Swans Commentary » swans.com August 28, 2006  



James And Jan Morris On The Road To Nowhere


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Morris, Jan: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Simon & Schuster Books, 2001, ISBN: 0-743-20128-0, 208 pages. Paperback edition, De Capo Press, 2002, ISBN: 0-306-81180-4, 203 pages. (The quotes below are from Trieste except when indicated.)


(Swans - August 28, 2006)  With a couple of exceptions the British have taken a drubbing in most departments in the last hundred years. World-beaters they have been only in their encounter with Adolf Hitler and, I would argue, in their peerless travel writing. Some would object that they simply couldn't stand life at home on their island -- the food, the weather and, up until lately, the stiff regime of respectability. Maybe. But what about their irrepressible curiosity as to foreign parts? The readiness of a population with one foot in salt water to sail off at the drop of a hat? And of course the Empire, of which the knack for spinning travelers' tales is surely the least objectionable result?

The tradition stretches back into pre-imperial times and has ever kept building. Shakespeare, whatever his actual displacements, was imaginatively all over the map. The Grand Tour unleashed a flood of kinky traveling penmen of whom Lord Byron, tabulating his conquests in Venice and dying decked out as a warrior in Greece, was scarcely the most colorful. Frederick North, the Earl of Guilford, taken with Corfu, joined the Orthodox Church and founded a university there, becoming the first chancellor in 1824. The Earl, according to Philip Sherrard, presided with philhellene solemnity, dressed as Socrates, "his mantle pendant from his shoulder by a golden clasp, and his head bound by a fillet embroidered with the olive and the owl of Athens." Later in the century Edward Lear, composing limericks and chanting nonsense songs about the Owl and the Pussycat, walked through Calabria and Albania drawing the scenery. And they have never stopped coming -- or going.

Younger recruits continue to tramp over the horizon. But it's extraordinary still to have with us three remarkable old masters like Norman Lewis (born 1908), Patrick Leigh Fermor (born 1915), and Jan Morris (born 1926). When Morris in 2001 published Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, she dismayed her international public by announcing it would be her last book.

In Trieste, as befits a testament, Morris not only enquires into the nature of travel writing, but also revisits almost as an outside observer her long career. Looked at closely, it turns out to be as varied and changing as the world she was describing. What, after all, did Jan Morris in 2001 have in common with the callow, eager, nineteen-year old British intelligence officer, James Morris, in Trieste in 1946? The change of changes in her life was that "of sexual role," a ten-year process "completed" in 1972. This she explained in 1974 in a book called Conundrum that with a light-hearted simplicity and an edge of mysticism tells a very human story. It wasn't easy to stymie prurient curiosity and speak the truth without sensationalism. For James Morris had a wife and children.

The list of Morris's books amounts to the dizzying total of forty-three. The first appeared in 1956, Coast to Coast, a brilliant, breathless portrait of post-WWII America. But before that James Morris, after leaving the army, had been reporting for the London Times and the Manchester Guardian. His and her endless journey, from Everest (first ascent), and Suez (the invasion), to Berlin (the end of the wall), and to Hong Kong (the handover to China) often turned away from straightforward reporting. In the 1970s "...I found my reportage and travel writing metamorphosing more and more into impressionism -- perhaps because nothing in world affairs seemed to me so clear-cut as it used to be." This avowal comes from A Writer's World, Travels 1950-2000 (2003), a book of excerpts, with her comments of today added, that is perhaps the best road map to Morris's vast production.

Not that Morris hadn't already gone beyond newspaper work to write substantial studies. Venice (1960) hasn't been surpassed as a contemporary work on the city. The Presence of Spain (1964) used travel writing to evoke the spirit of place, and the Pax Britannica trilogy (1968-78), (of which more below), charting the rise and fall of the Victorian empire, she termed in A Writer's World his-her "most ambitious literary project." More history proper would follow. Manhattan '45 (1987) depicts that city at its highpoint. Hong Kong (1988) and Sydney (1992) are portraits in depth. There is even a Lincoln (1999) that can hardly be bettered as a suggestive introduction to the life of the American president.

In Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere these elements and others from Morris's work all meet and mix in a magic kaleidoscope. The motive force of the book will be Morris's own embrace of change. She explained in the 1974 reedition of his 1960 Venice why the book should not be altered:

To refurbish my Venice would be false; to rejuvenate myself would be preposterous. The inessentials of this new edition -- the facts and figures, that is -- have been amended. The essentials -- the spirit, the feel, the dream of it -- I have left unchanged.

Reporting, history, sense of place, fantasy, and personal reminiscence will surface seemingly at random in a masterly combination that's light-handed, funny, sad, and tone perfect. The humble things of life finds appreciation -- and this is the Morris touch -- by someone they affect intimately but who sees them as the property of others. Morris is always an outsider. However knowing she may be about, and familiar with everyday existence, her relationship to it is never easy. Whether this is simply a writer's posture or something deeper, it explains her feeling of belonging in Trieste, the city of exiles, created by civic alienation from the surrounding Latin, Germanic, and Slav worlds: "...after a lifetime of describing the planet...I look at Trieste now as I would look into a mirror."

The word nowhere, in Morris's vocabulary, isn't negative. It's a "highly subjective sort of place," out of time, where one is brought to confront oneself and see clearly at last the preoccupations of a lifetime. Kindness -- all that really matters at life's end, she says -- reigns there. Morris admits there's wishful thinking involved, but finds all the same that no other place embodies her sense of nowhere like Trieste, "as near to a decent city as you can find."

She delights in its sensible retreat from nationalism. "If race is a fraud, as I often think in Trieste, then nationality is a cruel pretense. There is nothing organic to it." (The anti-nationalist Morris.) Yet born of a Welsh father and an English mother, she insists, "Wales is where my heart is." She notes that "problems caused by the arrival of the English nearly a thousand years ago have never been resolved" and calls herself in A Writer's World, "a Welsh republican." (The Welsh nationalist Morris.) But she can't help admiring in Trieste the solid bourgeois virtues left behind by the Hapsburg Empire. "By contemporary European standards this is still a calm and self-controlled city." (The imperialist Morris.)

Writers aren't mathematicians and their confusions can be instructive. The solvent that dissolves the sharp edges of Morris's apparent contradictions is nostalgia. For she is in fact only an historian at one remove. She chronicles her own nostalgia. She tells how she has felt about history. Her feeling for the British Empire seems to be a love for the relics and lifestyle of the past, or simply a love of what's been:

I am reminded poignantly of the passing of all empires, those seductive illusions of permanence, those monuments of hubris which have sometimes been all evil, but have sometimes had much good in them. In particular, of course, I am reminded of the Pax Britannica which has been part of my life always, in fact as in imagination....

Understandably, after writing a trilogy on it, she clings to empire:

Ours seemed to me a good empire then [1946], and on the whole I think so still. Over the years I have learnt to look back on it only occasionally with shame (the fundamental principle of empire having soured on all of us), but more often with a mixture of pride, affection and pathos.

In 2003, in A Writer's World, she finally bows out of her waltz with imperialism:

...the retreat of the European empires from their vast dominions around the world. ... was not always beneficial in the particular, and the process was marred by many conflicts, but in the general it was a wholesome recognition that no nation had the right to claim sovereignty over another.

Her Trieste is one of those superb literary compositions that defy dismantling. You separate its ingredients for inspection -- for praise -- and suddenly there's a heap of ash in your hand, instead of a gorgeous butterfly. The critic's a vandal but plods on, now stopping to break the kaleidoscope and maul five colors:

1) History. Trieste began as an Illyrian village of Indo-Celts. Rome colonized and Venice bullied it. The Hapsburgs of Vienna took it under their protection at the end of the 14th century. In the 18th, it became their Empire's sole seaport and opening on the larger world. By 1900, it was one of the globe's great ports, and a vital connection to Asia.

The end of the Hapsburg Empire in 1919 brought Yugoslavia into existence. Despite geography, however, Trieste fell to Italy. In 1945, Italy's defeat almost did turn over the city to Tito. But after being a Free Territory under the UN for several years it reverted to Italy in 1954. Italy had ports galore and the city's pleasant slumber that began in 1919 continues to this day.

2) The place. Trieste is a balcony on the side of hills that seem to be pushing its built-up slopes into the Adriatic. An austere plateau of limestone backs up the hills, adding to the pressure. A narrow, coastal strip like a frail branch connects the city to Italy. Pompous, heavy mercantile structures of the late 1800s make up the city's substance. A medieval town and even Roman ruins have become all but invisible. No court of nobles brought grace to the city. But the Hapsburg town planners did a serious, if not inspiring job of work. Neither World War inflicted much damage, and modernity gnaws at the city's edges without adding much of note.

3) Exiles. Morris delights in running to ground the famous oddballs who ended up in this city of odds and ends. The great classical scholar Winckelmann, passing through, exercised his Greek ideals in the flesh, as it were, and got himself murdered. As French Consul, Stendhal, the lover of Italy, was so bored here on the fringe that he finished writing his Le rouge et le noir. Sir Richard Burton was literally bored to death in Trieste. Queen Victoria's Foreign Service posted him there, not to Muslim lands where he had traveled and studied all his life. In Trieste he finished his epoch-making translation of The Thousand and One Nights with its notes that surely made the Queen blush. On dying, Burton left in manuscript his translation of The Scented Garden. He had adorned this Arabic poem of unparalleled beauty and sensuality with a commentary based on his exhaustive research in sexology. His wife, a devout Catholic, burnt the manuscript.

Wives of exiles did not take well to the city and Sigmund Freud may have been wise to come as a bachelor at twenty. Vienna University sent him to discover the reproductive organ of eels, which appurtenance had never been located. But despite doing more dissections than any fishmonger, the young scientist could not make the eel yield its secret. For her part, Nora Joyce had no easy time of it with two babies, and the meager income from her husband's English lessons. It was in Trieste that James, between carousing, wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, much of Dubliners, and an outline of Ulysses. The unhappiest wife of all may have been Carlotta of the Belgians, who with Maximilian, the brother of the Emperor Franz Joseph, had lived in Miramar Castle. In the Franco-Austrian attempt to set up a monarchy in Mexico, Maximilian had been sent to be Emperor of those parts. The Mexicans promptly shot him, and Carlotta returned to Europe insane.

4) Meetings. In her lifetime of visits to Trieste, Morris has often given history books and nostalgia a rest and got out and about. She met a mayor whose forebears on both sides hailed from faraway lands, a rabbi who assures her that anti-Semitism isn't a problem in the city, a musical director of the Opera who is not only also a composer but the owner of the tugs in the bay. This confirms her impression of the city's tolerant cosmopolitanism and the contribution she feels the "cultivated bourgeoisie" make to civic dignity. But she also attends the Opera and is put to sleep by that same dignity and the work of a local composer called Smareglia. Trieste young people tell her that he's just the sort of thing that makes them want to leave town.

Kindness she meets everywhere. Recalling how the Welsh instinctively abhor the English, she's surprised that in much-colonized Trieste there seems to be hatred for nobody. A Chinese has a heart attack in a city park and passers-by lavish aid upon him. Cats are beloved. Old folk weep when the sweet songs of their youth are played in the square. Morris thinks back to the Cold War when Eastern Europeans swarmed over the border on poor-man's shopping sprees to be welcomed in the so-called Balkan street market. Then she thinks back farther to the 1950s when she would watch the snow-covered trains arrive and wonder where the snow had fallen -- in the Carpathians, Bohemia, the Vienna Woods? She goes to Miramar Castle in the bay and discovers "almost an ecstasy of the poignant."

5) Introspection. Which brings her back to nowhere, that personal utopia, a good part metaphysical, of which Trieste, "half-real, half-imagined seaport," is the "natural capital." "Trieste makes one ask sad questions of oneself. What am I here for? Where am I going? It had this effect upon me when I was in my teens; now that I am in my seventies in my jejune way I feel it still."

This is Morris's Tempest, weightless, final and otherworldly. At the same time it makes for a definitive portrait of a city. But hasn't she told us, "it's a highly subjective sort of place?" She would be the first to admit, as she did of Venice, that "the spirit, the feel, the dream of it" was very much her own. In a word she would admit that there's room for a very different vision of Trieste. Here's that of Umberto Saba, for Morris, "the Trieste poet in excelsis":

Trieste ha una scontrosa grazia.
se piace
e' come un ragazzaccio aspro e vorace,
con gli occhi azzurri e mani troppo grandi
per regalare un fiore

Translated by Laetizia Argenteri in Tina Modotti, Between Art and Revolution:

Trieste has a rough grace. If one likes it,
it is like a sour and greedy youngster,
with blue eyes and hands much too big
to make the gift of a flower.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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This Edition's Internal Links

The More I Learn, The Less I Know - Milo Clark

Shame - Milo Clark

Who Wins, Who Loses - Philip Greenspan

Fenced In - Poem by Martin Murie

On The Barricades In May 1968 - Karen Moller

Fathers - Short Story by Peter Byrne

A Place In The Sun - Charles Marowitz

Conspiracy Nuts And 9/11 - Deck Deckert

Craig Paulenich's Drift of the Hunt - Poetry Review by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Nothing Recalled - Poem by Guido Monte and Vittorio Cozzo

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Published August 28, 2006