World class: Remembering legendary travel writer Jan Morris
By Liza Weisstuch,
Fairfax Media Archives Getty Images
Trieste is a narrow Italian city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, behind the top of the back of the country’s boot. Slovenia is five miles east from the city center, and Slavs make day trips to shop. Illy, the coffee company, traces its roots here, and it’s home to one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Its rich history revolves around its role as a bustling imperial port city. I visited Trieste three years ago, ate, drank, wandered and waded into the Adriatic Sea, glimpsing ancient limestone outcrops in the distance.
But I would not have understood Trieste without the help of Jan Morris, who made a living understanding everything. Her book, “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” is 188 pages of geography, philosophy, Napoleonic history, Jewish history, maritime history, vintage gossip of the bourgeoisie, personal reminiscence and self-reflection. And despite — or perhaps because of — the multitudes Trieste contains, Morris declares it “a fulcrum of nothing but an extension of much more.”
Morris, who died last month at 94 in her native Wales, published more than 40 books and countless articles. Some volumes are laser-focused on one place, some sprawling essay collections. She is often referred to as a travel writer, but to acknowledge her as such is like calling the Beatles a rock-and-roll band or van Gogh a landscape painter.
She wrote about architecture as prolifically and proficiently as Thoreau wrote about nature. She constantly and easily drew analogies to the works and exploits of novelists, poets, painters, dukes, kings, generals and ancient Greek philosophers. She never presented a narrative without first establishing a solid, intricately constructed foundation of historical truths. She might swerve into detailed exposition of past events, but she quickly slingshots back to her more whimsical, inspired musings.
Morris’s “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere,” written in 2001, is an homage to the Italian city, which she calls “a fulcrum of nothing but an extension of much more.”
And her food writing could make Anthony Bourdain blush. In a Singapore market “the shoppers spared me hardly a glance, for they were choosing their victuals with a scholarly concentration, calculating the density of turnips, contemplating the specific gravity of carp, comparing the metabolisms of goose liver and pickled crab before with decisive gestures they solved their several equations, and stuffing liver, noodles, pressed ducks and sharks’ fins into their blue and yellow plastic shopping bags, hastened home to make the soup.”
It would seem like she spent years pouring over stacks of scholarly books and reams of microfiche, but to envision her cooped up in some ivory tower is to insult her very essence. She didn’t travel for the sake of travel, she traveled to study. In 1987 she told the New York Times, “I don’t really enjoy traveling if I’m not writing. E.M. Forster once said that the only way to look at Alexandria is to wander aimlessly. At times, I have drifted to the Lower East Side, to Chinatown and so forth, but I haven’t wandered much.”
I can’t help wonder if that’s because she was long accustomed to a life guided and shaped by missions. Earlier in her career, Morris, a transgender woman, was a military officer in one of Britain’s most distinguished cavalry regiments and a World War II veteran and wrote under the name James Morris. In 1946 she was posted as an intelligence officer in Palestinian territories, which she arrived at via Venice and Trieste, both of which she wrote book-length tributes to.
She later became an international correspondent for the Times of London and remains most famous for her dispatch from Mount Everest, which she scaled partway with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, scrambling down to file her exclusive just in time to run on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Coverage of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s Cuba were among her other coups.
Like another matchless chronicler of geopolitics then culture, the New York Times’s similarly prolific R.W. Apple, who covered wars and presidential races before recounting his international dining adventures, Morris is so immediate and engaging in her writing because she possesses that reporter-esque instinct for scrutiny and obsession with detail. If any of her work were turned into a screenplay, there would be no need to contrive sets or costumes. Dutifully and admiringly, she records what would easily go unnoticed — the stitching on a buttonhole, the irregularities of a shadow.
Liza Weisstuch for The Washington Post
Morris was the author of more than 40 books and countless articles; she excelled at blending her varied interests in history, architecture, literature, philosophy, urban design and the human condition.
Though British — insistently and quintessentially so (“Oxford made me,” she wrote in “Conundrum,” a chronicle of her transition), she came up in the time of New Journalism. The practice, pioneered by Gay Talese and Truman Capote, relies on the specific techniques of fiction but sticks to the facts. Like those pioneers, she told probing and engaging stories that were also true. She just wove them through with a little more philosophy and introspection.
I discovered Morris 20 years ago while working at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. With a newly minted degree in literature, it was pretty much the only job I was qualified for. The used-book department in the basement had that musty scent of dust and other people’s houses. After work one quiet Sunday night I spotted “The World” on the shelf in the “Essays” section, equidistant from volumes by James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf. Small images of global landmarks adorned the spine and caught my eye. The minimal title — solemn, seductive and assured — snapped me to attention. The essays — impressionistic but set in tangible and at times familiar places — were like nothing I’d read before.
That volume — coffee- and beer-stained, dog-eared and scribbled in over the years — was eventually lost somewhere in Amsterdam. Rather, not “lost,” but returned to its natural habitat: the world. I only hope some curious passerby picked it up from whatever park bench or lobby sofa or cafe table I left it on, read it and set it back out into the wilds. I like to imagine all these years later it’s still circulating, reaching all the places Morris mused about in its pages.
The Washington Post
Morris sits for a portrait in 2003 in D.C.
When taken as a whole, her essays read as fiction, a fitting bridge to journalism for a literature major who had just spent years absorbed in Hemingway, Mann, Joyce, Shakespeare, et al. Morris’s ensemble is the city itself. The structures, buildings, waterways and open spaces, the cast of characters. She imbues inanimate structures with energy and personality. Skyscrapers in Singapore are “very rich, very arrogant, very vulgar” and they “humiliate” the old historic buildings. In Manhattan, the bases of buildings “suggest so many gigantic roots or trunks, and the life of the city seems to proceed as within a gargantuan forest.” In Edinburgh, church spires and austere towers are “thinking awful Scottish thoughts, or plotting the downfall of reason.” She’s insistent that her appetite for cities is greater than that for the countryside that surrounds her when she’s home in Wales, but we nevertheless catch her indulging in glimpses of nature being mischievous or gratified. The fjords of Norway, for instance “creep into the hills for shelter.”
In a 1997 New York Times article, she remarked that stones have a warmth about them, be it mighty Karnak or the walls of her stone cottage. “Inanimate objects express the unexpressed animate emotions,” she said. Those words are like a Rosetta stone to me, unlocking the Egyptology of the inner life that informs her perception.
Morris assumed she would be remembered as “that sex-changed travel writer” and indeed, throughout her life and now her passing, people suggest her perpetual travel was a metaphor for running away and trying to find herself. I think, however, that it was more a case of knowing and understanding herself so well that she could be contented anywhere.
When I saw her speak at the New York Public Library about 10 years ago, I remember her saying that when you travel, “you’ve got to be alone,” even if people want you to have company. As someone who often travels on my own when I’m on assignment, I see the value in that directive. That way it’s easier to talk to strangers who, in my experience, are far more valuable than any guidebook. Some have even become good friends. Moreover, if you want to get to know a city, you have to give it your undivided attention. And once you get to know the place, Morris showed us over and over, you’ll never be lonely. There’s too much to see.
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