Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Jan Morris' "A Writer's House in Wales" Book Review

I assume the famous writers commissioned or invited by National Geographic had a severe limit on how much they could wax eloquently upon their workaday retreats-- what a profession that allows them to live as if on holiday while making a living. Unlike many of those listed in the "Literary Travel Series," Jan Morris tells of her native land. Her ability to convey the rugged appeal of the landscape, the barbed intricacy of its language, and the gruff welcome of its inhabitants makes this brief account brisk, vivid, and accessible.

She takes us, after a quick summary (you can read her "[The Matter of] Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country" for splendid, if somewhat impassioned, detail) of the nation's history, into her home, Trefor Morys, near the River Dwyfor, between the Cardigan Bay and Snowdon/ Yr Wyddfa, not far from the home not only of poet R.S. Thomas but of the chimerical red dragon fighting the white Saxon dragon in the vision of Merlin. Morris tells, efficiently and powerfully, of the appeal of mountain fastnesses, flowing tributaries, and rain-soaked slate. She captures the smells and the woods around the converted 18c stable house she shares with her partner, and where they live surrounded by mementoes of their children. One small disappointment: I do wish, given the revelations of "Conundrum" in the 1970s about her sex-change, that Morris had given more domestic context for what must have been a fascinating family to raise given such conditions, but she, except for a casual aside to the operation, remains reticent. Three decades on, a further update on her situation in this domestic haven would have been a welcome addition to this restrained, carefully composed memoir-of-sorts.

As is her right: the tour takes us into the kitchen, the book-lined workroom, and then the forested glades. In its damp, overgrown, cozy, and ramshackle state, Trefor Morys (complete with ancient Rolls Royce about which I'd have liked to know more too) stands as a reification of Morris' love for her land. She tells of the gravestone she and Elizabeth will share: "Yma mae dwy ffrind, Jan & Elizabeth Morris, Ar derfyn un bywyd." Here are two friends---at the end of one life. Also, as she imagines their spirits haunting the manse as much as any before them have, she writes another text for the house itself. "Rhwng Daear y Testan a Nef a Gwrthrych/ Mae Ty yr Awdures, yn Gwenn, fel Cyslltair." "Between Earth the Subject and Heaven the Object Stands the House of the Writer, Smiling, as a Conjunction." What a tribute to a house and its writer! Morris, certainly one of our best travel writers, has in one of what may be her last of thirty (her count) or forty (blurb) or so books, given her witty and engaging salute to a house that, even if we cannot sign its guest-book as thousands seem to have been lucky enough to do, we can visit and imagine from afar on another armchair adventure in her fluid and measured prose style.
(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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