Tuesday, February 03, 2009

How It’s Done

I just finished reading Trieste, by Jan Morris. It took me a long time to get through, because it’s a dense book, full of centuries’ worth of historical lessons and anecdotes, and because Morris writes in a careful third-person style that’s very different from the zany, personal stories that are popular now.

The time was well spent, though. Morris paints an interesting portrait of Trieste, a city I’ve never been to (and one which, according to a possibly apocryphal 1999 poll, 70% of Italians don’t realize is in Italy). She covers all aspects of Trieste’s history and culture, from the city’s Jewish Diaspora to the city’s relations with its Slavic neighbors and what happened when the city ceased to be an important Adriatic port.

Just when the anecdotes start to get a little cloying and you’re starting to wonder where she’s going with all of them, Morris wraps up the book—her last, she says--with a magnificent chapter that explains why Trieste has been significant to her throughout the years. It’s a beautiful end to not just a book but an entire distinguished writing career. The final chapter manages to tell us a lot about both the author and the city, without being either self-indulgent or dryly historical. In my experience, that’s a hard balance to strike. It’s easy to tell your own story about a place, and easy to impart a history lesson, but very hard to make your own experiences interesting and relevant to a general audience. This book shows how that’s done.

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