Morris' 'Trieste': a fond farewell

October 28, 2001|By Bruce Friedland | By Bruce Friedland,SUN STAFF

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris. Simon and Schuster. 203 pages, $23.

"A great city that has lost its purpose is like a specialist in retirement," suggests the celebrated travel writer and historian Jan Morris. "He potters around the house. He tinkers with this hobby or that. He reads a little, watches television for half an hour, does a bit of gardening."

But through it all, he understands "that the real energy of his life, the fascination of his calling that has driven him with so much satisfaction for so many years, is never going to be resumed."

Readers may assume that Morris, 75, is speaking not only about the subject of her new book, the once-great Italian port city of Trieste, but about her own retirement as well. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, she says, will be her last book.

Morris has been writing literary travel books for nearly half a century, first getting notices in 1953 for chronicling Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's ascent of Mount Everest. Since then, the author has produced more than 40 works, including essays, autobiographies and a novel.

Her prolific career is all the more remarkable given what was undoubtedly her most amazing journey, that of changing gender. A one-sentence preface to Trieste informs readers, "Jan Morris lived and wrote as James Morris until she completed a change of sexual role in 1972."

It was James Morris, a British soldier, who first visited Trieste during World War II, and the melancholy city on the Adriatic Sea, haven to exiles and artists, "nagged by lost circumstance," has intrigued her ever since.

She and Trieste are kindred spirits. "I write of exiles in Trieste, but I have generally felt myself an exile too. For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time. The past is a foreign country, but so is old age."

The Hapsburgs transformed Trieste into a major port, and it flourished. But at the close of World War I, the Hapsburg monarchy was in tatters, and so was Trieste; fascism, World War II, the Cold War and ethnic strife in the Balkans didn't help.

Isolated at Italy's extreme northeastern point, Trieste is in Italy, "but not altogether of it," Morris writes. The city owes perhaps as much to Slavic, Balkan and German influences as it does to Italian, adding to what Morris describes as the Trieste effect -- the city's "melange of loyalties" and its ability to at once attract and sadden.

The result of this unusual history and geography is that Trieste is "as near to a decent city as you can find." And in the end, Morris asks, what better purpose is there for a city, or for human beings, than simple decency?

"Kindness," the author contends, "is what matters, all along, at any age."

After reading Trieste, one can't help but gain an appreciation for this curious city, and an even greater appreciation for the talent and wisdom of Jan Morris.

Bruce Friedland is travel editor of The Sun. He has been a reporter and editor at The Sun for more than a dozen years, and once worked at the old Baltimore News-American.

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