A unique moral compass

Pico Iyer is the author of the novel "Abandon" and a forthcoming book of travels, "Sun After Dark."

Someone who was innocent of literary fashion and the hierarchy of genres could easily write a thesis comparing the work of V.S. Naipaul and Jan Morris. Both, after all, are near-contemporaries and fellow graduates of Oxford and the British Empire (albeit on different sides). Both are master stylists, though in major and minor key, who have returned over and over to the same places as if to worry out a conundrum within themselves and in those places. And both, at heart, have given themselves to much the same task for the last half century, following the slow unraveling of British rule and the coming to light of a new kind of order, more rootless and confused. In its British edition, the title of Morris' latest anthology of pieces written over the last 50 years, "A Writer's World," seems almost to beg comparison with Naipaul's recent collection on his travels over the same period, "The Writer and the World."

While Naipaul has been acclaimed as a master observer of societies in transit, Morris has often been relegated to the ghetto known as travel writing. In literary terms, there has been a virtual reversal of the inequity that saw Naipaul grow up on the loser's side of colonialism, anxious to prove himself at every turn and forced to fashion a new genre of his own while Morris grew up with a winner's confidence and aplomb, able to place herself in a venerable tradition. The intensity and acuity of Naipaul's gaze are widely accepted, but Morris is no less shrewd or attentive. The principal difference between them is that Naipaul carries his anxieties everywhere he goes, whereas Morris rolls seamlessly through even the most dramatic journey a human can undertake. (Foreign correspondent extraordinaire James Morris became Jan Morris following a 1972 sex-change operation.)

One of the blessings of the new anthology -- whose U.S. title is "The World: Travels 1950-2000" and takes us chronologically through Morris' career and across the world -- is that it reminds those who had forgotten that Morris was a seasoned international reporter, for the Times of London and the Manchester Guardian, long before she became a master impressionist in words. She covered the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, she talked to Ernesto "Che" Guevara while he was president of Cuba's National Bank, she covered revolutions in Africa, South America and the Middle East, almost like a melodious version of the great Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski. (Naipaul, by comparison, was more apt to visit places before the revolution, or after.) And like Naipaul, finally, Morris is so steeped in the past that she's been able to read the future. Describing Baghdad after a coup in 1958, she writes in terms that could be taken from today's newspapers. Visiting Cuba just after Fidel Castro's takeover, she finds a "sugar and bikini state" that applies brilliantly to the island 44 years on.

If it has sometimes been possible to underestimate her, that may be in part because she has the good journalist's ability to carry the reader along for the ride without letting on how much information is being dispensed. Her famously mellifluous sentences roll on and on, impeccably, through passages that have no precedent or parallel. (No one can better describe the movements of a street, the smells of a marketplace, the skipping of a heart.) Only on careful rereading do you realize that she was telling us that America had more federally licensed gun stores than gas stations long before we thought in such terms. Her 1983 rendering of a Sydney school's motto "I hear, I see, I learn" in Latin ("Audio, Video, Disco") is not just an ornamental detail. Morris' years as a journalist gave her a care for accuracy and for making every sentence count, as her years as a British soldier in Palestine seem to have given her a resilience and stoicism that help her appear to make light work of everything. One has to look closely to realize that she's driving through war-stricken Bosnia in the dark, in one passage here, while in her 70s.

This classic, some would say imperial, reticence has given her a devil-may-care air in places where Naipaul has made heavy weather of his distress. And, as befits their opposite positions on the colonizing spectrum, perhaps, the exiled Naipaul has always emphasized how much work he has put into his sentences and how devotedly he has served his Muse, whereas Welsh-born Morris almost seems to stress the opposite. The sense of fun she derives from places, the amusement and delight she conveys, make it easy to overlook how hard she is traveling and working. While Naipaul's lean and hungry style advertises its own abstemious sobriety, Morris is not shy of starting a sentence with "O" and ending it with an exclamation point.

Yet such rhetorical generosity is not the same as having a soft-focus viewpoint or romantic simplicities.When Morris travels around Africa in the '60s, for example, she sees it in almost the same terms as Naipaul, talking of injustice and "the fearful amount of drivel ... uttered" by University of Ghana graduates and noting that "the steamy coast of Guinea feels frighteningly devoid of old art, deep wisdom or towering religion." For her, Accra just after independence is, much as it might be for Naipaul, "the least adult of capital cities." Yet what separates her from her ferocious contemporary is a sympathy for the people she's watching that at once warms and complicates her judgment. She summarizes in one unflinching sentence the anguish Naipaul finds in post-colonial peoples (and in himself): "[T]hese are temporarily rootless peoples, racked by sensations of inadequacy, unfulfillment or frustration, and deprived of the often scratchy cultures that gave them pride of history." Yet she acknowledges a "fizz" and spirit of independence in a new Africa that makes her think of a "young man flourishing his door key still, long after his twenty-first birthday."

In much the same way, in Kashmir in the late '70s, she confesses to feeling "transcendental" and otherworldly. That does not keep her from seeing it as "a bazaar rumour kind of place, a UN resolution place, a place that nags the lesser headlines down the years, like a family argument never finally resolved." Those who mistake her tolerance for indiscrimination should read her on London (which is for her "hard as nails," a city of calculations), and those who infer from her serenity and unflappable spirit that she is seeing joy and ease everywhere should read her on Vienna. Or '60s Sydney: "[I]ts temper is coarse," she writes, "its organization seems to be slipshod, its suburbs are hideous and its politics often crooked, its buildings are mostly plain, its voices rasp on the ear, its trumpeted Art Museum is, I suspect, half-spurious, its newspapers are either dull or distasteful."

Morris comes, as Naipaul does, from an age in which judgments were not verboten.(Some of the saddest passages in this book are about watching her beloved America, in recent years, descend into political correctness.) She states that Australia "has the feeling of a boom town without a boom, or perhaps an army without any officers," and that Indians "love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic." But there is seldom a sense that Morris is imposing her moods on the places she visits or seeing them as a reflection of her anxieties. Reading her all at once, you see that in the late '50s she, curiously, found an air of nightmare everywhere she visited (in Cuba, in Kyoto, in Bolivia); more recently, her reports from Europe in the '90s sometimes feel unsteady and unsettled. Much more often one feels that, like the most civil and least servile of civil servants, she is aiming to give an objective account of the places to which she is sent, not just a record of her assumptions.

I do not mean by this to devalue Naipaul, who has fashioned his own voice and form -- almost -- in describing the displacements of the age. I mean only to suggest that he is most impressive as a novelist because in fiction he actually inhabits the mixed-up or anguished people whom in travel writing he coolly inspects. In fiction, the flow of feeling that is his strength comes out to guide and color the sentences, whereas in nonfiction there is always a tension between his wish to report and his inclination to project. In Naipaul, the writer is always separate from the world, as in the title of his recent collection; in Morris, the writer is all over it. The ultimate test of any travel writer is how well he or she writes about the places that one knows, and no one has caught either Manhattan or Los Angeles so well as Morris, in part because no one has such affection tempered by clear sight.

Morris likes people, even if she does not always like the countries in which they live, and there is an early-morning freshness to her prose. You can imagine her talking to everyone she passes on her morning walks. What has made her the definitive chronicler of Empire is that she responds warmly to the "purple swagger and the swank" of its rulers and, even more, to its mavericks and victims. It is the "flash of underlife that gives most great cities their clarity," she writes. And it is she who relishes most that a 1982 book published by Oxford University Press was a collection of essays she wrote originally for Rolling Stone. Style, panache, spirit are her thing, and her sentences are a near-perfect blend of ceremony and quiet subversion.

This is all worth stressing because Morris is the last of her kind (even as Naipaul is arguably the founder of a new form of rootless writing). Her great theme has been the last days of Empire -- the subject of her "Pax Britannica" trilogy -- and that has been her destiny too, coming to a climax in her beautiful 2001 book on the Italian port city of Trieste, in which she took the measure of herself, the world she knew and even the writing she has done by looking at a quizzical nowhere place that seems a little left behind by history. This elegiac gift has not prevented her from seeing (in a piece not included here) the outlines of a new age in, say, Hong Kong and Singapore, with their "sort of mystic materialism, a compelling marriage between principle and technique." And it hasn't impaired her fondness for the underdog -- one reason why, I think, she always stresses her Welsh heritage, her distance from the grand England she's been observing -- or from pricking at pomp and pretension. (In Vienna, she notes, even its Big Wheel "moves with such a genteel deliberation that I felt like kicking it, or scrawling scurrilous graffiti on its benches.") It has meant that she has been recording, as no one else, a spirit and an age now vanished. Writing of England's Oxford, "the envoi to a majestic play," as she calls it, she warms to it precisely because it "comes from the lost order of the English -- essentially a patrician society, stable, tolerant, amateur, confident enough to embrace an infinite variety." That is, one can't help noticing, a perfect description of herself.

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