Popular historian Morris (Lincoln, 2000, etc.), the subtlest of travel writers since the 1950s, turns in what she has announced is her final book: a meditation on the crossroads city of Trieste.
Trieste is an Italian city bordering Croatia and Slovenia, on a finger of land on the northern shores of the Adriatic Sea. Once, it rivaled Hong Kong as a great commercial port, a crucial outpost of the Hapsburg Empire where Italians, Slavs, and Austrians met to do business. Trieste’s cosmopolitan character kept it from being dominated by any one religion. The city is pleasant visually, but was too commercial ever to become a center for art or architecture. Morris argues, in essence, that Trieste is a good place but not a great one: the food is excellent but not ethnically distinct, and the people themselves are gravely courteous, but undistinguished. Trieste is almost nationless, thus its appeal to exiles like Morris, who has traveled the world in search of an identity. It is always necessary to say of Morris that she used to be, before her sex change in 1972, the distinguished British author, James Morris, father of four. He did not cease to be a father when he became a woman, but with all the noise about sexual identity in the late 20th century it is gratifying to hear a mature, no longer embattled voice coming to terms. Life has been good to Morris, but inescapably melancholy, like the city she identifies with. Trieste is dreamlike, Kafkaesque, and maybe it is nowhere. Even so, Morris does not slight its history: the aforementioned Hapsburgs; conquering armies, whether British or German; and most remarkably, the sojourn of Trieste’s quintessential exile, James Joyce. Joyce produced most of his work in Trieste, and Morris delights in tracing his impoverished, not altogether admirable, history.
A disciplined, unsentimental last testament from an old pro, full of distilled adventures and the reflective richness that distinguishes the melancholy from the merely sad.