Last Letters From Hav

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Monday, June 13, 2005
by Jan Morris #18

This will be hard to write up properly, so I will just have to write it up improperly and hope that I can give a little hint of what makes this book so compelling, yet at the same time so hard to read all in one go. It has taken me a long time to get through it. I will say that now that I'm finished with it (finally), I wish it were mine and not the library's so I could go back and dive in whenever I need to. I think it would read better to me now that I've been through it once, if that makes any sense.
Hav is a mythical city, but Jan Morris is a real travel writer. Hav is a fantastical city of the imagination, which seems just plausible enough to be an intriguing and beguiling city that one would think "If I'm ever in Turkey, I'll just swing by." (Hav is not in Turkey, but nearby.) It is a melange of eastern and european influence, with seemingly a little bit of everything you might think of thrown in. There is a map at the front of the book showing where Russian Town is in relation to, say, the Medina, or the floating casino, or the salt flats, or the House of the Chinese Master. Hav is a city in decline - it's not what it once was, but still holds secrets and pleasures for those who would go looking for them. Here is a quotation from a section in the book dealing with Havian night-life. I think it gives a flavor of the kind of book it is, plus the quality of Ms. Morris' writing. It is a long section, but worth reading, I think. She is talking to the novelist Armand Sauvignon, who came to Hav from France in the 20's.

"You seem to have lived merry old lives."
"In the early years, very merry. Things changed later, as the world changed. But when New Hav was really new we were intoxicated by it all. You must remember the Great War had not long ended, we were lucky to be alive at all, and here we were working together in this place almost as though our people had never been enemies."
We were strolling as we talked, in the arm of the evening among the straggly press of the boulevards, and their mingled smells of food, dirt, jasmine, and imperfectly refined gasoline. We had walked all through the Italian quarter, and down past the Schiller Fountain (in whose water ugly fat carp swam in the half-light -- "like submarines," said Sauvignon. "Don't you think so? yellow submarines") and we were in his own territory now, on the sidewalk opposite the Bristol. He took my arm. "You have half an hour?" he said. "Join me in an apertif--and a glimpse of the past."
We passed through the huge dark foyer, where an old porter rose to his feet as Sauvignon went by, and a clerk behind the reception desk, in opened-necked pale blue shirt and gold necklace, murmured a greeting; we passed the almost empty dining room, decorated with large now-brownish murals of Parisian life; and pushing open a brass-handled double door inlaid with figures of seahorses and mermaids, we entered the Bar 1924. It was absolutely packed. Every table was full, but an obliging waiter, recognizing my companion, squeezed a party of young Lebanese together and found room for us. The air was full of Turkish tobacco smoke; the waiter thrust before us a stained typewritten list of archaic cocktails -- Sledgehammers, Riproarers, Topper's Special, yes, Papa's Sting! Blaring above it all, deafeningly vigorous and brassy, there was jazz.
It was an elderly combo, which, spotting Sauvignon through the haze, dipped its instruments in welcome: a grizzled black trumpeter, a trombonist with rimless spectacles, a gentlemanly Chinese pianist, a graybeard playing bass and a middle-aged elf in a red shirt frenzied at the drums. They performed with a somewhat desperate enthusiasm, I thought, a repertoire of long ago. Sometimes somebody shouted a request --"Honeysuckle Rose!" "A-Train!" "Sentimental Journey!" The pianist had a small cup of coffee on his piano. The trumpeter occasionally groaned "yeah man...," but more in duty than in ecstasy. "Yellow Submarine!" called Sauvignon during a pause in the music, and as the trombonist broke into an approximate lyric - "Wealliveinayellersummerine"-- he raised his Manhattan toward me in toast. "To yesterday's youth," he said.
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