September 2011

Greer Mansfield


Notes on Hiraeth: The Work of Jan Morris

In an essay about the ancient Greek concept of the daimon (which the Romans would rename the genius), Guy Davenport balks at the notion of “writing as self-expression” and writes, “The business of a writer is to show others how you see the world so that they will then have two views of it, theirs and yours.”

For sixty years now, Jan Morris has been following her daimon from city to city and giving us her highly individual view of the world. She has been an evocative historian and the keenest observer of the present; a chronicler of cities in their springtime and in their decline, and of cities both real and imaginary; a Welsh nationalist and an elegist of the British Empire; and, of course, a man and a woman.

Morris began her career as James Morris, a discharged soldier and a foreign correspondent for the Times and the Guardian (and, needless to say, a man). He scored some stunning scoops, from the first report on Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Mount Everest to the first proof of Anglo-French-Israeli collusion during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Most importantly, though, these years as a newspaper staffer gave Morris the space and setting to hone his real talent: evoking places, especially cities.

Here he is describing 1950s Beirut:

…there it stands, with a toss of curls and a flounce of skirts, a Carmen among the cities. It is the last of the Middle Eastern fleshpots, and lives its life with an intensity and a frivolity almost forgotten in our earnest generation. It is to Beirut that the divinities of this haunted seaboard, the fauns and dryads and money-gods, orgiastically descend…

It feels a transitory place, like an exceedingly corrupt and sophisticated girls’ school. Such a way of life, you feel, cannot be permanent: it is too fickle, too fast, too make-believe and never-never. It is Alexandria without the philosophers, without the Pharaohs, perhaps even without Cleopatra (for age does distinctly wither the grand dames of Beirut, waddling with poodles and sunglasses from salon to couturier)…

This is not an earnest city. Proper Victorians would have hated it. Harvard economists or British civil servants, examining its improbable methods, its flibbery-gibbet charm, its blatancy and its blarney -- men of somber purpose, deposited one scented evening in Beirut, would probably pronounce it irredeemable.

But who would redeem such a place, in a world of false redemptions?

Even in an early essay like this, it is evident that Morris isn’t a “travel writer” in the ordinary travel magazine sense. Morris does give the reader a wide-awake description of the sights, sounds, and smells of Beirut -- and with much more life and verve than the common “my stay in some place” hack -- but he also goes deeper, into Beirut’s distinct character, the identity that sets it apart from all other cities, its genius loci.

The genius loci of each place is Morris’s true subject, and most of the places she visits are cities. Her method has always been simply to be a lone individual (interestingly, she likes to travel alone) in an unfamiliar city.

Morris never pretends her view is anything other than subjective and provisional. Her writing is a single sharp person’s impressions of a place; it never strives to be definitive or (that garlanded idol of American reporters) “objective.” And her impressions of a single city like New York, Sydney, Trieste, or Venice necessarily change over time.

Like the all the best travel writers (Byron, West, Bedford, Leigh Fermor, Kapuscinski, Chatwin), Morris is always happy to deploy her fictionist powers to capture certain truths about a place. As she writes in her introduction to The World (a career-spanning selection of her writing), “I was writing about the world, certainly, but it was my world -- as I put it myself in another context: ‘Is that the truth? Is that how it was? It is my truth. If it is not invariably true in the fact, it is true in the imagination.’”

Surely it’s worthwhile to take a tour of some of Morris’ imaginative truths.

The uncomfortable contradictions of Weimar (the city itself, not the Republic), which hosted successive flowerings of German literature and music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and hosted Hitler in the twentieth:

In the late eighteenth century the young Duke Carl August turned his city into a kind of aesthetocracy, an alliance between the aristocratic and the creative…

For generations Weimar was the dream of Germany. Madam de Stael reported that it was not so much a small city as one large, liberal and wonderfully enlightened palace.

To this day it is bathed in the light of those great times, when artists and monarchs were equals. Carl August lies in his mausoleum flanked not by his generals, but by his two great poets, Goethe and Schiller…


In the market square stands the Elephant Hotel, and all the waters of the Ilm canot wash the taint from this unfortunate hostelry. It is a handsome thirties building, but unfortunately redecorated inside in a glittery, chromy style that suggests the imminent arrival of swaggering Gauleiters with blonde floozies out of big black Mercedes. This impression is all too true. Hitler and his crew were particularly fond of the hotel, and more than once the Führer spoke form its balcony to enthusiastic crowds in the square outside.

The torpor and melancholy of Trieste after World War II:

Its talented young people are leaving, its old liberal tradition is neglected, its brave commercial instincts are blunted and frustrated. Depressed and half-hearted, it meanders on in disillusionment: not drunk, indeed, or crippled by war, or oppressed, even destitute: just bored, that’s all, just bored.

The peculiar mix of Hapsburg ceremoniousness and Magyar hedonism in Budapest:

The joy of Hungary is its heroic convention, the combination of formality and high jinks. Budapest always suggests to me a Vienna with fizz, its heritage of Hapsburg hierarchy spiked with sudden flashes of wit or defiance, touches of exaggeration, suggestions of excess.

Hungarians themselves, of course, like to say that this is the Magyar element -- the wild originality the first Kings of Hungary brought galloping out of the Great Plains -- and I am myself a sucker for the epic explanation. In the Heroes’ Square in Budapest… there is a group of equestrian statuary that represents the arrival of King Arpad, the first of all the kings, in the year 896. Arpad himself rides in front, his head high, his eyes firmly fixed down Andrassy Avenue towards the city centre. Around him his bodyguard of chieftains, mounted on splendidly caparisoned horses, look this way and that beneath their feathered helmets with expressions marvelously haughty and sneering -- terrifically alarming men, predatory as all hell, the sort you would very much rather have on your side than on the other.

She “never enjoyed a city more” than Budapest. Switzerland is an unfairly maligned land of “master craftsmen” and sensible politics (not to mention lakes, mountains, and engineering marvels). Chicago is the “perfect” American city; New York is no longer the dynamo of the world but has learned the secret of subtle charm. The brash Bauhaus of Tel Aviv is creating an entirely new culture, “unmistakably Israeli” but strangely un-Jewish. Sydney is a vision of real civilization, Asiatic and British at once but also something utterly unique, a city whose macho swagger conceals a certain lightness and grace and devotion to the good life.

Her journeys are not just geographic but historical as well. Her Pax Brittanica trilogy -- a history of the British Empire -- is a masterpiece of historical writing, a work to sit alongside Gibbon, Macaulay, Burckhardt, Prescott, and Trevelyan. She writes about the grand themes of imperialism and colonialism, retreat and independence, but the focus of the trilogy is on the eccentric men and women who built the Empire: soldiers, merchants, explorers, buccaneers, and sometimes simply bored young people who wanted to see the world. To Welsh republican Morris, the Empire was an epic attempt by the island-dwelling British to engage with the outside world. It was often violent, sometimes tragic, and full of bizarre and comical details, but to her it was a historical phenomenon of endless curiosity that left behind benefits and honorable legacies as well as the crimes, blunders, and partitions whose effects still occupy most of our daily headlines.

To the ancient Greeks, history was the realm of the muse Clio, and throughout literary history most readers have thought of history as a branch of literature like the play or the poem. Morris’s histories are literature, and reading them is a startling experience in an age when “history” means either cutesy bestsellers or tedious academic cinder blocks.

A small sample of Morris’ historical writing, the setting Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee:

Victoria returned to her palace in the evening, exhausted but marvelously pleased, through the blackened buildings of her ancient capital, whose smoke swirled and hovered over the grey river, and whose gas-lamps flickered into tribute with the dusk.

Morris has written that her work is suffused with what the Welsh call hiraeth, an untranslatable word that evokes a melancholy yearning for something or someone, a wistful homesickness. Hiraeth seems like an obvious cousin to Portuguese saudade or Turkish huzun. All of these words hint at distance, homesickness, wistfulness, nostalgia, and longing, but hiraeth, saudade, and huzun are more than emotions or moods that afflict an individual at certain moments. They are different ways of naming an atmosphere in which life unfolds, sometimes even an aura that surrounds a particular place.

Hiraeth, saudade, and huzun all have their bards and chroniclers. Fernando Pessoa is the great poet of saudade, and his Lisbon is unimaginable without it. Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul as wrapped in a collective mood of huzun, quietly longing for a shimmering, possibly imaginary, past. Jan Morris doesn’t write very often about her native Wales, but her daimon seems to have drawn her to cities afflicted with hiraeth.

The cities that most fascinate Morris, the ones that never seem to exhaust her interest, are peripheral cities, often peripheral in place and sometimes peripheral in time. The city of faded glamor, the city full of ghosts, the city that doesn’t even know what country it’s in -- these are the places where Morris is at her deepest. Trieste, the fictional Hav, even Venice: the cities where the genius loci has grown old, or confused, or simply sailed away mysteriously.

Pessoa’s Lisbon and Pamuk’s post-imperial Istanbul are also peripheral cities; perhaps marginal places are particularly susceptible to longing. These cities -- sad Trieste or exuberant Sydney, randy Beirut or mythic and demonic Weimar -- were lucky to find as perceptive a companion as Jan Morris.