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Traveling Genius: The Writing Life of Jan Morris

Traveling Genius: The Writing Life of Jan Morris - Gillian Fenwick Valuable in terms of being a sustained study on a controversial author who's received insufficient attention.

Fenwick’s knowledge of Jan Morris’ work is evident throughout; the study covers most of Morris’ publications, which are extensive. Given the number of books Morris has produced—in a variety of genres, e.g., history, travel writing, autobiography, fiction, journalism, etc.—over many decades, the book presents an organizational challenge.

The fact that the author was James Morris until 1972, and then became Jan Morris, compounds the challenge. Fenwick proceeds more by genre than a strict chronological sequence, which may be best given the wide range of genres Morris endeavored. However, the reader needs a clearer game plan. Fenwick should explain the book’s organization in her opening chapter. As it is, some of the book is chronological while other chapters loop back to the earlier years of James Morris.

Fenwick proposes to explore the writing of Morris and does just that. However, given that all of Morris’ work is so autobiographical, the book becomes a biography as well. Further, in unavoidably writing about Morris’ life, Fenwick offers opinions and interpretations. While I found Fenwick’s writing refreshingly free of jargon and critical apparatus, there were times when I felt her work could have used some theoretical support.

For example, Fenwick seems almost irritated with Morris when she writes about her autobiographies and speculates too much on Morris’ reticence, posturing, and lack of feminism. Fenwick’s argument would be stronger if she brought in some of the recent studies done on gender, sexual assignment, and so forth. Fenwick’s expertise on Morris is indisputable, but her knowledge of gender and sex seems to be largely a matter of personal opinion. For instance, Fenwick comments that Morris “writes in Conundrum as though the experience of what was in fact only a few months were [sic:] the experience of a lifetime” (135). I suspect Morris did give this operation years of thought and that it may well have been an “experience of a lifetime.” Too often, in the chapter treating Morris’ autobiographies, Fenwick’s tone becomes dismissive, and she makes generalizations about Morris’ experience that she might want to support.

Overall, Fenwick provides an excellent, detailed study. However, Fenwick should launch her primary premises early and clearly and also provide a better blueprint for her readers. Fenwick starts to develop ideas, but often fails to deliver. The reader never really gets her opinion about whether Morris’ writing declines after he becomes Jan Morris, and this is an important point that has been the subject of ongoing debate. In the chapters about Morris' autobiographies, biographies, and fiction, Fenwick does seems imply a decline, but then she starts to approach Jan Morris’ work more favorably and concludes the book, rather jarringly—given that Fenwick has been pretty even-handed in commenting on Morris’ writing successes as well as her “excesses”—with these statements, “She is not just a great travel writer. She is a brilliant writer.” In contrast, Fenwick often points out Morris’ moments of brilliance in this or that book, but continually balances those assessments by noting Morris’ tendency to be self-indulgent, florid, and rambling.

Fenwick also uses the term “swagger” both in reference to Morris’ writing and in reference to a quality Morris seems to like in both places and people, but never really explains what the term means. In a similar fashion, Fenwick also explains how “allegory” becomes an obsession with Morris, but again does not explain how allegory is used. The term has been used by both Paul de Man and Walter Benjamin in relation to autobiography and travel writing to illustrate the kind of allegorical impulse writing about one’s self encourages – some memories are collected, while others recede. The memories that remain gain in significance and take on symbolic weight, miming the hills and valleys of allegory.

Overall, I found Fenwick’s book fascinating, but was often perplexed by provocative ideas that were introduced without being adequately developed.