Old School's somewhat pedagogical nature inclines one toward a few schoolmasterish objections. Its gradual accrual (three episodes from it appeared in The New Yorker) may have lulled the author into writing a last chapter that, although a rattling good story, seems more like an appendage than a conclusion. I furthermore think that these cowlicked white teenagers are a little ahead of their time in calling Jackie Kennedy a "fox." And let me say this, above all, Mr. Wolff: the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue is a ridiculous piece of postmodern pretentiousness that has no place in your book. Not when it can stand with the best of what some old boys (Louis Auchincloss, Richard Yates) have produced in a waning American genre. —Thomas Mallon
On the Road and Off the Wall
The Towers of Trebizond
by Rose Macaulay
New York Review Books
Novelist, poet, journalist, wit, and world-class diner-out, Rose Macaulay was one of the most popular writers and personalities in England from the 1920s until her death, in 1958. The ebullient Macaulay was friends, it seemed, with everyone. Rupert Brooke, Gilbert Murray, Harold Nicolson, John Betjeman, and Virginia Woolf were only a few of those who prized an intelligence that, though "acid," in Nicolson's words, was "citrous merely and never poisoned."
Macaulay wrote twenty-three novels, including Potterism, Told by an Idiot, and The World My Wilderness. Her most famous was her last: The Towers of Trebizond, which first appeared in 1956 and is now being reissued, with a new introduction by Jan Morris. The book was wildly successful in its day, and its opening line ("'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass") became famous, a byword for the off-the-wall humor that was Macaulay's specialty.
The elderly Aunt Dot, a compulsive traveler with a zealous missionary spirit, has organized a trip into Turkey with the vague idea of converting its Muslim inhabitants, and especially its oppressed women, to Anglicanism. She drags along with her the Rev. the Hon. Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, an "ancient bigot" and a very High-Church Anglican, and her niece Laurie, the novel's narrator, whose goofy, rambling reflections set its tone. Along the way they encounter a bizarre cast of characters that includes British spies, Seventh-day Adventists, archaeologists, and a seemingly endless parade of busy literary travelers; Byzantium and the Levant were popular destinations in the 1950s, and most of the writers Laurie knows seem to be in Turkey researching their Turkey books. The party meets with a series of truly absurd adventures before returning to England—without, needless to say, having converted a single Turk to its creed.
The Towers of Trebizond brings together several of Macaulay's abiding interests: exotic travel, liturgical disputation, Church history, and ancient ruins. (Macaulay's other enduring masterpiece is the lush and scholarly Pleasure of Ruins.) "I have a passion for mélange and the fantastically impure," she once commented, and one of the wonderful elements of this novel is the way it works as a historical travelogue: through Laurie's eyes we see Trebizond (modern Trabzon) and the rest of Turkey not only in their contemporary, Muslim guise but as they were seen in turn by Jason, Xenophon, Ovid, Justinian, and the Crusaders. Macaulay deftly peels away the centuries, making The Towers of Trebizond one of the most erudite of books. It is also one of the funniest.