Review: Conundrum

Conundrum by Jan Morris

When it comes to conceptualizing my particular brand of femaleness (“womanliness” has a sturdy, childbearing feel to it that I can never rightly lay claim to), an image comes to mind—a long-haired young woman riding a white stag away into an early dawn. (Can you tell I read a lot of fantasy?) It manages to encompass all of my favorite female virtues; a life in rhythmic step with nature and a sense of exploration and, yes, freedom that comes with the whole cisgendered female deal. I’m opening with this for my review of Conundrum because Jan Morris’ conception of femaleness is as equally divorced from physical sex as mine is (although still related). While I hardly presume that the 2010s asexual American cisgendered female experience is similar to the 1970s heterosexual British transwoman experience, I have to admit I felt a lovely sense of camaraderie with Morris, although the differences in social mores is quite apparent.

Conundrum is Jan Morris’s account of her gender transition, starting from the moment the young Morris, born James, realized she had been born in the wrong body, continuing through her schooling, experiences with romance, and her work as a travel writer, and ending after her gender reassignment surgery.

While I haven’t heard much about Morris on this side of the pond, she’s famous in the United Kingdom for her travelogues—in Conundrum, she talks about how she never feels that she owns a place until she’s written a book about it. As you would hope from a prolific travel writer, Morris’s writing is light, elegant, and imbued with a wonderful sense of place. She describes her home of Wales lovingly and renders Venice in a way that retains its unique flavors—there’s a passage where Morris talks about a particular place in that city she likes to visit with friends after a good dinner with good wine that is extraordinarily intimate, warm, and cozy.

But, of course, any memoir dealing with your very soul is going to be extraordinarily intimate, and Morris’s skills of imagery come in very handy when explaining her gender identity. Morris frankly discusses how, even at the all male Christ Church in Oxford, she still found exalted images of women to relate to. (One of the most touching moments in the memoir is when a young Morris briefly comes to the conclusion that all boys must want to be girls, seeing how women are put on pedestals throughout history, literature, and even just in manners. She is quickly disillusioned.) Indeed, it’s almost a running theme in Conundrum that Morris finds herself in male-dominated or male-only spaces—at one point, she makes a crack about how she feels like an unconvincing heroine in drag when she enters the military. Morris, naturally, talks about the experience of being male-bodied versus female-bodied in some interesting and fresh ways—for instance, she thinks of the male body of having some sort of protection from the elements that the female body lacks; as an example, she talks about her sudden understanding of the attraction of sunbathing to women. Morris makes very sure to state that she never hated her male body, merely resented it: although the memories are fast fading, she contemplates it with the same sort of bemused detachment she views cities she has only visited, not possessed by writing a book about them.

While I usually feel some sort of camaraderie with other queer folk (something about the self-examination being queer usually requires), Morris has some asexual tendencies that took me by pleasant surprise—I’m so used to digging through fictional subtext to find people like me that it was just nice to hear it from a real person. Morris relates her confusion over the sheer importance of sex to cisgendered men, and is taken aback by how so many men—cultured, erudite, nice men—flipped through the first drafts of this memoir looking for the dirty bits (of which there are really none; Morris relates her first sexual experience by pondering the fact that she remembered the setting more than the actual act). She also finds that “one recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency, and sexual incongruity” (172), when considering her relationship with her wife, Elizabeth—the two were forced to divorce when Morris transitioned, but have recently remarried. She even ponders if downplaying the importance of sex in one’s life is the future… how can I say no to such a compliment to my people?

But Conundrum is not without its problems. Morris has some dated attitudes towards race—while I haven’t read any of her African travelogues, she initially starts off dismissive towards Africa but upgrades to a better, though still condescending, view of the people of Africa; still, she’s never overtly racist. But what I found most alarmingly was her casual attitude towards unwanted male attention after her transition—this might also be a differences of the times, but, after floating through Conundrum and being buoyed up by Morris’s attitude towards what we now call asexuality, it felt like running into a brick wall. It occurs towards the end of the book, when Morris discusses the first time she was kissed after her transition—not by her wife, but by an aggressive taxi cab driver who tells her she’s a good girl while she, paralyzed, simply blushes. It’s presented as a light-hearted anecdote, but it turned my stomach. While I wouldn’t warn someone off reading Conundrum because of this attitude, context is hugely important for this memoir—both the times and the fact that Morris transitioned late after being socialized as a privileged white male.

Bottom line: Jan Morris, the travel writer, relates the story of her gender transition in Conundrum, where she applies her gifts of setting a scene and imagery to the differences between being male-bodied and female-bodied and her journey towards being, well, who she really is. While I was personally delighted to find that Morris has, if not asexual tendencies, an understanding and appreciation for the asexual mindset, I was also a bit concerned about some of her dated views towards race and, yes, gender. Worth a read, especially if you want to understand being transgendered, but know the context.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Morris, Jan. Conundrum. New York, Harcourt Branch Jovanovich. 1974. Print.

One thought on “Review: Conundrum

  1. Ooh, I’ve just come from Nymeth’s review of this and found yours. You have similar problems, actually, with the book – Nymeth actually seems to have been more bothered by Morris’s assumptions of gender difference. I’m as sceptical about Morris’ views of the male/female experience as about Tiresias’s!

    I’d heard of Jan Morris but not realised that she was trans – I’ve not read any of her travel books, but have seen her book on Venice. Mind you, the bit about not feeling as though she ‘owns’ a place until she’s written about it strikes me as rather arrogant.

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