Sunday, August 16, 2009

Appreciation: Pleasure of Ruins

My friend Taxmom, a frequenter of yard sales, has given me a special gift: Pleasure of Ruins, previously unknown to me, by Rose Macaulay, previously known to me as the author of one extraordinary novel The Towers of Trebizond. For me, Towers was a surprise--an item that started out as a piece of fluff and wound up as one of the most unexpectedly and interestingly plotted novels I've run across in years (so many plots, maybe most, really aren't that good).

I suppose you could say that Macaulay is a travel writer (the introduction to the NYRB Towers is the work of Jan Morris, herself an inimitable travel writer). But to call Macaulay a travel writer is a little like calling Melville an expert on fishing: strictly speaking correct, it still fails to capture to the distinctiveness of her peculiar sensibility.

You might be closer to associate her with that whole cohort of doughty British women who bestrode the globe in (at least so the caricature goes) tweeds and Tyrolean hats and sensible shoes from Clarks in Regents Street. One thinks of Freya Stark, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gertrude Bell, by courtesy also Rebecca West and, of course, Macaulay herself.

Apart from "doughty" and "British," and, perhaps, formidable learning, there is probably more that distinguishes than unites these women. Macaulay in particular has as gentler take on life than the others; she also embraces a sort of mysticism, sometimes but not always Christian, that the others don't embrace in any way. "[T]o be fascinated by ruins has always, it would seem," she says, "been a human tendency." Maybe, but to be fascinated enough to write a 455-page book about it verges a bit on the leeward side of obsession. It's not only "the stupendous past" (a chapter title) that fascinates Macaulay. She seems almost to prefer it that way:
Of all ruins, possibly the most moving are those of long-deserted cities, fallen century by century into deeper decay, their forsaken streets grown over by forest and shrubs, their decadent buildings, quarried and plundered down the years, gaping ruinous, the haunt of lizards and owls. Such dead cities stir us with their desolate beauty, in contrast with their past of greatness and wealth.
One can count also among the many charms of this meditation her formidable acquaintance with the work of other travelers who have passed her way. She seems to have read and assimilated a great deal, but she wears her learning lightly; she can invoke the shades with an easy familiarity that adds texture and richness to the whole endeavor.

None of this should be taken to mean that this book is in any way encyclopaedic: Macaulay cares what she cares about, and the rest she more or less ignores. So "ruins" here mean, pretty much, classical ruins in and around the Mediterranean basin, with random and more or less unpredictable asides on other perhaps-related topics. But "ruins" includes almost nothing about Islam except the odd reference to the things the Muslims ("the Moors") ruined. Perhaps more surprising, given her own bent, there is scarcely a word about Christianity. But no matter, there is plenty enough to keep her (and the readre) busy through a long succession of traveling seasons.

Oh, and a particular triumph: for all her breadth, and for all the depth and precision of her citations to the secondary literature, she achieves the near-impossible in writing about ruins: she covers 455 pages without a single reference to this.

Update: A couple of friends point me to The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader as covering a good deal of the same turf with a somewhat similar sensibility. Good call; I have a vague sense that I read it many years ago but it might deserve another look.

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