A victory lap for the poet laureate of the road.
Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By THOMAS SWICK
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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