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.”