Jan Morris, standing on the southernmost tip of Manhattan's Battery Park, watching the early morning mist clear from the bay, says, "It is like the printing of a Polaroid picture." It seems an apt image for the way imagination acts on memory as well, altering details, or supplying them, to produce a clear picture. Perhaps it is imagination that discovers, or bestows, significance. It is certainly the writer's imagination that makes some of Morris's essays works of art.
Morris is a Welsh author whose accomplishments include a good many years as a foreign correspondent as well as a good many books (some written as James Morris). When she was approached in 1974 by Rolling Stone to write these essays (on Washington, D.C.; Delhi; Panama; Los Angeles; South Africa; Rhodesia; London; Cairo; Istanbul; Trieste; Manhattan) she accepted out of the same fondness for paradox that makes a book published through the cooperation of Oxford University Press ("SINCE 1478") and Rolling Stone ("estab. 1967") seem so amusing to me.
If these places are not old friends to her they are at least old acquaintances, and she writes about them as another writer might profile a complex and fascinating celebrity. She never leaves you in doubt how she feels about a particular experience or place -- appalled or enthralled, frightened, touched -- so that she becomes as much a character as a narrator of these pieces.
She is charming, funny, courageous, and very human. And perhaps her presence is the element that makes her writing more than travalogue: what most travelogue lacks is a good character, an entertaining companion not only to introduce us to a place, but to experience it with us. Jan Morris is the best of companions.
And as a writer, her style is exquisite: There is room in her essays for historical perspective as well as the scintilla of detail. Her adjectives sparkle off these pages like sunlight hitting granite. Take this novelistic scene of a Panama afternoon:
"In the market entrance a leisurely row of men and women is selling lottery chances, sitting on the ground with legs stretched out, carpeted by green and yellow tickets. Facing the beach are a couple of open- fronted cafes, at whose counters one or two layabouts are meditatively or narcotically slumped. Whorelike ladies are here and there, giggling mildly with construction men or swapping symptoms with colleagues, and from the door of the marine police station a couple of lean gendarmes, heavily armed and darkly spectacled, look broodingly across the square, as though wondering whom to electrocute next."
Not all of it is as good as that. The pieces on South Africa and Rhodesia, written in 1977, seem more dated than the others, perhaps because of the odd combination in those countries of monolithic institutions with such fluid political circumstances.
southern Africa's supermagnetic racial issue seems to suffuse everything written about the are: "The apparatus of despotism in South Africa, constructed specifically to enforce apartheid and silence or overawe its opponents is an ugly spectacle." And, "The tables are turning."
In the same way her thesis in 1978 that Cairo is about to explode makes the essay narrower and less lasting than it might have been if she could have escaped that single-minded perception. Perhaps the fact that she can't escape her theses only confirms the truth of her perceptions.
She is admittedly unenthusiastic about london, but in Manhattan her enthusiasm returned, and this 1979 essay may be the best of the lot. She finds a hundred things to say about the island and a hundred ways to say them, and it would be just fine with me if the essay ran twice as long as it does. It's the roomy essays like this where she seems to accomodate everything -- all of her sensations and perceptions, however much they may seem to contrast or conflict.
"Manhattan . . . is the only [city] I know that sometimes seems on the brink of general nervous breakdown. Intensely clever, cynical, introspective, feverishly tireless, it has all the febrile brightness, alternating with despondency, that sometimes attends insomnia, together with the utter self-absorption of the schizophrenic."
And, a few pages later, "This is the most gifted of all human settlements on earth, and there are moments in Manhattan when the sheer talent of the place much moves me."
And there are moments in this book when the sheer talent of Jan Morris much moves me.