amongst the Turks with a desperate purpose: to convert them to Anglicanism. Aunt Dot’s quest has the added worthy incentive that such a conversion would free Muslim women from bondage and Fr Chantry-Pigg is also on a quest of all things Byzantine, brooding and wrecked byzantine churches; forlorn, lonely and ravished, apostate ghosts.”
The party, on camels, make various odd acquaintances and keep bumping into a Billy Graham Crusade and a BBC Radio folk music recording unit whose batty presences make their own venture to bring Turkey under the spiritual rule of the Archbishop of Canterbury seem perfectly normal.
In a stunning turn of plot, Aunt Dot and Fr Chantry-Pigg slip out of Turkey and disappear behind the Iron Curtain into Armenia and the USSR. The intrepid narrator is left behind to look after Aunt Dot’s camel.
This is the mid-fifties, immediate post-Burgess & Maclean and the popular press has a field day with the disappearance: “They have been seen. Everywhere in Russia they have been seen. In the Caucasus, in Tiflis, in Siberia, in Stalingrad and Moscow, in the Crimea. They have been in cafes with Burgess and Maclean…” (The latter pair are later described as “vexed” that British football teams are being beaten by “the Dynamos”.)
Through all this runs the narrator’s moving tale of being totally in love with a married man whom she eventually and blissfully joins—so briefly.
The style is an absolute joy. Impressions are given of briskness and yet so often and so fabulously great sentences magisterially declare themselves and roll on like a Royal Carriage heading to Westminster, one generalisation and assumption after another until reaching a conclusion that the reader dare not contest.
Every scene is not only described in detail but emphatic views are made of it—and of the oddest assortment of beings. The Hittites are “full of gloom and menace”, Martha & Mary’s Mary is “rather selfish, I thought”.
It’s a joy to read and honestly it is best summed up by its famous (I read again on Wikipedia) opening sentence: “‘Take my camel, dear’, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”

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