A victory lap for the poet laureate of the road.
Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By THOMAS SWICK
A Book of Encounters
In Key West once I ran into Jan Morris power-walking down Duval Street. It was a balmy January morning, and she was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. I recognized her immediately because I had interviewed her a few days earlier at the local literary festival. She had floored me with her thoughtfulness, graciously giving her time to everyone who requested it and then apologizing profusely for keeping me waiting.
So I didn’t think twice about interrupting her walk. She kindly stopped and we chatted breezily in front of St. Paul’s Church. Hoping to impress her with my travel writer savvy, I mentioned that I occasionally attended church abroad, on the theory that you sometimes met interesting people at the coffee hour. (In Porto, Portugal, I was served port.) She looked at me somewhat skeptically, and expressed a preference for the company of pagans. Then she continued on her way, striding past the tourists as if carrying the news of the ascent of Mount Everest.
This encounter does not appear in Contact! (it was understandably more memorable for me than it was for her), but it represents the type of brief moment in time of which this book is a rich compendium.
Contact! consists of pieces, not in the sense of collected essays, but actual pieces: vignettes, sketches, prose poems, word pictures. They recall a line of Nicolas Bouvier, that a traveler’s life is one of “stolen moments, reflections, minute sensations, chance discoveries and odds and ends.”
Throughout her career—first as James, then as Jan—Morris has been the master of the travel essay, roaming the globe and capturing the spirit of places with elegant prose and inspired aperçus. These essays were inevitably gathered between covers to join her acclaimed single-subject books on personal touchstones like Venice, Hong Kong, Manhattan, Sydney (she has an unapologetic love of cities), and Wales (she is at the same time a proud Welsh patriot). She declared her previous book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, to be her last, so Contact! comes as an unexpected and delightful encore.
It has no thematic, chronological, or geographical order. We move from Magdalen College, Oxford, to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (though not the coffee hour) to Schwab’s Drugstore in Hollywood, where “elderly widows of émigré directors reminisce about Prague over their breakfasts.” A somewhat faded air, as that line suggests, hangs wonderfully over some of these pieces, which clamor with monks and dons, sultans and servants, brigadiers and cowboys—people who have not necessarily disappeared from the scene but who have somehow slipped from most writers’ purviews.
Each slice of life is short, rarely filling a page. In length they resemble blog posts, but in substance they are artful miniatures, packing description, insight, humor, pathos, and surprise into a ridiculously circumscribed space. In fact, Contact! would make a wonderful gift for the blogger in your family. Already on page 11 we are introduced to “one of the more endearing hazards of modern travel, the Student of English.” This particular one, in Esfahan, accosts the author to ask if it’s “permissible . . . to pursue a gerund with a participle.” Turning the page we’re attending a legislative session of the Canadian Northwest Territories and watching a playful teenage page of mixed blood bring “a breath of the woods inside.”
In 1989, Morris published a collection of rather longer memories, Pleasures of a Tangled Life; this one could have been titled Pleasures of an Observant Life. In Odessa, she plumps us into seats at the Opera and Ballet Theater, where “in the half-empty auditorium, a constant buzz of homely conversation underlies the score . . . while the cast of La Traviata smile resolutely across the footlights with a treasury of gold teeth.”
An elderly man in Edinburgh disappears “into the malty shadows” of his pub, and at West Point, on a Saturday afternoon, a female cadet spots her father. “She broke into a run, her cap went askew for a moment, and into his strong American arms she fell.”
Great writers, of course, do more than observe; they make something of their observations. At the airport in Toronto, Morris spots “a middle-aged woman in a fur hat and a long coat of faded blue, held together by a leather belt evidently inherited from some earlier ensemble. She was burdened with many packages. . . . If she was not hurling questions at expressionless bystanders in theatrically broken English, she was muttering to herself in unknown tongues, or breaking into sarcastic laughter.” A little farther down we read: “I lost sight of the lady as she passed through customs . . . but she represented for me the archetypal immigrant, arriving at the emblematic immigrant destination of the late twentieth century, and I watched the confrontation with sympathy for both sides.”
In her life and work, Morris has made kindness her guiding ideal, so she is naturally drawn to it in others (the Portuguese, Texans). But a worldly tolerance is extended to almost everyone here: functionaries, beggars, tourists (whom professional travelers often love to denounce), a Greek flasher, and even her imagined masticators. “Their forebears used to be cannibals,” she writes, “but I would not mind being eaten in Fiji. The pot would be spiced, the cooking gentle, and the occasion in most ways merry.”
In fact, in addition to being an excellent guide for bloggers, Contact! is, through example, a marvelous how-to book. We learn (albeit a little late) how to deal with the Soviets: You tell your Intourist guide, as Morris did, that she’s being “unkind.” (Then her Russian emotions spill forth.) How to endure French superciliousness: You embrace it for the stately Gallic constant it is. And of course, we learn how to travel: forever alert, amenable, and understanding.
Which is not to say naïve. Paying a visit to Gamal Abdel Nasser, Morris finds the Egyptian president gracious and welcoming, but remembers that “he had talents of deception and conspiracy of a very high order.” Nasser is one of a few famous people who drop into these pages: King Hussein of Jordan, Francis Gary Powers (who, at his trial “was obviously frightened, and so was I”), Adolf Eichmann, Yves Saint-Laurent (“the Frenchest person I ever met”), Harry Truman, Tenzing Norgay seen coming down Everest with “a smile that illuminated the glacier” one day before becoming “one of the most famous men on earth.”
Though it is not mentioned here, James Morris was the reporter who sent the news of Norgay’s and Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest to the London Times, thus becoming (at least in journalistic circles) famous himself. The passage is indicative of the book’s rare and oblique autobiographical glimpses. There is a charming story about a daughter who, on a childhood visit to Brittany, saw an old woman smiling beatifically from a window and declared, “I want that lady.” A dramatic description of the National Eisteddfod, “the great cultural festival of the Welsh nation,” ends with the news that the poetry prize that year was taken by the author’s son Twm.
Set off by itself on page 91—dividing the book as it did her life—is “A Snatch of Sound in Morocco,” the country to which James traveled in 1972 for his sex change operation. The night before the procedure the music of a street flute floated up to his room and he perceived it as “flights of angels.”
Morris has lived an almost unfathomably comprehensive life—crossing borders of gender as well as geography—and as yet another book shows, she has been tireless, cheerful, and brilliant in describing it.
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.
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