Back to Byzantium

John Thompson

  • Destinations by Jan Morris
    Oxford, 242 pp, £7.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 502708 6
  • The Venetian Empire by Jan Morris
    Faber, 192 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 09936 X

There’s a jet on the cover of Destinations, soaring silently above New York, bathed in the rosy, gauzy haze of a dawn sun. The serenity of it all is deceptive, because Jan Morris is screaming in on a special assignment from Rolling Stone. Her collection of essays touches down in a quick succession of trouble-torn areas – India in the Emergency, post-Watergate Washington, Southern Africa, Panama, even London with its National Front marches – then screams off again for a further twenty culturally-absorbent pages elsewhere. As Ms Morris says, Rolling Stone is an ‘urgent kind of magazine’, so all this rushing around is what we would expect. But she didn’t expect it, not at her time of life anyway: ‘I was a middle-aged Anglo-Welsh writer of romantic instinct and distinctly traditionalist prose, based on a small seaside village in North Wales.’ But in 1974, we learn, her stone was rolled away and she found herself resurrected by ‘the most thrilling phenomenon of contemporary American journalism’, an enterprise ‘which had established its fortunes upon the economics of rock music, and found its readers among the lively, restless, affluent and stereophonic avant-garde of young America’. She accepted the magazine’s commission ‘at once’: ‘I am fond of paradox.’

The essays reflect this fondness. In Delhi, she gives ten rupees to a beggar. He looks at the money ‘first in disbelief, then in ecstasy and then in a wild gratitude, and I left him throwing his hands to heaven, singing, praying and crying, still clinging to his lamp-post, and sending me away, slightly weeping myself, to coffee, toast and orange juice (“You’ll be sure it’s chilled, won’t you?”) at my hotel.’ All part of the paradox of India.

The original setting of these essays is, as Jan Morris points out, ‘rock-and-roll gossip’, and one can see they fit well into that context, despite the author’s once-justifiable tag of ‘traditionalist’ writer. Rock journalism often seeks to ignore boundaries, to rise above the limitations of conventional reportage. A shimmering, highly metaphorical psychedelic mode of writing is the result:

picadily, 1972; taking a turn off mainstreet, away from cacophony and real-life relics, & into the outer spaces myriad faces & sweet deafening sounds of rock’n’roll. And inner space ... the mind loses its bearings. What’s the date again? (it’s so dark in here) 1962? or twenty years on?... Saturday nite at the Roxy the Mecca the Ritz – your fantasies realised ... & are they still? & is this the end, the bitter end? (or the beginning?) &, so help me, so many questions? & are the answers naked to the eye – or ear? or are they undercover?

That’s not Jan Morris – it’s a writer called Simon Puxley. But it’s a style that this bellelettrist seems to be trying to respond to – not always successfully. This paragraph comes from her essay on Washington DC:

Unreality, of course, whether comic, paranoiac or simply bizarre, is an attribute of capital cities, because power itself is so illusory. We look on the face of Nixon as of Ozymandias, and even Harounal-Raschid survives only in the fancy of his storytellers. At least, though, the Caliph could disguise himself when he wished, and walk anonymously through the marketplace of Baghdad, where the poets declaimed, the merchants haggled and all the jostle of the real world was available outside his palace gates. When President Nixon wished to do the same, he could only go to the Lincoln Memorial, slightly drugged it seems, and talk to the students in its sepulchral glow.

Heady stuff: it takes care to be as heterogeneous as it is possible to be in a simple paragraph, while at the same time saying little that couldn’t be said by someone who had never been to Washington. But description seems in this collection to be of secondary interest to Jan Morris: she much prefers a good metaphor. That wasn’t the case with the Morris of old – say of Venice. Morris then, while full of metaphors, was very much a describer: the travel books opened up places to their readers. But here she seems more of a cavalier sociologist, throwing off analyses of the state of a city, a nation, or an international relationship: ‘So the delusions of Washington, if they are delusions, are the delusions of America, just as America’s own faults and merits are, in a less intense or underdeveloped degree, common to us all.’

One feature of these essays is a literary motif based, it might seem, on two celebrated sentiments: ‘great men have been among us’ and ‘great spirits now on earth are sojourning.’ Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy are ‘great spirits’ – resident in Los Angeles:

***This is a city of hard workers. Out on the hills at Santa Monica, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the writer Christopher Isherwood and the painter Don Bachardy share a house, sunlit and easygoing, with a view over the rooftops and shrubberies of the canyon. In such a place, with such occupants, in such warm and soothing sun, with the beach down the road and Hollywood up the freeway, it might seem a house for cultivated indolence, interminable wit around a swimming pool, long cool drinks with worldly neighbours before lunch. Not at all. ‘We are working people,’ Isherwood says, and so they literally are: each at his own end of the house, each with his art; the one surrounded by his books, the other by his brushes and pictures, carefully and skillfully they work through the day, friends and fellow labourers.

We can almost hear the hum of mighty Workings in a distant Mart.

While treating Trieste, Ms Morris invokes these words from James Joyce: ‘And trieste, ah trieste ate I my liver!’ This is a line from Finnegans Wake, but more frequently read in Ellmann’s biography, where it heads the chapter on Joyce in that city. What does it mean? Picking up the pun on triste, she thinks that ‘for once’ in her encounters with Finnegans Wake she has the answer to such a question: ‘Trieste is just the place for the introspective, the melancholic, the solitary, the deserter and the unrecognised genius.’ It must mean more than that, if only as a reference to Prometheus. Joyce’s time there was dedicated both to authorship and to debauch. Ellmann suggests that the apparent contradiction is resolvable: he needed to put his energies into drinking in order to feel sure of his integrity as an artist. It follows that when he writes ‘ate I my liver’ he is combining the commonplace idea of the cannibalising of life by art with the idea of his physically self-consuming life as a writer. In 1906 he wrote to his brother Stanislaus: ‘Wurrak is more dissipating than dissipation.’ The two were, for him, intimately connected. The Rolling Stone assignment brought with it its own threat of physical dissipation for Jan Morris – something she did well to guard against: ‘I pottered home to Gwynedd to write the essays, stopping off on the way, perhaps, to look at an interesting building in British Honduras, or go swimming in Corfu.’

Another literary reference, this time to Browning’s ‘Waring’, comes at the end of this essay: ‘If you hear them saying “What’s become of Morris?” tell them to come to Trieste, and look for me, loitering with my adjectives alone the waterfront ... ’ Rolling Stone’s global assignment seems to have left little time for loitering, for Destinations only rarely relaxes. A speedy production, it must be speedily digested, because it is no longer the author’s most recent publication. It has already been followed by The Venetian Empire, billed as ‘spanning both time and space in a panoramic reconstruction of the whole adventure’ of Venetian imperialism. The book fails, because it tries to present the past as though the author had experienced it at first hand: ‘the old Doge Dandolo as he scented the air of Byzantium upon his nostrils’. Jan Morris complains that the new replicas of the horses of St Mark ‘never saw old Dandolo storm ashore at the Golden Horn’: but neither did she. The subtitle is ‘A Sea Voyage’, which is not only a metaphor for the city’s marriage to the sea, but also a literal description of Jan Morris’s journey around the derelict or transmogrified bastions of old empire. When she leaves alone the attempt at historical reconstruction and describes how somewhere looks now, or what happened to her there, we realise that she has a truly arresting talent for such evocations.

Another book on Venice by Jan Morris is bound to be seen as a come-back, an ill-advised attempt to repeat earlier successes. In a preface to a reissue of Venice some years ago, she stressed that she is out of love with the city, and indeed that ‘Venice is a young person’s book.’ All the stranger that she should have chosen to come back.