Celebrating Jan Morris

A Writer's World, Jan MorrisI wanted to make this PT’s Jan Morris week, not that it necessarily coincides with anything particular about her, like her birthday. The past couple weeks have zipped by without my noticing, so I’ll just celebrate Jan Morris when and how I can.

I’ve been slowly reading through her book A Writer’s World: Travels 1950-2000 since I left for Rome last month and am daily heartened and amazed at the quality and quantity of work and thought this writer has put in over the last 50-some years.

Reading Jan Morris is like being on an eclectic, elegant holiday where the food is fantastic, light, flavorful, spicy, sweet, sometimes decadent, served in small portions, and the taste is always akin to a minor religious experience.

As described, A Writer’s World starts out in the 1950s, when Jan was James and in one of the first major published essays was on Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and a frozen beard. Morris’s sex change in the 1970s plays a very tiny role in this book, the operation being written about cautiously as part of an essay on Casablanca.

It’s fascinating to read the evolution of the author. In the earlier essays, Morris’s language is always effusive and enthusiastic. “Only the city of (La Paz / Rome / Cairo / etc.) could put together such (pizzazz / modernity / effervessence / etc.” occurs constantly, and I think every single essay about Africa includes the word “fizz.” Morris was always a great writer, but matures through the 70s and 80s, writing lengthy essays on Manhatten and South African apartheid that are intelligent, prescient, and strongly supported as well as strongly opinioned.

Morris’s writing has been described as idiosyncratic, but I think it’s more than that. Somehow she invariably puts her finger on the truth of a place, what makes the heart of it, the soul. What makes places tick and move and live. Even Colin Thubron, my favorite travel writer, doesn’t usually venture the bald commentaries Morris makes. Morris isn’t afraid to say what she thinks, what she sees, and particularly what she thinks about what she sees. This combined with the talents of a great travel writer is a rare thing.

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