Novel Thoughts blog

The Travel Novel

April 26, 2014 7:52 am | Leave a Comment

I am leaving for Cracow (Kraków) in a few hours, the better to celebrate the canonizations of Blessed John Paul II and the other guy. No disrespect to Blessed John XXIII, but in Poland he is most definitely second banana to the great Jan Paweł Drugi. Polish street vendors still refer to the latter as “THE Pope”, as in “Tomek! Put out more pictures of the Pope!”

Naturally I have packed my travel journal. My memory is faulty, and thus I need a notebook to get any sense of what I have seen and heard when I travel. I also record such useful information for future reference as the price of lunch at “Polskie Smaki” in the Ulica Sw. Tomasza (50-65 zł for two). Eventually my Polish travels will work themselves into stories and, I hope and pray, books. But for the time being, I still feel too much of a tourist to hazard the experiment.

Last week I disapproved of a then-agnostic’s novel about the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England. Today I am contemplating a very good novel about that self-same wing. It is called The Towers of Trebizond, and it is by the great Rose Macaulay (1881-1958). It is, bar none, not even Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt, my favorite travel novel.

Rose Macaulay was of the generation before that of Evelyn Waugh. Evelyn Waugh despised Rose Macaulay, but as he despised multitudes, don’t let that discourage you from reading her book. It begins with one of the most famous lines in contemporary British fiction—”Take my camel, dear”—and declares that “travel is the end of life”, which it certainly can be, in more ways than one.

Although the book is heavy on irony, it is delightfully funny about English Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. At the same time, it demonstrates a grave respect for the Christian faith and a poignant longing for Grace. The narrator is in a state of mortal sin, and as the child of a very old Anglo-Catholic family, knows himself or herself to be in a state of mortal sin.

One of the growing mysteries of the book is whether the narrator is a man or a woman. Unfortunately, this is often spoiled by those who write the blurbs on the backs of books. The device places the reader more easily in the head of the narrator, be the reader male or female. It may also suggest that men and women are not as different as they may seem, even in 1956.

In the book travel serves as a metaphor for the soul’s progress towards or away from God. Trebizond, now an impoverished Turkish town whose Byzantine history is of no interest to the locals, represents for the narrator the glories of the past and the material and physical riches of the Byzantine court. But it also represents heaven, and grace, from which the narrator is barred. The camel, who becomes the narrator’s companion, becomes a metaphor for the narrator him- or herself.

The narrator’s travels through Turkey are as populated as the pilgrimage of The Pilgrim’s Progress. On the side of Christianity are the narrator’s missionary Aunt Dot and her chaplain, Father Chantry-Pigg. On the side of the world are the narrator’s worldly and quarreling friends.

Aunt Dot and her chaplain have their amusing quirks, but they are never small and mean. The narrator finds himself/herself becoming smaller and meaner the longer he/she goes on “shutting the door against God”. The narrator is on the dividing line between Christian Britain and artsy Britain, just as Aunt Dot’s fellow missionary, a female Turkish doctor named Dr. Halide is on the dividing line between the old Muslim Turkey and the then-contemporary secularist Turkey.

The combination of descriptions, Scriptural references, humor and spiritual contemplation makes the book a must-read for any Roman Catholic reader, who will find that, in the main, the theology of Anglo-Catholics in the 1950s did not differ all that much from their own. Naturally, we will feel a great sympathy for the novel’s “Catholic Commandos” who feel compelled to inform everyone that the Anglican service is not a valid Mass, that Anglo-Catholic clergymen have no power to absolve, and that Anglican clergymen are certainly not priests. However, I don’t think we can fail to be moved by the spiritual longings of the narrator in contrast to the narrator’s worldly desires.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

Tags: Catholic literature England Europe Evelyn Waugh Poland recommendations

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