- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2010


By Jan Morris

Norton, $23.95, 202 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

Strictly speaking, it is an oxymoron to speak of cities having personalities. Yet it has become commonplace to use the word not merely for them, but for a whole range of things, from dogs to ocean liners - none of which are persons.

If anyone has made capturing that essential quality of the urban her own particular province, it is Jan Morris, for in volume after volume, she has penned word portraits of cities all over the globe. No one else has quite her capacity for zeroing in on the character of a city, an uncanny combination of its atmosphere, its affect, its unique features, the multitudinous parts somehow making an ineffable but true whole.

In these subtle distillations of the urban, which evoke so much more than marble or mere bricks and mortar, inevitably there has been less attention to a city’s individual inhabitants. As Ms. Morris writes in the introduction for this latest contribution to her considerable literary corpus:

“In a lifetime of travel and literature I have written little about people. Places, atmospheres, histories have figured far more in my all too often purple prose. But people everywhere, nevertheless, have been sparks of my work, if only in glimpses - a sighting through a window, a gentle snatch of sound, the touch of a hand - and it is mostly such fugitive moments and observations, scattered across half a century and forty-odd books, that I have here gratefully plucked out of their literary obscurity.”

So in a real sense, the reader has an opportunity here to see the building blocks of Ms. Morris’ monumental literary edifice, some of the raw material that, funneled into her highly individualistic, imaginative engine of observation, produced such marvelous insights.

Ms. Morris’ reminiscences may be brief, but they pack a punch. In one titled “Impact!” (they all have apt little titles), we meet the current Swazi king’s grandfather, one of the longest-reigning monarchs of the 20th century:

“King Sobhuza of Swaziland, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, offered me a friendly greeting. His subjects fell on their knees, or even on their faces, when he passed, but I looked him Jeffersonianly in the eye, and shall never forget the moment. He had the most remarkable, most twinkling, most mischievous, altogether most entertaining face in the world. He seemed to radiate an amused but resolute complicity, as though he knew what a charade life was but was determined to make the most of it.”

But you don’t have to be royalty to catch Ms. Morris’ eye. Much closer to home, in “No Reply,” Ms. Morris as tourist has an encounter with one of no great rank reflecting the particular character of our nation’s capital on the eve of its Bicentennial celebrations:

“Nowhere on earth is so inexorably improving as Washington, D.C. When we came down from the top of the Washington Monument even the elevator operator dismissed us with a parting injunction. ” ‘Let’s all work,’ he said, ‘to clean up our country for the two-hundredth anniversary just coming up. … And I’m talking,’ he darkly added, ‘about the mental as well as the physical.’

“We had no answer to that.”

There is often a specter haunting Ms. Morris’ contacts, not always one as wholesome as this one in Washington. A polite exchange with a cabdriver in an iconic German city, about its culinary and cultural splendors, in a piece titled “City of Art and Culture,” takes place on a journey to its outskirts:

“So enamoured were the Nazis of Weimar that they erected there one of their most celebrated and characteristic monuments. The site they chose was the lovely hill of Ettersberg, just outside the city, which Goethe had long before made famous - he loved to sit and meditate beneath an oak tree there. On my last day in Weimar I paid a visit to this place, now a popular tourist site well publicized in the town.”

Only in the last word of the sketch does she reveal the destination: Buchenwald. Yes, there can be a sting in the tail of Ms. Morris’ taut, tart prose, but most of the “Contacts” in this book are, happily for the reader, joyful, satisfying recollections.

Of course, it helps to have had the terrific life and career Ms. Morris has enjoyed. These include covering the expedition that made Sir Edmund Hillary and his sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, and return. This opportunity results in an unforgettable portrait of Tenzing, “like some unspoiled mountain creature” who “by the very next day … would be one of the most famous men on earth.”

But we see here only a modest man, washing himself in chilly water and preparing to go home to his mother and his village. He gives Ms. Morris “a snapshot of himself with a number of little Tibetan terriers. ‘Given me by the Dalai Lama,’ he explained with pride, and taking a pen from his pocket he slowly wrote his signature (the only word he could write) across the bottom of it and handed it to me with a deprecatory grin.” We see Ms. Morris’ preternatural ability to take us right up close to a great historical event and give us a unique vantage point from where to observe.

“My fleeting contacts with [these people] have [fueled] my travels down the years, generated my motors, excited my laughter and summoned my sympathies,” Ms. Morris writes with evident gratitude. But seeing these modest encounters and putting them up against all that they engendered in her mighty oeuvre, the reader will feel only more gratitude for the power of Ms. Morris’ writerly motors, which enabled her to distill so much - and so very memorably - from so relatively little.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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