'Ego-biography' & travel


ast month, I attended the Hay book festival, an event designed to "celebrate language and ideas," according to organizers. Speakers included famous and not-so-famous authors, writers of fiction and nonfiction. Among them was Jan Morris, noted for book-length essays that are inspired by her travels.

Morris will have a new book this fall to coincide with her 75th birthday. It will be called "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere," and it will be her last, she says.

"Writing books is a sweat," she told festival-goers, "and it gets harder as the years go by. Also, I got tired of myself as a writer, so I'll go while the going is good."

Besides, she can stop worrying about the critics, who can make her swollen-headed or suicidal, she said.

Morris said this last book "is appallingly self-indulgent, an ego-biography. I'm saying goodbye to me at last." (Language like that suggests Morris aims to disappear from the scene altogether. Not so. She is not withdrawing from public life nor foreswearing the written word in all contexts.)

She also said the new book, like her others, is "not a travel book." Looking back, she said she has written some cities "into the ground, [but] I've not really traveled. I've talked about what cities did for me.

"I don't immerse myself in places. I don't get on the local buses. I might as well take a package tour," and indeed, she said, she has done that. She said two cities have "defeated" her -- Lhasa and London, and, until this book, she couldn't effectively put her Trieste on paper either.

I asked Morris how she described herself, given she is frequently called a travel writer; it was clear she finds that exasperating.

She said she is simply a writer and would not, or could not, put herself into a more defined niche. She said she does go places specifically to write about them, but "I go for insights and understandings," not to tell other people what they will see.

Of course, that does not mean travel professionals and travelers (whether the armchair kind or those with tickets) can't learn from books of the type Morris pens.

In her new book, she will remind us of Trieste's history as an "imperial creation," having been selected by the Hapsburgs as the port for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a role that evaporated with that empire at the end of World War I. So, in this city with "an aura of pathos in all its structures now," she said she "daydreams how it might have looked and sounded in the 1890s."

The fact is, travel writer or not, Morris will have readers who are inspired to visit Trieste after reading her evocative descriptions. Surely she would not mind that.

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