A boring Istanbul adventure
William Armstrong - email@example.com‘Sweet Waters: An Istanbul Adventure’ by Harold Nicolson (Eland, 1921/2008, 25TL, pp 206)
This instantly forgettable 1921 novel is a product of the period when Harold Nicolson served in the British Embassy in Constantinople from 1912-14, a time when the city stood on the verge of catastrophe during the Balkan Wars. The title refers to the “Sweet Waters” of Europe and Asia, the streams on either side of the Bosphorus where the wealthy and powerful of the city traditionally congregated to see and be seen. Nicolson, however, surely intended it to carry ironic meaning, as his novel is mostly concerned with bitter diplomatic intrigue, betrayal, and the sense of impending cataclysm that defined the city he knew. As a vivid portrait of an ill-omened and claustrophobic city, “Sweet Waters” is atmospheric and convincing; but it’s rather tedious as a sentimental potboiler, which unfortunately is where most of the emphasis lies.
The action centers on the pre-war British diplomatic community, living a blithe and sheltered life in the Ottoman capital, but one over which dark clouds are gathering. We’re introduced to Eirene – the stock figure of the attractive and wealthy young woman - and Angus - a gauche young diplomat and poet who is trying to woo her (a wooing based on Nicolson’s own early relationship with Vita Sackville-West). Before long a raffish, white flannel-wearing new consul, Hugh Tenterton, arrives on the scene, which results in a predictable ménage-a-trois: the impulsive young woman, the cynical and suave older man, and the clumsy young pretender.
Public urgency is added to this tedious domestic story, as Tenterton has taken over at the embassy at a critical moment, with “trouble impending in the Balkans.” The forces of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece have united to crush the Ottomans out of existence in Europe, and indigent refugees are arriving in the capital in ever-increasing numbers.
The Balkan armies are advancing, have taken Adrianople (Edirne), and are now turning their attention to Constantinople itself. A dark sense of impending disaster thus suffuses the novel, the city increasingly being seen by its diplomatic corps as the “doomed,” rather than romantically “domed” capital: "How cold and sinister it seemed, so drab and squalid under the dark sky … the twin minarets of Sultan Selim stood out like two black chimneys against the scudding clouds … the minarets, colourless as lead."
This atmosphere reminded me slightly of “Greeneland,” the term often used to describe the settings of Graham Greene’s novels, featuring hard-boiled, over-the-hill Brits, hopefully with a drinking problem, whiling away their years in official service in some forgotten, seedy, sweaty part of the world. Still, Nicolson’s novel could certainly do with some more of Greene’s black humor. As it is, it’s a determinedly joke-less read, with the pace dragging quite badly and with nothing grabbing the reader in anything like the same way as Greene at his best.
The introduction to this version quotes a letter sent by Nicolson to Sackville-West, in which the author despairs of his novel: “One always hopes it will get better. But it flops and flops, and there comes nothing but despair when one turns over.” It’s true that “Sweet Waters” is nothing like a classic, but Nicolson was probably being too harsh on himself - it’s dull and definitely not worth reading as anything other than a museum piece, but some bored 1920s diplomatic types probably did enjoy it. Still, Pierre Loti’s “Aziyade” will probably always remain the orientalist gold standard for the silly Istanbul-set page-turner. This does have an attractive jacket though.
Notable recent release
‘The European Tributary States of the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’ by Gábor Kármán (ed.) and Lovro Kunevi (ed.)
(BRILL, $120, pp 446)