and heaven and hell seemed for ever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, and this led to a lot of conversation about it all, and it was extremely interesting and exciting.
—The Towers of Trebizond, 14
Move over Brideshead, there’s a stunning new ur-Anglo-Catholic novel in town. It’s Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond. I cannot believe that no one has made me read this novel sooner. [Although, wait, I do think I remember being made to listen to a few passages before. Maybe I was the rocky soil upon which the seed was scattered fruitlessly.] As soon as I peeped one word about the Holy Sepulchre or made mention of driving through Galilee, I should have been sat down in a rigid wingback chair, attached to an IV of Earl Grey and never allowed to rise until I had reached the back cover of Dame Macaulay’s paradigmatic prose romp through Anatolia and the Levant.
As a traveller who is always existentially pained over the question of: why am I here? I’m embarrassingly gung-ho for satirical shakedowns of deplorable travel ethics. William Cavanaugh’s tourist-pilgrim paradigm (from Migrations of the Holy) is perhaps the best bit of political theology I’ve ever encountered, because it’s effortlessly applied on the micro-level to one’s own life.
Aunt Dot is an outlier of Cavanaugh’s system, however, as her boundless wanderlust combined with effusive provincialism combine to become the paragon of who and what she most completely is: a Missionary. Dot certainly has Big Acts 1:8 Energy. She will not stop until she has seen every corner of the globe. But the globe will not change or convert her, no sirree, not one bit. She will not rest until they have built England’s green and pleasant land in Jerusalem, as it were, and in Aleppo, Izmir, and Moscow, too.
Religion double force that spurs us into strangeness, while also confirming our own childish certainties is thematized throughout the novel by our adulterous and reluctantly religious narrator, Laurie. Laurie is the Graham Greene element in the novel. I feel like The End of the Affair is a fanfic version of how Laurie’s story might have ended, or vice-versa.
But rather than the near/almost/actual death of the beloved catalyzing Laurie into conversion, Vere’s near/almost/actual demise further entrenches Laurie in his glum of excommunication. Despite his P.G. Wodehouse exterior, Laurie’s interior is riven by the cosmic clash of good and evil. Throughout the novel, Laurie bears his heart in poignant asides and sincere throwaways which are always delivered in perfect British deadpan. These break open, however, into his vulnerable speech at the heart of the novel:
Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely.
In the ruins of Turkey’s Byzantine past, Laurie sees the geography of his own heart: a country forced into glitzy secularization, but still haunted by the enchanted religions running deep in the blood.
Lest any of this be too sincere, continental, or earnest, it’s intertwined? blanketed by? peppered by? the droll narration of a traveler’s tall-tale over after-dinner sherry.
Then he stopped laughing, and said in the voice one uses when a friend has been killed by a shark…
It’s all a part of the Scheherazade swagger of Laurie’s story. I’m grinning ear from ear on the subway, flipping through one coy sentence after another. But woven into the archness is the melancholia of a soul yearning. Yearning for? God, religion, church, belief—all of a piece and yet so vitally distinct. It’s all stacked up inside Russian Doll sentences like this:
But this is what happens when you have to get across Turkey to see your lover.
I had the Church to myself, says Laurie, explaining his take on the Reformation to a rather boarish agnostic friend, and could tell an atheist about it. It’s a stunning line. Set free from the pressure of other believers measuring our orthodoxy, we are free to belong. We can express our own orthodoxy freely. But to be a single religious individual is different than being a Church. In fact, being a Church means that you never get the Church to yourself. You are constantly checked, corrected, converted by the obnoxious, flawed, sacramental community you belong to.
Laurie finds his need for God incurable. But he can’t quite bring himself to leave the city of men and enter into the heavenly city that beckons to him in the crumbling palaces and religious ruins of Turkey, in the awful strife that churns around the tranquility of Jerusalem’s stones. He describes religion as dangerous, threatening to his way of life. He senses the stasis of his life is threatened by the city he is outside of but has besieged him.
And out of this ghastliness of cruelty and pain in Jerusalem on what we call Good Friday there sprang this Church that we have, and it inherited all that cruelty, which went on fighting against the love and goodness which it had inherited too, and they are still fighting. but sometimes it seems a losing battle for the love and goodness, although they never quite go under and never can.