Rose Macauley’s 1956 novel, The Towers of Trebizond, opens with an Oxford woman coming home from High Mass on her camel, and continues as a sort of dazzling high wire literary act of British eccentricity and Anglican peculiarity mixed with ruminations theological and historical and sociological and political and so much more, in sentences that seem ever just about to topple over but then right themselves and head off elsewhere. In the course of this romp across Europe, the narrator (niece of that Oxford woman), crossing Turkey on the aforesaid camel, sick and perhaps hallucinating from a potion she has imbibed, throws up the following not atypical 118-word sentence:
It seemed to me that I passed wonderful Roman and Greek buildings, aqueducts, temples, theatres and arches, and sometimes whole cities, either in ruin or as fresh as new, and dazzling in white marble and paint, and sometimes they were Byzantine or Seljuk, or even Hittite, but the Hittite ones must have been built up by the potion, because there never is so much Hittite showing above the ground, it has to be dug and delved for and never looks fresh, but I hurried by what I thought were Hittite buildings, for fear there should be Hittite characters about, for no one can like Hittites, they are full of gloom and menace and too long ago, like Assyrians.
That, on page 172 of my edition, reminded me of Walker Percy who, amazed at the survival of the Jews, used to ask “Where are the Hittites?” A minor charm of The Towers of Trebizond is that even the Hittites have a place there.
It’s not, in my judgment, a successful novel; the voice goes on far too tediously. The charm was all in the beginning: a camel used for transport in England; a woman and a priest who want to convert Turkish Muslims to Anglicanism and set out to do so; long passages that describe the Anglican high church movement with that old, smug certainty that referred to Roman Catholics as “the Italian mission.” But while the narrator finds Anglicanism attractive, she won’t commit to it. She in fact fails to commit to anything. She (again, the charm) spends several pages teaching morality to an ape she has brought back to England, along with such skills as driving and weeding the garden. She denies that there are real differences in the world — not between humans and animals, and not between various religions.
At the end of this novel, the reader sees the emptiness to which it was leading all along.
Macauley’s novel is Anglican(ish) in its substance. Two decades later, Joan Didion gave us a novel Anglican(ish) only in title. A Book of Common Prayer (1977) could hardly be more different in style. It is “incantory” — which may be the best sense to be made of its title; I failed to notice any clues in the text. The cover praises Didion as writing with telegraphic swiftness and microscopic sensitivity, which she certainly does.
Its female narrator, age sixty and dying of pancreatic cancer, is an anthropologist who has lost faith in her method. Anthropologists believe one can understand human beings by paying attention to what human beings do. Disillusioned with that science, she no longer believes observable behavior tells us anything about anthropos. The book is her “witness” to a human being, Charlotte Douglas, who came to Boca Grande (the little Central American country where the narrator’s late husband had been ruler) for the last year of her life. The narrator is stating the facts about this person, arranging the facts, weighing the facts, going back and forth, in the hopes that she might understand Charlotte.
Charlotte, she judges, failed to make enough “distinctions.”
This reader wonders what that means. Did Charlotte fail to distinguish past and present? Did she fail to distinguish present and past husbands? Did she fail to distinguish amongst men? Perhaps, but there must be more. (We recall that the narrator of Trebizond denied distinctions existed.)
Charlotte’s passport lists her profession as tourist. She wants to reach her lost daughter, hiding somewhere in the U.S., a member of a violent leftwing terror cell (the novel is set in the sixties). The narrator’s own son is “lost” to her, although he appears importantly in the book and beds Charlotte.
Didion, reporter-like, has her narrator lay out more and more of this story. But beyond the observations and the details, there remains the big question of trying to understand Charlotte. It becomes the question of trying to understand anybody. Indeed, the narrator states that she doesn’t know why even she does what she does.
A Book of Common Prayer feels masterful, and I judge it worthy of rereading and capable of sparking a lively seminar (judgments I don’t make for Trebizond). However, the absence of God is here a real absence. A theologian might well suggest that Didion, perhaps unwittingly, shows us how little we know of anyone or anything, particularly if God is out of the picture.
I recently read both these books for the first time. The exciting elite ideas in the air a half century ago, ideas of relativism, of liberation through sex with a side helping of drugs and violence, ideas of progress, of leaving behind such things as commitment and marriage — exciting new ideas that left old Christianity in their wake — they seem so stale now. A novelist is — not as something she aims to be but in a secondary sense — a prophet. She tells us: this is what these things will lead to.
And, one can see, they have.
Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.