Contact!: A Book of Encounters by Jan Morris; Norton, 202 pages ($23.95). Among the great imponderables of our time is this one: What sort of literary reputation would Jan Morris now have at the age of 83 if the great travel writer and historian hadn't decided to have transgender surgery in Morocco in 1972? In other words, what kind of career would she have had if she'd remained James Morris, the World War II veteran who fathered five children?
It's certainly possible, of course, that as James Morris, the writer could have been far less known and read. As a conventional writer with no built-in curiosity factor at all, James Morris might well have been lost in a landscape of literary familiarity.
This seems to be an extremely interesting and playful book coming from an octogenarian -- a book of anecdotes about Morris' encounters with people in an uncommonly long and full life of travel and study.
Many entries are tiny, no more than a paragraph. None continues for more than a few pages. They're tiny views opening up on larger worlds through what seem to be very small apertures. We meet people from low to very high indeed (on Winston Churchill at "the very moment of his ultimate triumph" the "day of the German surrender" on a "balcony at Whitehall to accept the gratitude" of London. "I always thought he should have been made Duke of London.").
Here, in entirety, is one titled "Lese Majeste": " 'Yeah' said a woman loudly and complacently stepping back from a china cabinet during our guided tour of the White House. 'Just what I thought -- chipped.' "
No date is attached. No identification of the White House occupant at the time. Just the sneer of a visitor clearly looking for something to sneer at.
Just a tiny lens through which to see much bigger things.
-- Jeff Simon