James Morris established a reputation as one of the world’s premier journalists in 1953, when, at the age of 26, he climbed Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and filed exclusive reports of the expedition with the London Times.
Later, as a staff writer for the Manchester Guardian, he covered the Moscow trial of Francis Gary Powers and the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, and began writing the travel essays and historical books that brought him a second round of celebrity.
A third bout with fame of an unrelated (and somewhat unwanted) sort followed in the early 1970s, when Morris flew to Casablanca to undergo the last phase in a six-year-long process of changing his sex.
When Morris returned to England, now as Jan Morris, she explored her life in a best-selling 1974 biography, “Conundrum.” That has now been followed up with a book that’s a sequel of sorts, “Pleasures of a Tangled Life,” published this fall by Random House.
The new book is more lighthearted. “People always think of me in terms of ‘Conundrum,’ ” she explains, “and I wanted to portray the other half--to show that my life has really been one of great pleasure and show all the fun I’ve had.”
Part informal chat, part memoirs of a cheerful eccentric, “Pleasures of a Tangled Life” is a book of 35 short essays on the joys of travel and the joys of staying home, the joys of being alone and being with friends, and the joys of the past and the joys of the present.
Trefan Morys, her home in Cymru, Wales, ranks among Morris’ favorite pleasures. Among the others that she sketches in her new book are watching ships; good wine; books (her own and others); walks; friendships; and Cymraeg, the Welsh language.
And, as Morris readily admits, a healthy dislike can be enervating in and of itself. Among the things she confesses to loathing are zoos, organized religions of all sorts, “all aspects and symptoms of authority, anywhere in the world,” and sitting through concerts. (“Music, to my mind, is best enjoyed by oneself and in freedom, as one enjoys nature.”)
“I am merely out to show once more,” she writes in the first chapter, “by the examples of my own life and taste, out of my peculiar circumstances, what a pleasure pleasures are.”
Eating lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Beverly Hills, Morris looks like a proper Welsh woman, with the broad-shouldered good humor of both Barbara Bush and Barbara Woodhouse.
It’s hard to reconcile the image of the young journalist who scaled Mt. Everest with this cheerful woman in her yellow pullover, simple bead necklace, sensible athletic shoes, and bifocals. Her laughter is loud and frequent. Her thoughts, no matter how mildly expressed, are unmistakably those of Jan Morris as expressed in her books: sensual, fanciful, occasionally shocking, and often contradictory.
“I haven’t got many opinions, but the ones I’ve got I rather enjoy expressing,” she says, ordering a second glass of milk.
Morris describes herself, for instance, as “an animal liberationist of almost atavistic passion,” and yet freely admits that she has neither ever worked for an animal-rights group, nor is she a vegetarian. “I accept that Nature itself is carnivorous.” Morris bites into her omelet and smiles.
“Do you like dill?” she asks, suddenly sunny. “It’s my favorite taste in the world.”
At the beginning of next year, Morris is leaving Wales for an undetermined amount of time and traveling to Sydney, which will be the subject of her next book. (She’s also been offered the job of literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.) Although Morris has always preferred to live in the country, her books have celebrated the joys of cities: Venice, Hong Kong, Cairo and others. And while her work has introduced her to the famous and powerful, she prefers to avoid such encounters.
As a correspondent for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, she was sent to Panama to file a report, an experience she details in “Pleasures.”
Morris had met Col. Manuel Noriega, then chief of security police for the Panamanian government, and was invited to his bunker for an interview.
“He never showed up, and I was glad,” says Morris, “because if he did, I would have felt obliged to report some dull thing he said.”
With nothing else to do, she explored his room and described what she saw as “like looking at the bedroom of an overindulged adolescent. The chrome and white leather objects, the pictures of girls and the cocktail cabinets. . . . We are ruled by children, I thought to myself as I looked at this, and of course it’s true: The very instinct of authority is an instinct of immaturity, well worth the pleasure of laughing at whenever practicable, just to cut it down to size.”
Morris is markedly unenthusiastic when it comes to meeting heads of state or authority figures of any kind. “I used to think it was necessary to go meet people,” she says, “but I gave that up. They never really tell you anything interesting.”
Public response to her works and her ideas, Morris admits, has always been important to her. And she sees “Pleasures,” like “Conundrum,” as “a very personal book. And it’s a very vulnerable position that that book occupies. It’s presenting yourself: Here I am, look at me. And naturally some people are going to say ‘you’re awful,’ and others are going to say ‘you’re nice.’ Of course, I want everyone to say ‘you’re nice.’ ”
Reviewers and critics thought she was nice indeed until the publication of “Conundrum.” Rebecca West, in the New York Times, wrote in 1974 that she found “Conundrum” to be “rather a record of a strange self-treatment for a neurotic condition.”
Nora Ephron, then a columnist for Esquire magazine, took it a step further. In an essay suffused with disgust, Ephron referred to the book’s “overembellished and simile-laden verbiage that makes the style of Victorian woman novelists seem spare.” She also called “Conundrum” “a mawkish and embarrassing book,” and said, “Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman; what she has become instead is exactly what James Morris wanted to become those many years ago. A girl. And worse, a 47-year-old girl.”
While admitting that she can’t help reading reviews, Morris claims that this particular vituperation escaped her attention when it was published. “The bad ones (reviews) wound me terribly,” she says, “and the good ones truly to make me swollen-headed. I try very hard not to read them, but I always fail.”
As to “Conundrum” and her sex-change operation, she considers it a closed chapter in her life, almost shrugging off the subject. “I think my problem is now being more publicly accepted. There was some error of hormones or something of that sort that I had to try to put right, that’s all that was.
“This book is about the pleasures that have come out of my tangled life. The tangles are more or less over with, really.”
One of the leitmotifs in “Pleasures” is the concept of hwyl, a Welsh word that originally referred to the billowing sail of a ship. Today it refers to, according to Morris, “a great feeling of largeness, of enjoyable passionate largeness. And from there, it’s gone further. If you say goodby, you say ‘Ilwyl,’ meaning ‘Enjoy that sort of pleasure.’ ”
Today, Jan Morris derives hwyl from Trefan Morys, her home in the northern Welsh countryside, of which she writes, “I love it above all inanimate objects, and above a good many animate ones too. . . .
“When I come back to it after a long journey, opening with its big 18th-Century key its crooked blue-painted front door--when I enter its presence once again I experience more than mere relief or comfort, but something undeniably akin to lechery.”
In “Pleasures,” Morris also writes tenderly of Elizabeth Tuckniss, whom she divorced following the sex-change operation, but with whom she continues to live and travel: “I have lived with one partner for nearly 40 years, through a greater permutation of sexual relationships than a Grecian fabulist could conceive, and out of it all I have drawn the conclusion that the ultimate object of sex is not physical after all, but spiritual . . . the sealing of profounder unions.”
It’s a union she intends to continue into death, having long ago purchased both a double funeral plot and a single gravestone, bearing the Welsh inscription DYMA MAE DWY FFRIND, AR DERFYN UN BYWYD (“Here are two friends, at the end of one life”).
The gravestone has become part of Morris’ legend, having stood in the author’s library since the early 1970s. When asked about it, Morris laughs, as if living with one’s gravestone is quite a natural thing.
“I wanted people to know of my love affair,” she explains. “I was moved by that affair, as I still am. I wanted to make something beautiful of it, and place it in a beautiful place, so we would always be remembered when people step over us. If I say it myself, that will probably be the one thing I’ll be remembered for, that little slab of slate.”
But to keep it in the library?
“Well, Elizabeth puts it under the stairs; she’s not quite so keen on it as I am,” Morris explains.
She laughs and shrugs. “I didn’t have a choice, really, but to put it somewhere.”
Allman is a frequent contributor to View.