Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
by Jan Morris
A review by Brian Doyle
With what she says is her final book, the eminent travel writer, historian, and essayist Jan Morris closes a riveting literary career, which led from reporting Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 ascent of Everest for The Times of London to some forty books, including classics such as her Pax Britannica trilogy and her profiles of Hong Kong, Sydney, and Venice. Trieste, the slightly melancholic farewell of a superb writer to the art and craft she graced for much of the twentieth century, is Morris at the peak of her form; it is both a thorough tale of the Italian city that long served as the leading seaport of the Hapsburg Empire — and was home for a time to James Joyce and Sir Richard Burton, among many other colorful personalities — and a glancing portrait of Morris herself, who loves Trieste in part because its vigor has passed and it is a city of ghosts and memories.
Morris's approach is to combine a sharp eye for detail with an easy scholarship and a graceful, authoritative prose voice, and so to bring a city, its history, and its people to life. Throughout her stories she explores the nature of exile, the "nonsense of nationalism," the necessary disorder of great cities. And she re-creates scenes and events: Nora Joyce waiting forlornly at the train station while her husband wanders off to get drunk with sailors in the Piazza Grande, and that same train station eighty-five years later, a booming international black market for blue jeans; hundreds of Jews quietly murdered by the Nazis in the old rice-treatment plant at San Sabba, eerily close to the city's ancient Jewish cemetery; the Emperor Franz Joseph's brother Maximilian reluctantly departing Trieste in 1864 to become the Emperor of Mexico.
"The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them," Morris concludes. Her retirement at age seventy-five is understandable, but it is also a great loss to readers who have long savored Morris's lean, informed prose. This is a lovely last song.
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