Jan Morris passed away recently.
This is how Marta Herzbruch remembers her in the Trieste daily newspaper Il Piccolo
Jan Morris, tireless traveller, wrote books about Venice, Sydney, Hong Kong, New York, Oxford, hundreds of articles and essays about all parts of the world. She climbed Everest with the expedition that reached the top in 1953 and managed to let the news come to the Times on time to be transmitted to Queen Elizabeth on the day of her coronation. Yesterday, at the age of 94, she engaged her most difficult journey, the one from which there is no return.
You could say that this is for Trieste a city mourning.In fact we are obliged to Jan Morris for what remains the most quotable literary portrait ever written about our city: ” Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere” translated by Piero Budinich for Il Saggiatore publisher in 2003 and since then the subject of hundreds of reprints, a beloved book that has brought thousands of people to Trieste.
From a Welsh family, Jan was born as James Humphrey Morris in Somerset in 1926 and arrived in Trieste in 1945 as a charming nineteen-year-old officer in the ranks of the 9th Queen Royal Lancers. The impact with the city was such that he never forgot it.
After following the army in Palestine, he devoted himself to travel journalism and wrote dozens of books including the finalist of the 1985 Booker Prize, “Last Letters from Hav” whose setting could be vaguely related to Trieste. Chorister at Oxford, Welsh bard, military counterintelligence agent, James had studied at Lancing College in Sussex. In London he married his life companion, Elizabeth, who gave him five children.
However his existence was unresolved. James was tormented by an enigma, or “Conumdrum” as he called it in his autobiography. He did not accept his masculinity. He knew that deep down he was a woman.
In 1972, when his children were grown up, he decided to take the big step and to leave to Casablanca. So, to the amazement of the British press, the well-known James turned into a new writer: Jan Morris, the person who had seen the mirror of his anxieties in Trieste. The sex change led to a divorce from Elizabeth, but Jan remarried her in 2008 as soon as the de facto unions were authorized in the UK. Now Jan has left her lifelong companioneven though Elizabeth is unaware of her departure because she is lost in the mists of senile dementia.
However, their lives have been full of happiness, travel and shared adventures. Since 1945, every time and as long as she could,
Jan Morris has returned to Trieste, even if only for a couple of days. She always stayed there, at the Hotel Savoia, a magical place for her. The place of the revelation of her true identity. When she came to Trieste on the occasion of the presentation of “Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere” she defined that book as the most important text of her life.
“It is not a travel book,” she said, “it is not a history book, it is not an autobiography. I think it can be defined an ego-biography”. The author goes through the history of the city, its conflicts and its moments of splendour, her own life, as if she wanted to reflect in the city all the contradictions, ambiguities, lost opportunities or the deepest truth ofher very existence. On that occasion Jan Morris declared to the newspaper Il Piccolo: “In a certain sense I am always “nowhere”, “divided”, “separated”. The best analogy with my concept of “Nowhere” is the idea of feeling “a fold in a map”. You are not really on either side of the map, but on the edge between the one and the other, faded by use and time. You are actually on both, but separate. I love very much what Augè called Non-places, but for reasons completely different from those that tie me to the “no place” which is Trieste for me.
An ideal city for exiles, outsiders, wandering Jews, “loners”, loners of all kinds, drop-outs, renegades, for those who, like me, feel “a fold in a map””.Jan Morris was the great singer of the pomp of the British Empire to whom she dedicated the trilogy “The Pax Britannica” and of Trieste celebratingits K.u.K. past , as well as she dedicated books to the Venetian Empire. She was fascinated by the empires and the climaxes they reached but she was also seduced by their decline and their slow, sad transition to mediocrity and normality appearing to her even more fascinating than the previous splendours. She defined ” Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere ” a very private book, containing “between the lines” so much of the experience described in “Conumdrum”.
“Many people bear the name of dear places. – said Jan Morris in an interview, adding – Yes, I wouldn’t mind being called: Mrs Trieste”.
Translated by Nicoletta Bottiglioni