Tuesday, March 26, 2019

'Last Letters from Hav' & the Political Responsibilities of the Travel Writer

One of the most impressive literary sleights-of-hand. 

A review.

Jan Morris is having us on. One knows that going in. Last Letters from Hav is a travel book about a city which does not exist, and, more than that, which never existed; not only is there discussion of the various political reasons for which the world's encyclopedists might not mention Hav too frequently, but the city bears the load of double nonexistence, as it was destroyed (and, by implication, made into an entirely different place) directly after Jan Morris left town.

The question becomes, in which direction is Jan Morris having us on? and I thought for a while that it was the joke of verisimilitude, of just how well she can simulate a believable travel book. Nowhere in the book itself, on its flaps or on its back cover or in the text, is the city's nonexistence explained. You have to know. As a joke on that level, it's a pretty good one: we know exactly where Hav would be, on its southward-facing peninsula between Turkey and Syria, northernmost Arab port of the Mediterranean, terminus of the Silk Road. All the details are in place, the fifty-year stint as a British possession, the tripartite division between the Great Powers after World War I, the hill nomads who come down from the mountains for one week every spring to sell the unthinkably rare snow raspberries, the Governor's garden party, the voluble Italian landlady, the train station, the tea, the light.

A book of that sort, however well-sustained, would be in essence lightweight, a charming diversion. Jan Morris does not desire to supply us with a charming diversion. Her work here goes deeper. This is in fact a novel, and a very fine and sly one it is too. In many ways the hardest sort of joke is the kind you play on yourself, and Jan Morris has constructed her authorial persona, the lady who is writing this travel book, as exactly the sort of erudite, charming, witty, purblind, drowning-in-the-right-quotation eternal-spectator innocent-abroad twit, unable to see three feet beyond the end of her own nose, who is the curse and the blessing of what is said to be 'good travel writing'. Her infinite quotations are just slightly too apropos. Her classical allusions are that one touch too classical. She is the sort of person who says, upon doing a thing twice, that she often does it, and upon doing it three times that it is a tradition with her. She is always being reminded of a holy man she met in Tibet that time, or a hospital she saw in the Crimea, or, unforgettably, of the Boer War, which one can be fairly confident she wasn't in. She would like the political demonstrators to get out of the way of the monuments. I fell over laughing when she revealed-- so casually, with just the right touch of ennui-- that she has been an habitué at Harry's Bar. 

And yet, so subtle, so careful-- oh, the prose is lovely, really lovely, and all the quotations are by real people and I had to look up who Pero Tafur was, the eleventh-century Spanish travel writer she hauls out at one point, but no, he is a real eleventh-century Spanish travel writer and he did in fact cross the ground that she has made into her city Hav-- and she is not what most people would call a bad sort at all, at all, she is sympathetic about the waves of empire that have washed over everything, she has a way with an evocative description and she means nothing but good to anybody. How can you not just forgive her and laugh about it? And yet-- 

I mean the construction of Jan Morris. Do remember that. The real one is writing in hornet's stings, and I must say some went home. She may have lurked at Harry's Bar in Venice and watched Harry sell Bellinis (just-christened) to Papa Hemingway, but I knew where she meant and what the hell she was talking about, and my mind flashed back over my own recent travel writing: dear God, please keep me from having committed this sort of subtle exclusionary elitism with, say, gelaterias in Florence, I hope devoutly I have not done so, thank you, amen. But I remember very clearly once in Florence I was walking at the back of the Accademia and there were some protesters there, from Occupy Firenze, and I thought, I should go talk with them for a little, I am too much in this city's past and nothing in its present, and I didn't, because I was tired. And I never did. And yet isn't there a place in the world for writing about a city's past, as well as its present? I know what I am good at, when I write about Florence. It is not the political concerns of modern Italy.

 Isn't there a place in the world for writing about a city's past, as well as its present?

As well as, there's the key phrase, and not instead of. 'Jan Morris' looks straight past an oncoming revolution and its equally oncoming suppression. I sometimes worry I have not lived up to my political responsibilities as a travel writer: 'Jan Morris' would not have the words cross her mind, 'the political responsibilities of the travel writer'. There is a traditional structure to the travel book, in which the writer goes through historical eras of the city architecturally, artistically etc., trying to track down any surviving people from the relevant eras if applicable and generally discussing the historical time of the city as discrete chunks, each chunk quite often corresponding to an ethnicity as well as a period. So you get 'Jan Morris' going to see the last of the city's White Russians; the last of the descendants of the first Greek fishermen who founded Hav; the Chinese quarter brings on a discussion of the Eastern trade. And there is also a tradition, in this sort of travel book, to, when you get to the time/place/people in which there was an awful war, to, well, pause for sentiment. To discuss the devastation that has of course been wrought and to interview someone who had something horrible happen. Some writers can get away with this-- Nicolas Bouvier can, on account of how recently WWII had been, so that he was in a city nine years out of Nazi occupation and would have had to be completely tone-deaf to miss it; Patrick Leigh Fermor doesn't try, being sensible, and having been that rare thing, a real hero who knew what a war was. 

'Jan Morris' has, in this book, in her exquisitely careful sendup of exactly how not to deal with the aftermath of WWII, given the most beautiful demonstration I can possibly imagine of what it would be to ignore the political responsibilities of the travel writer. For in Hav there lives a man who is wanted by Israel, for war crimes. A friend of hers says that the reward is huge; she interviews the man; his guilt is indisputable. Does she consider reporting his existence and where he lives to the relevant authorities? Does she, hell! And the Nazi, at the end of her interview with him, suggests that her friend was a collaborator with the Vichy government, that he sold out members of the Resistance. Does she look into it? Of course not. Because she is a travel writer and therefore to her this is all theatrical pageantry, is the subtext. She's the observer so none of it is any of her business. And how amazingly well-calibrated the racism of the way she will reveal, or not reveal information: this is a book in which she calls the British Agent in Hav by a pseudonym, despite the fact that he has not asked for anonymity, but gives the full address and telephone number of a Muslim leader who has told her in so many words that he is under threat of assassination. She insists that there must be an artistic connection between the indigenous Havian culture and that of Wales, on extremely flimsy evidence-- both 'Jan Morris' and Jan Morris are Welsh.

'Jan Morris' has, in this book, given the most beautiful demonstration I can possibly imagine of what it would be to ignore the political responsibilities of the travel writer. 

As an indictment of the sins of the travel writer, it's almost enough to condemn the whole profession. She makes it all so fucking plausible, and also always blink-and-you'll-miss-it.

In short, Jan Morris has pulled off one of the most impressive literary sleights-of-hand I can recall seeing in recent memory: she has created a city, and an avatar of herself to walk in it, and tells you about it firsthand, using real details, and convinces you absolutely that every damn thing she says about the place is wrong. Because you know things about what Hav must be like. You know things 'Jan Morris' never will. (Although not enough to figure out, quite, which faction starts the revolution, though I know which ones went on with it.) I haven't seen a rope trick like this since Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror, a book which this reminded me of strongly-- that and Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels. 

And in the grand tradition of the con artist, she'll tell you what she's doing flat out. The city of Hav is obsessed with mazes, and the depiction of mazes is the great motif of their art. Here is her plot summary of the greatest work by Hav's greatest novelist, the one who died a year too soon to win the Nobel Prize:

"There is no doubt that Melchik was obsessed by the idea of the maze. Every one of his books is really its diagram. But in his most famous work, and the only one widely known in the West, he turns the conception inside out. Bağlilik ("Dependence") is the tale of a woman whose life, very gently and allusively described, is a perpetual search not for clarity but for complexity. She feels herself to be vapidly self-evident, her circumstances banal, and so she deliberately sets out to entangle herself. But when at last she feels she is released from her simplicities-- has reached the center of the maze in fact-- she finds to her despair that her last state is more prosaic than the first."
Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris.

In my critical idiom, we could call the above the sound of one hand clapping. Or possibly two: mine.

I mean, one can even deduce, by careful examination, where the alternate history that produced Hav branches off from ours, and some of what its other effects were. (Let's just say, in this universe Byzantium was not much of an empire, and Constantinople, though it exists, split its trade equally with Hav, with the result that neither was as spectacularly glorious.) 

As a travel book, too, I repeat that it is perfectly enjoyable, and has all the things for which one reads that genre, the evocations of food, buildings, clothes, sky, the conversations with interesting people, the notations of local customs, the humor, the prose. (Humor in the little things, too. She really should not have expected to enjoy the restaurant the professorial type took her to, when he had been categorically wrong about every single statement he'd been quoted as making before taking her out. When a person like that says they know a good restaurant, you're lucky not to end up in the hospital, but she never quite makes the connection.)

You'll never get the damn city right,
I won't either, but at least it is a brilliant novel.

And of course turning the joke back on herself was part of the hall of mirrors to some extent, wasn't it; because I see in Jan Morris, in her construction of this city and her writer-self, everything 'Jan Morris' isn't, the empathy, the love and courage, the acknowledgments of the ways that travel writing is never going to get to the heart of a place and the way it will always, always fail other peoples' pain. So I can feel that we are laughing together, she and I, a little ruefully. You'll never get the damn city right, I won't either, but at least it is a brilliant novel. ◆ By Rush. 

Jan Morris. Last Letters from Hav. 1989 [1985]. Vintage Books, New York.
Hieronymus Bosch. The temptation of Saint Anthony (detail). c. 1450-1516. National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.
This article was originally published at Rush That Speaks and has been republished with the author's permission.

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