As a young correspondent for the Times of London and then the Manchester Guardian, James Morris covered Europe following World War II. It was his dispatch from the first successful Hillary/Tenzing expedition to conquer Everest that reached Queen Elizabeth on the eve of her coronation in 1953. In 1972, at the age of forty-six and in a process described in his bookConundrum (1974), Morris underwent a sex change operation and became Jan Morris. The writings on Europe continued through the transformation, in book after book, from Venice (1960),The Presence of Spain (1964; later as Spain), and Oxford (1965), to The Matter of Wales (1984),Last Letters from Hav (1985), and A Machynlleth Triad (1994). Perhaps no one has written more or more informatively about Europe since World War II. Certainly no one has seen it so clearly from the perspectives of both man and woman.
In Fifty Years of Europe, Morris uses this half century of experience and writing to create what she calls “a purely personal and entirely subjective album of Europe” that is part history and part travel monologue, as well as a full and detailed analysis of what makes Europe unique and what holds the Continent together as it heads into the economic union of the twenty-first century.
Now, half a century on, I have returned . . . to sort out my own lifetime’s experience of Europe . . . and my fifty years of Europe have turned out to be fifty complex years of a return to glory, if not to grace. Decade by decade I have watched Europe recover from its wounds of war, endure and escape the traumas of communism, regain its assurance, and try to make something altogether new of itself.
In 360 vignettes that range in length from a paragraph to several pages, Morris shares her knowledge of Europe, in stories that render the Continent in a colorful tapestry of life and culture. By the end of this book, the reader knows not only many of the facts and figures of Europe’s rich past but also details of the complex social and cultural history that underpin this saga.
The book contains five long chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue. Each chapter tackles one or another larger question about Europe, and each poses a tentative answer by its end. In “Holy Symptoms,” for example, her opening chapter, Morris gives readers the “Sacred complexities of Europe, starting with paganism, ending with art,” the ways in which religion, especially Christianity, have united this diverse continent and given it a lasting common identity. The range of the forty-six vignettes in this chapter is immense: superstitions from Europe’s pagan past (including Stonehenge, the Stone of Scone, and the Loch Ness Monster); through stories about sacred places like Fatima (in Portugal), Croagh Patrick (Ireland), and Medjugorje (Bosnia); to sketches of saintly people like Mother Teresa (from Albania) and “La Pasionara” (Spain). In these interlocking stories, Morris indicates how religion has knit the Continent together in multiple and intricate ways. Religious art, in the best metaphor of all, Morris explains, has accomplished this union as surely as anything: “The true human glory of Europe, as I have learned to see it, lies in the fact that in every corner of this continent, for thousands of years, people have been inspired to make beautiful things in the service of one god or another, or of no consciously recognized god at all.”
The remaining chapters provide similarly synthetic analyses. In Chapter 2, “The Mishmash,” Morris describes Europe’s “ethnic and geographical confusion,” represented as much as anything by its frontiers (from Hadrian’s Wall and the Brenner Pass through the Alps, to the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall) and its geopolitical anomalies (San Marino, Vatican City, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar). Morris travels the various islands of Europe (not only those well known, like Cyprus, Malta, and the Faroe Islands, but also small, faraway places like Sylt with its holiday spa of Kampen, off the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany), climbs its mountains, and sails its waterways. Sometimes she sees Europe as a tourist; more often she sees it as a person who has all of its geopolitical history and myth at her fingertips.
As a minority herself—Morris now lives in Wales and calls herself “a Welsh republican”—she has a special sympathy for all the ethnic and other minorities of Europe: the Scots, Bretons, Catalans, Lapps, Basques, Gypsies (8 million in the 1990’s), and Jews. Rather than focus on the divisions, represented in the modern history of Yugoslavia, for example, Morris celebrates the...
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