On Prose: Journeys With Jan Morris

Admiration for a Traveler, Writer and Pioneer

  • Writer Jan Morris is interviewed by Reuters in New York February 27, 2008. Morris, 91, who first published under the name James, switching to Jan after undergoing a sex change in 1972, has signed an agreement with her British and American publishers Faber & Faber and W.W. Norton to publish her final work "Allegorizings" with the caveat that they may only publish it after her death. (Reuters - Mike Segar)

For the Valley News
Thursday, July 12, 2018

If reading a book is like taking a journey, as so many have claimed, then the author functions as a kind of tour guide, showing readers the important sights and wonders that life offers. A guide like Proust takes us through the labyrinth of the human heart; a guide like Stephen Hawking leads us to the most rarefied reaches of the universe.

That leaves lots of terrain in between. This is where the great travel writers come in, since, as authors and guides combined, their sightseeing responsibilities become paramount. And as has been known for a long time now, if you want the best guide available, get yourself a Brit.

Laurence Sterne, Alexander Kinglake, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris. Whether because the old empire gave them license to roam, or because they wanted an excuse to flee their damp, cramped little island, British travel writers — learned, witty, curious — long ago set the standard for what a combined book/journey should be.

The last of these legendary travelers is still very much alive, though retired now and living quietly in Wales: Morris, who was named James at birth, completed a change of gender identity in l972, changed her name to Jan and kept on writing. Born the same year as Queen Elizabeth, she’s the undisputed monarch of all living travel writers, and there are few authors in any genre who have given me so much reading pleasure in the decades I’ve been following her work.

Morris first made her reputation when assigned by the London Times to cover the l953 Mt. Everest expedition; she was instrumental in getting the news of the British first ascent back to London on the very day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Her book about the expedition, Coronation Everest, goes beyond the usual mountaineering cliches to deliver real insights into the unique set of characters who made up the expedition, including the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary.

“There Hillary worked with his ice axe in the half-light, huge and cheerful, his movement not so much graceful as unshakably assured, his energy almost demonic. He had a tremendous, bursting, elemental, infectious, glorious vitality about him, like some bright, burly diesel express pounding across America. But underneath the good fellowship and energy was a virtuoso deeply embroiled in his art.”

(I’m looking down at a photo of Morris circa l953 in the official history of the Everest expedition taken down from my bookcase. Posing in a shabby military overcoat, Morris is unshaved, frail and sensitive, someone who is obviously uncomfortable in his own skin, and yet — surely the weakest member in a group of superheroes — she’s now the expedition’s last survivor.)

Morris’s travel masterpiece is Venice, published in l960, and very possibly the best book ever written about that much-written-about city.

All her virtues as a guide are on display here. History, culture, everyday sights and sounds, the little out-of-the-way corners and characters that often reveal more about a place than do the famous landmarks — they’re all brilliantly mixed in. One moment she’s describing how majestically the cityscape rises from the lagoon, the next, how humble Venetian housewives greet each other on the street.

“As they catch sight of each other a sudden soft beam of commiseration crosses their faces, as though they are about to barter sympathies over some irreparable loss, or share an unusually tender confidence.”

Morris summed up the book best, when it came time to write a foreword to the third edition.

Venice is a highly subjective, romantic, impressionistic picture less of a city than of an experience, possessing the particular sense of well-being that comes, if I may be immodest, when author and subject are perfectly matched; on the one side, the loveliest city in the world, only asking to be admired; on the other, a writer in the full powers of young maturity.”

Morris followed this up with book after new book, on places from Sydney to Oxford to Hong Kong to Manhattan. (One assignment even brought her to Vermont, commissioned by the now defunct New England Monthly magazine to drive up Route 100 in foliage season and report back on what she found.) She knew better than almost anyone how to capture the spirit of place, taking the broad overview one moment, telling you what you need to know about the history and culture the next, then zooming in on those characters who, like the Venetian housewives, seem to epitomize the city she’s describing.

And so in Manhattan ’45, her evocation of New York at mid-century, she gives us, on the macro level, “On a bright summer day, the skyline of Manhattan seems to stand against the blue like a masonry thicket, or a huge jagged palisade; in winter, when the tops of the skyscrapers are sometimes lost in cloud, their bases suggest so many gigantic roots or trunks, and the life of the city seems to proceed as within a gargantuan forest,” then, on the micro level, “A bus driver’s body seems to be in endless twitchy motion — his eyes constantly flickering to the mirror, to the fiercely gesturing cop outside, to the coins beside him, to the latest idiot passenger asking where Fifth Avenue is.”

By the l960s, Morris would seem to have it all: a big reputation, a devoted wife and family, editors anxious to send him anywhere he wanted. And yet so conflicted was she with her identity, so depressed at all the evasions it required her to make, it nearly drove her to suicide.

Morris’ long transition from man to woman ended in 1972, with sex reassignment surgery. She wrote about this in a groundbreaking book, Conundrum, which, in its frank treatment of a then-taboo subject, was surely 40 years ahead of its time.

“I was three or four years old,” it begins, “when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.”

“An extraordinary personal narrative of transsexualism,” Conundrum’s garish cover calls it, using the old term for transgender, but the book itself is an honest and heartfelt explanation of the long, tortured road that led to James becoming Jan. Again, as in all her books, she’s acting as our guide, only this time she’s leading us, not through a city, but into a deep, unexplored corner of human experience, a journey that leaves us at the end with a lot more understanding and sympathy than when we started.

The last book she wrote before retiring is my favorite, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, explaining, in almost mystical terms, why that Italian port city hidden away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic is one of her two favorite places in the world (Wales being the other), just because it stands so oddly out of the mainstream. The book impressed me so much I went out of my way to visit Trieste several years ago, and I found it does indeed convey the bittersweet, temps perdu mood that fascinates Morris.

“I have tried to get the hang of many cities during a lifetime of writing about them,” she writes, in trying to explain its hold over her, “and I have reached the conclusion that a peculiar history and a precarious geographical situation have made Trieste as near to a decent city as you can find. I’ve never met such kindness as I did in Trieste.”

She intends, she says, to send her ghost there to haunt its streets when the time comes for her to go. In the meantime, Happy 92nd Birthday, Jan Morris. No better guide to the world’s wonders ever lived.

W.D. Wetherell is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Lyme.