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
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
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.