Near the end of Conundrum, Jan Morris writes about walking through Casablanca on the eve of her sex change operation as feeling like she was about to pay “a visit to a wizard,” like she was “a figure of fairy tale, about to be transformed” (119). And, as in some fairy tales, what she is to be transformed into is only what she has been all along: she writes, at the start of the book, that her earliest memory, from when she was three or four, was the realization that she “had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl” (3).

This slim book is full of Morris’s experiences on her journey from male-bodied to female-bodied, from her childhood sense of differentness and her early sense of affinity with particular places and landscapes to her years, pre-transition, in the army and as a journalist, including her increasing sense of isolation due to the gulf between her inner self and the self the world sees. She writes about her sense of the wrongness of her male body, but also an appreciation of its energies and what it can do, e.g. on a 1953 journalistic assignment to join the British expedition climbing Everest. She writes about taking estrogen for years before her sex-change operation, and about how it was to travel in the resulting in-between body, reading as a man to some and as a woman to others.

Morris is primarily known as a travel writer, and some of the loveliest bits of this book are the ones about landscapes or cities, like this description of the place where she grew up:

The sky may not always have been as blue as I recall it, but it was certainly clear as crystal, the only smoke the smudge from a collier laboring up-Channel, or the blurred miasma of grime that always hung over the Swansea valleys. Hawks and skylarks abounded, rabbits were everywhere, weasels haunted the bracken, and sometimes there came trundling over the hill, heavily buzzing, the daily de Havilland biplane on its way to Cardiff (4).

Or this, about Oxford: “a presence so old and true that it absorbs time and change like light into a prism, only enriching itself by the process, and finding nothing alien except intolerance” (8).

Or this:

London was in that heightened version of itself that one always discovers when one returns from abroad—the buses redder than usual, the taxi-drivers more Cockney, and everything more thickly infused with the pungency that is London’s own. Even the light that came through the consultancy window was more than reasonably London, much creamier than the Italian light, and charged with the dustflakes of W1. (44)

(And those are just a few: there’s also a great long list-paragraph about the cathedral in Oxford during Morris’s time at the choir school there, and a beautiful description of the sensual pleasure of being in a small boat in the lagoon of Venice at night.)

The edition of Conundrum I read is the 2002 reprint, which has a new introduction, which Morris wrote in 2001. In it she says the book “is already a period piece. It was written in the 1970s, and is decidedly of the 1970s” (ix). It does sometimes feel dated, particularly some of the gender-related bits, like one moment in the part about the Everest expedition in which Morris says she thinks women can’t have the “feeling of unfluctuating control” over their bodies that men can have: I suspect elite female athletes might disagree. And there’s a bunch of stuff at the end about how nice the courtesies afforded to women are, and how it isn’t so bad when you’re a woman at a restaurant with a man and the waiter assumes the man is the one who knows about/is choosing the wine, and anyway it’s nice to have doors opened for you and things done for you, right? But at the same time, Morris is very up-front about the fact that her conception of femininity as being tied to “gentleness” and “helping” and “give more than take” is her conception of it, not necessarily everyone’s.

One Response to “Conundrum by Jan Morris
Faber and Faber, 2002 (Originally 1974)”

  1. letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » TBR Double Dog Dare: Success Says:

    […] from my own shelves so far this year, and am in the middle of another. Some of those books (like Conundrum, which I bought in 2004 for a college class on autobiographical writing that I didn’t […]

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