I thought I’d share a few of the books which I’ve been reading recently. All related to travel and nature writing, but all approach the field from very different angles.
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris
The last ever book from Morris, now in her eighties, is a wonderful exploration of how fluid and changeable, yet in some ways totally rigid, a place can be. Having been posted there originally as a soldier in the Second World War – before becoming a woman – and as a writer and tourist since, the book investigates what it is about the city that’s so haunting.
Having been to Trieste myself (for about three hours) I was fascinated by the title, it summed up exactly how I felt: it is nowhere. On the first page we are told that in a poll ’70 percent of Italians did not know that it was in Italy.’ Yet for no fathomable reason my mind often wanders back there too.
The book offers a fascinatingly in-depth look into local history, as well as comprehensive references to literature however, for me, it was a little too factual. I felt that Morris herself was the truly interesting character and It was the first and last chapters, where her feelings and personal connection with the place were more apparent, that were the most engaging.
One of the really interesting things that Morris does is to play around with large chunks of information, creating fictitious imaginings of events based on the facts. It sat really nicely within the narrative, especially with such a lot of history, breathing life into the ghosts of the past.
Reading this book really confirmed how important I find context – I don’t just want to know about a place, I want to know why that writer is telling me about it too, what it means to them. This has helped me feel more self-assured about my own work.
Writers interested in sociological or cultural history (the city’s population have found themselves moved between several nationalities) or history. There’s a lot about the Hapsburgs, WW1 and 2, Yugoslavia and Austria.
Morris has a subtle humour to her work and descriptions such as the city having a ‘sweet melancholy’ are so simple but, like the city, haunting. Perfect for anyone interested in developing a more paired-back way of evoking a sense of place or a more conversational, accessible writing style.