Monday, April 16, 2007

Acqua Alta

Alternate-side parking was suspended today on account of rain! I couldn’t believe it. Actually, I left my car out in Rockaway on Saturday to get the muffler replaced (it was sounding pretty ragged), so I didn’t have to emerge at dawn in the rain to sit in the car, feeling a fool in the eyes of my Italian-Argentine house guest, but such is my obsession that I dialled 311 this morning anyway, just to hear if the extreme weather (more than seven inches of rain!) had softened the Mayor’s heart toward the city’s freeloading motorists. And, amazingly, it had! It’s almost as if he heard me trying to explain in Italian to my house guest, who had asked if it always rained so hard in New York, the meaning of “nor’easter”: “un temporale molto forte dal nord-est—vento, pioggia! Rarissimo!”

That passage is flecked with exclamation marks in homage to Jan Morris, whom I heard interviewed at the New York Public Library last Friday. Jan Morris once wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal on the exclamation point. “I love it!” she said, at the library. “It’s at the top left of my keyboard and it makes all the other letters look brutal and boring.” She also said, “I violently disagree with editors who cut exclamation points.” I felt like a killjoy, thinking of all the times I had plucked out obnoxious screamers, and am determined to mend my ways—I mean, mend my ways!

Jan Morris’s beads looked like enormous 3-D periods on a string around her neck, and her earrings were also big dots. She had a cloud of white hair, and wore a horizontally striped yellow-and-white T-shirt and a below-the-knee-length skirt. I couldn’t see her shoes, but imagined they were sturdy lace-ups, not unlike my grandmother’s; later, when I had a book signed, I saw that she was wearing beige flats with a tasteful double-strap detail. She leaned back in her chair, her hands clasped behind her head in the pose of a man relaxing before a fire. Her voice and manner turned out to be not so much feminine or masculine as simply Welsh.

Both the interviewer, who speaks in an accent so cultured it’s almost comical (you haven’t lived till you’ve heard Paul Holdengräber pronounce “Trieste”), and the person he introduced to introduce Jan Morris, the writer Simon Winchester (“Oh, wow!” someone in the audience murmured), seemed to wobble between masculine and feminine pronouns, but in fact those pronouns were deliberate. As it is written on a page at the beginning of “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere,” “Jan Morris lived and wrote as James Morris until she completed a change of sexual role in 1972.” When the antecedent of a pronoun is transsexual, it has not only gender and case but also tense: it’s he, him, and his in the past, and she, her, and hers from 1972 (in this case) to the present.

Though she is not known as a humorist, Jan Morris is very funny. Asked to expand on her dislike of concerts, a subject she wrote about in “Pleasures of a Tangled Life,” she admitted that she doesn’t really like to go places where she will be confined to a seat in a crowded auditorium; then, realizing that what she had just said might be the tiniest bit insulting to the people who had come out to see her—and by whom she had come out to be seen—she turned and executed a full frontal shrug, a gesture full of complicated humor. At home in Wales, she has a Norwegian forest cat named Ibsen. The least favorite of all the places she has been is Indianapolis.

The host asked long-winded questions about travel and religion, and gave his own long-winded answers when the writer did not say what he was expecting her to say. Something similar happened during the question-and-answer period. A man did his impression of Victor Borge’s vocalization of an exclamation point; a woman took the opportunity to tell Jan Morris that reading “Venice” had inspired her to become a travel writer and she had been to sixty countries in the last five years. I did not get in line at the microphone to ask my question, because no matter how I tried to whittle it down, I still would have sounded like one of those people who speak at wakes not of the deceased but of themselves.

Jan Morris has written something like forty books, but the ones that got the most attention were two I had read: “Venice” and “Conundrum.” I circled around “Venice” when I was in Venice, in 1994. A few months earlier, I had read “Conundrum,” Jan Morris’s memoir of changing gender, in the hope of understanding the recent announcement by my brother that he wished to become my sister. I thought Jan Morris made it sound too easy. James Morris, who was married, took hormones, stopped taking hormones and sired another child, resumed taking hormones, and eventually went along to a clinic in Casablanca for sex-reassignment surgery. The woman who had been his wife was (and still is) his good friend. Tra-la-la-la-la. On Friday night, just after the question-and-answer period, I thought I saw my sibling’s ex-wife flee the auditorium. I myself wondered, when I read “Conundrum,” if Jan Morris had a sister, and, if so, when we might hear from her.

So I was hiding out in Venice, and here was Jan Morris again, in a classic of travel literature. Finally, I pounced on “Venice,” and loved it. I loved the way it begins at the Campanile, which I climbed at the first opportunity, and counts the lions, and ventures out to the islands in the lagoon where the Venetians grow their vegetables. But I kept being slightly outraged that the name Jan Morris, a woman’s name, was on the title page when the book had been written by James Morris, a man. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m too timid, maybe I didn’t have enough Italian to go about renting a boat and rowing into the lagoon myself the way James Morris did with his children (it would be years before I would find myself in my own little boat, in Jamaica Bay), but I kept thinking, These are things that James Morris did, and it is somehow disingenuous of Jan Morris to put her name to them. James Morris went on the first expedition that summitted Mt. Everest. Would Sir Edmund Hillary have taken a woman along?

So what was my question for Jan Morris? What would I have had her do? She had a reputation as a writer that there was no reason to jeopardize, and an identity as a woman that she needed to cultivate. If I couldn’t handle the disparity, whose problem was it? Jan Morris is the same person as James Morris; they are both a Welsh writer. And my sibling, I eventually understood, is the same person I grew up with. But it took time, and it wasn’t easy. Not even the pronouns.

In the end, the only thing I wish I had asked Jan Morris was “Do you speak Italian?”

1 comment:

lucette said...

I love your Italian renderings of the weather and the parking problems, by the way.
I think I've read the Venice book, probably sometime in the '90s, too.