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London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
£8.99, 150 pages, ISBN 0-571-20946-7.
Université de Rouen
Conundrum was, of course, first published in 1974, but this
is a new edition, with a brand new and invaluable introduction by
the author herself. Jan Morris was originally called James Humphry
Morris, which is practically common knowledge. The back-cover blurb
says she is "one of Britain's best and most loved travel writers"
and that is no exaggeration. Indeed she is also probably the most
prolific: the list of her works fills an entire page, in extremely
small print. The autobiographical book Conundrum is the profoundly
moving and rightly celebrated account of Jamess long transformation,
from man to woman, from James to Jan. It shocked many readers when
it was originally released, but has now become a highly respected
classic, although I suppose it continues to offend people who are
opposed to sex-changes, on religious grounds for instance.
For the student of gender, such books are always invaluable, but this
one offers something extra: it is splendidly written, in Jan Morris's
quintessentially English style. For feminist constructionists like
myself, more or less psychoanalytical case histories or more or less
literary (auto)biographies of male-to-female transsexuals provide
a fascinating paradox: the great majority of them provide an explanation
/ justification which is a variation on the old "woman trapped
in a woman's body" essentialist cliché. Yet the very fact
that these people "pass" (in the strongest, politicized
sense, as in a black person who passes), that they are mistaken for
genetic females, is a powerful argument in favor of constructionism.
Morris is no exception to the rule. Chapter 1 begins with this sentence:
"I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I
had been born in the wrong body, and should really be a girl."
 And a few pages later, she recalls: "I declared myself to
be a girl in a boy's body."  She also writes that no-one really
knows why some people believe at an early age that "despite all
the physical evidence, they are really of the opposite sex."
 This tremendously dated sentence highlights the richness of the
material that has since been accumulated since. I suppose she could
argue that no-one still really knows, but it is certainly not through
lack of trying, and it does not stop dozens of researchers in biology
or the humanities from coming forward with dozens of theories on the
subject. To begin with, today people are more careful to distinguish
between sex and gender, and the two categories are constantly being
questioned. Even the use of the word "physical" should be
questioned, as the use of the words "anatomical", "physiological"
and "biological". Anne Fausto-Sterling for instance has
many edifying things to say about this. But as we shall see, Morris
does not always sound so dated, although she writes in the 2001 introduction:
"This book is already a period piece. It was written in the 1970s,
and is decidedly of the 1970s." [ix]
The following chapters, all about growing up in a stylish atmosphere,
singing in the terribly distinguished choir school of Christ Church
(Oxford) and being educated at Lancing, the very "posh"
public school (in the British sense, i.e. private), are equally interesting.
We learn without surprise that she was "rather an attractive
boy"I have always wanted to write such a grammatically
paradoxical sentencewho discovered "the pleasure of sex"
at school: "Inevitably, the English public school system being
what it is, I was the object of advances." 
Chapter 4 deals with Morris's army days, when s/he felt like a stranger
and imposter in a "man's world, the world of war and soldiery"
. This did not stop Morris from admiring "the military virtues"
and the "powerful sense of family". She writes that "the
English world had not yet come apart"  and describes a rather
civilized milieu (again, Morris is very English, even if her mother
was educated at Leipzig and even if she writes that she calls herself
Anglo-Welsh and prefers her Welsh side). There were in the military
gentlemanly protectors and opportunities for amateur anthropological
forays; Morris suffered little persecution in spite of her/his feeling
like some sort of undercover outsider:
I invite my women readers to imagine how they would themselves have
felt if, successfully disguised as a young man, they had been admitted
to this closed and idiosyncratic male society in their late teens.
For this is how I conceived my condition. 
the Army, Morris went to Oxford, of course, and continued pondering
her/his strange condition. The subsequent chapters encompass interrogations
of several natures, including the spiritual kind. Morris went through
periods of depression, feeling like a prisoner, occasionally contemplating
suicide. S/he never considered simply opting for homosexuality. There
is in Chapter 5 a passage I find slightly dubious, and strangely at
odds with what precedes and what follows:
I looked on the bright side generally, and adhered to the belief,
which I hold to this day, that self-analysis is often a mistake, and
leads one only down endless and unprofitable paths of speculation.
I did not query my condition, or seek reasons for it. 
But this chapter also contains gems like:
had reached the conclusion myself that sex was not a division but
a continuum, that almost nobody was altogether one sex or another,
and that the infinite subtlety of the shading from one extreme to
the other was one of the most beautiful of nature's phenomena. Sex
was like a biological pointer, but the gauge upon which it flickered
was that very different device, gender. If sex was a matter of glands
or valves, gender was psychological, cultural or in my own view spiritual.
If one's sex, I reasoned, fell into the right place along the scale
of gender, well and good; if it fell anomalously, too far one way
or the other, then there came conundrum. But if one could not shift
the scale, one could surely move the pointer. Gender might be beyond
definition: sex science could understand. 
This gave the book its title, and is followed by the exclamation:
"to alter the body!" Then Morris obtained the first estrogen
tablets. Sex acts were far from primordial, on the contrary. Morris
met and fell for Elizabeth, hiding nothing from her. They had five
children, and lost one. The pages that follow detail the gradual transformationwith
wife in towand the successive jobs, with different employers,
exotic travels (Everest and all), the writing, always. They are full
of basically conservative politically incorrect pronouncements that
will probably infuriate today's often more militant kind of lesbians,
gays, bisexual, transgender and queer folks. This is a far cry from
the writings and theories of people like Pat Califia, Kate Bornstein
or Susan Stryker. The latter's contribution to the Exeter Third Wave
Feminism Conference in July 2002 I remember fondly and vividly. Califia,
Bornstein and Stryker are if you will the postmodern answer to Morris's
modern stance. They are to Morris what Madonna is to Marilyn Monroe,
or Judith Butler to Simone de Beauvoir.
Chapter 12, coming after casual mentions of extraordinary meetings
(Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Che Guevera) and very interesting considerations
on places like Venice or on the feminine principle (whatever that
is), details the effects of the pills Morris took. The whole chapter
is available on the Internet somewhere, as it remains a favorite among
many transsexual readers. It notably encapsulates the confusion of
others, those whose gaze was on Morris, and who needed to
know the gender of the person they were facing. To this day I believe
there is nothing more upsetting for the average Westerner than not
being able to immediately cram in the two safe little boxes marked
"male" and "female" every individual in sight,
for obvious reasons. Chapter 12 concludes with the lines: "The
time had come, I thought, to move to a stage further. I had reached
the frontier between the sexes, and it was time for me tentatively
to explore life on the far side."  Chapter 16 takes us to
Casablanca in 1972 and the clinic of the legendary Dr. B., who is
more or less cryptically mentioned in many accounts of French transsexuals'
lives notably. Chapter 17 begins with the marvelous sentence: "Elizabeth
welcomed me home as though nothing in particular had happened [
. I'm sorry if I indulge in national clichés again, but
this sounds so English to me. Naturally the book concludes with Morris
facing the world as a woman, after the operation. Unless I am misinformed,
she still lives with her wifeI have always wanted to write such
a grammatically paradoxical sentenceand hates it when prying
reporters ask about her sex life. I myself would not have minded learning
a little bit more about the subject. The paragraph which concludes
the 2001 introduction is rather moving, and provides a new conclusion
to the book, but I do not want to spoil it for the reader.
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