Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris

Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

I am not a big reader of travel books – in fact, the few I’ve read I have done so solely because they were written by my favourite author, Lawrence Durrell. His approach to travel writing – and I have no real idea if it is common practice, or an idiosyncracy of Durrell’s – is to evoke the feel of a place as much by describing the characters, often expatriate, who live there as it is through writing of the landscape, culture or history. In Last Letters from Hav, Morris takes a similar approach to her topic. It seems entirely appropiate as the Mediterranean city of Hav has been variously informed throughout the centuries by the histories and cultures of many different nations. In effect, all its natives are expatriate. Hav is a remarkable place.

It is also completely fictitious.

According to Morris, Hav is located on a headland depending from Anatolia, and has been variously occupied by the Ancient Greeks, Arabs, Venetians, Russians, Turks and French. And probably more. It was originally settled by Circassians, and its name is derived from the Celtic for “summer” (the Welsh is haf). But according to a map given at the front of the book, it seems it’s the Arabs who have had the most impact on the city – the Old City is called the Medina (which means “town”), and a slum-like area to the north is known as the Balad (which means “place, town, district, country”).

In Last Letters from Hav, Morris spends six months in the city getting to know it in order to write about it. Her writings are “last letters” because she is forced to leave by – civil war? a coup d’etat? No one seems to know, though the incident is later referred to as the Intervention. The last line of the book is, “I looked behind me then, back over the peninsula: and like grey imperfections on the southern horizon, I saw the warships coming.”

Prior to that, Morris meets a number of the city’s more celebrated residents, most of whom recount anecdotes from the city’s past. It was, apparently, visited by a number of famous people, from Hemingway to (allegedly) Hitler, from Shelley to Tolstoy. DH Lawrence wrote in 1922 of one of Hav’s architectural marvels, the House of the Chinese Master, “A hideous thing. Restless, unsatisfied. And yet one could not help smiling at the vivid, brisk and out-flinging insolence of it.”

There is an astonishing layering of detail in Last Letters from Hav, enough certainly to evoke a real place. And it’s the small facts, such as the Lawrence quote above, which seem the most convincing. The stories told to Morris also have the ring of authenticity. One bar in Hav, for example, serves a cocktail named Papa’s Sting, invented by Hemingway on his visit to the city (in fact, he invented the Papa Doble daiquiri on a visit to Cuba).

However, when you step back and look at the big picture… Hav becomes a less convincing creation. It has a lot of Beirut in it, perhaps a little of some Imperial Russian holiday resort, a soupçon of Paris, and no doubt some Istanbul too. It seems Levantine in character, yet also there are echoes of Edwardian grandeur. Which is all very plausible in itself. But Morris further decorates her confection with Weimar Republic Germans, ancient Chinese explorers, Romany troglodytes, and ancient Spartan artefacts. It’s too much. Anatolia may be the cross-roads of the ancient world, and the Black Sea coast was once where the European smart set went for their holidays – but to munge so much into a single remote headland seems somewhat implausible. Perhaps this was Morris’s intent.

Or perhaps not – sometimes the prose falls into the same trap, and there’s one adjective or adverb too many. Morris does not have Durrell’s genius for describing the landscape, but she is a less judgmental chronicler of those she meets. Hav’s Caliph, whose actual claim to the position is the subject of much, and violent, dispute, seems more of a Westernised playboy than the heir to an Islamic ruling dynasty, but Morris makes no comment. The same is true of the city’s other notable citizens – Morris enjoys their quirks, and happily repeats their anecdotes, but there’s no editorialising. Durrell was a man of fixed opinions, and it comes across strongly in his travel writing. In books such as Bitter Lemons, Prospero’s Cell or Reflections on a Marine Venus, on occasion his disapproval is plainly stated.

It’s easy to forget when reading Last Letters from Hav that Hav is not a real place. That is the book’s greatest achievement. If the city seems a somewhat archaic place for the world of 1985, if the book harkens back to travel writings of fifty years earlier, it’s difficult to complain given that Hav and its history and its peoples are entirely invented.

The edition of Last Letters from Hav I read was one half of an omnibus with ‘Hav of the Myrmidons’, published in 2006 under the title Hav. It was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2007, but lost out to M John Harrison’s Nova Swing. (For the record, two of the six books in the shortlist were by women that year.) My copy of Hav, I received as a swap for another book on I had intended to read it and then swap it on. But I will be keeping it.