Jan Morris' last two books, appropriately enough, describe the two places she says "have happily haunted me" and that she intends to haunt in her turn. One is a portrait of her home in Wales and the other her ruminations on Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. They raise similar issues of patriotism, nationality (as opposed to political nationhood) and heritage. But having wandered with her through these two ultimate destinations, the reader may feel that she has turned the whole notion of place inside out.
A Writer's House in Wales purports to be a sketch of her cottage Trefan Morys originally the stable block of a medieval estate and is also the inaugural volume in a new series of well-known authors writing (in a sort of quietly elevated way) about travel. But since Morris has announced that she will no longer write books, this light essay carries a heavy weight. "For me, Trefan Morys is a summation, a metaphor, a paradigm, a microcosm, an exemplar, a multum in parvo, a demonstration, a solidification, an essence, a regular epitome of all that I love about my country," Morris writes of her cottage. In its more beguiling moments, the house is a striking compendium of details, and those details the gum boots, the grandfather clock, the iron staircase leveled by a pebble under one leg are really the clearest evocation of Morris herself.
In other words, this is not a place, it's the essential spirit of the person. But in an attempt to fit the concept of "travel writing," the memoir seems to have been skewed out of its natural shape, so that the history and somewhat repetitive issues of minority culture come before, and nearly obscure, the house itself.
The book on Trieste is equally circular. "There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own," Morris writes. "They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and [its] capital is Trieste." But the place she calls the essence of nowhere might also be the purest form of somewhere, the capital of exiles and expatriates and minorities. Where "race" and "nationality" and even "ethnicity" have little meaning, humanity is the only class of membership remaining.
Once Roman and now again Italian, but within a cartographer's spitting distance of Slovenia and Greece, Trieste reached its greatest heights as the premier port of Hapsburg Austria. And as a free port with a strong Jewish population, it at least initially provided safe haven and easy transport to Israel during World War II. (Later, however, a rice treatment plant was transformed into an extermination site.)This is part of Trieste's fascination for Morris what she variously refers to as its "fusion of bloodstocks," its "muddled fealties" and "supra-national" qualities. It's an exile of convenience or of fantasy as often as of necessity. The doomed Maximilian, then brother to the emperor but later a Napoleonic dummy on the Mexican throne, built his dream castle here but never lived to see it complete. Dispossessed and exiled royalty Bourbons (French and Spanish), Bonapartes, even Romanovs lived and died with full honors here. James Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist and most of Dubliners here. Sir Richard Burton translated "The Thousand and One Nights" here. Freud studied here, Einstein emigrated from here, Eichmann escaped through here. It is more Ur-ope than Europe.
A companion wine for the journey
As she ponders these places, Morris might pick an Australian red, but perhaps a big, shaggy-friendly Italian would be better: the Campofiorin 1997 Masi, a Rosso del Veronese as big as an Amarone but with eager bloom in the mouth, bright but not sharp spice and medium, soft-tannin finish, a lot of armchair travel for $15.
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the The Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.