“Say almost anything of Bruce Chatwin and the opposite is also true.” So determined his official biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, who spent eight years piecing together the endless dualities in the life of this highly secretive writer. Chatwin was both the prodigal son (read, young man in a hurry) and the wandering Jew (another classic English case of the Bolter)—a charming companion yet selfish in the extreme. An aesthete with a great gift for understanding and appreciating art, he survived financially throughout most of his life by the grubbiest of commercial dealings. A talker of epic volubility, he took up the most lonely and silent of occupations. A disciplined writer of hard-earned sentences and rhythm, he was equally capable of a senseless laziness that marred a work. He wrote three great books and followed the first two up with an impossibly poor one—the pendulum then swinging right back. A man who unquestionably loved his wife, he cheated on her (with men and women) as often as possible. Known entirely as a travel writer, he never actually wrote a travel book.

Charles Bruce Chatwin was born into middle-class solidity in 1940. His father, a successful lawyer, was off serving in the Royal Navy. Chatwin was educated at Marlborough, and, in 1958, went to work at Sotheby’s as a numbering porter. (He had hoped to read classics at Oxford, but with National Service ending, there was an extra generation of students and he would have had to defer at least two years.) The auction house was embarked on a major expansion—from four departments to fifteen—and Chatwin, showing a gift for valuing works, rose rapidly through the ranks and remade himself into a fashionable aesthete. His success afforded travel throughout Europe and across the Atlantic and provided an entrée into higher society. In 1965, he married the director’s assistant, Elizabeth Chanler, who was from an old American family.

Yet when his ascent tapered off (as such ascents must), he grew restless and assigned his frustration to the sordidness of selling art. He developed a psychosomatic eye ailment and spent six months in Africa. Then, in 1966, he gave up Sotheby’s and went to Edinburgh University to pursue a degree in archaeology. Despite the age gap and the difficulties of buckling down after years of high living, he was again a success, finishing top of his class the first year. But he was disappointed with fieldwork—he adored objects for their aesthetic beauty, and archaeology is all about their context—and academic life. In a wonderful 1967 letter to his wife about summer digs, he describes an Italian archaeologist who is another frequent generalizer: “I fear that his knowledge is as superficial as mine.”

Chatwin lacked a strong intellectual foundation, having always followed his whims as a reader and appreciator.

And that was ever the fear. Chatwin lacked a strong intellectual foundation, having always followed his whims as a reader and appreciator. He covered this up with rapid talking across numerous subjects, obscure references (often to his own adventures, real and imagined), and wild conjectures stated as fact. His comment on a Cistercian monastery in Provence is typical: “Whoever was ‘the mastermind’ at Le Thoronet has, in my view, to have seen the Seljuk madrassas in Anatolia on the way to the Second Crusade.” He had strong powers of concentration and could get up any subject, but it left him lacking deep knowledge and strong convictions. It also made him a perennial hunter of mentors—though he was intensely competitive and would quickly fancy an equal expertise. At Sotheby’s it had been John Hewett, who dominated the antiquities department, and then the director Peter Wilson. With archaeology, it was Stuart Piggott, who was rapidly replaced by Peter Levi, the poet and sometime Jesuit priest. He represented the next idealized life: writer and traveler. Levi had been commissioned to write a travel book about the Greek influence in Afghanistan and, in 1969, suggested Chatwin come with him to take pictures: “You can look at nomads and I can look at Greeks.”

For Chatwin had also been asked to curate an exhibition of nomadic art for Asia House in New York. He quit Edinburgh and decided to expand his catalog essay into a book on “human restlessness.” Again, he was lucky, finding a supportive agent (Deborah Rogers) and an interested publisher (Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who after reading a synopsis was “convinced it will be an important book.”) Chatwin left for Afghanistan full of high plans—and as he grew weary of Levi even contemplated a competing book about the country, though the proposal he circulated on his return was just as quickly discarded. For three years he worked at “The Nomadic Alternative,” in locales like Patmos, Mauretania, and rural Oregon (in a cabin on loan from the film director James Ivory, the latest mentor and at this time also a lover), but the finished work was a disaster. Beyond the untenable nature of its core claims—that human physiognomy is designed for movement, that settlement is unnatural, and that “the driving forces of history are the ways of the wandering savage”—the thing was just a mass of undigested material and scattered assertions. Maschler read the first fifty pages and found them “completely sterile. They were a chore to read and I imagine a chore to write.”

Chatwin was at loose ends and, as ever, in need of money. Since leaving Sotheby’s, he had lived on occasional commissions from Christie’s and from flipping works of art—as well as on money from his wife’s family. His savior was Francis Wyndham, who offered him a place on the Sunday Times magazine replacing David Sylvester as the advisor on art. In the tight-knit editorial department, Chatwin found his ideas accepted, and he was encouraged to write. He learned on the job doing features on figures like the fashion designer Madame Vionnet, Nadezhda Mandelstam, André Malraux, and Ernst Jünger. Many of these are collected in What Am I Doing Here (1989), Chatwin’s own selection of his piecework. Read decades later, they have little to recommend them. The 1973 Vionnet profile, for instance, relies on her quirky quotes for its momentum and is full of clunky lines: “The room is said to be the most exceptional art deco interior in Paris to have survived—with its owner—intact.”

But the same collection contains a marvel of nonfiction writing: “A Lament for Afghanistan” (1980), written in the wake of the Soviet invasion as the foreword to a reprint of Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana (1937). Byron’s book had been Chatwin’s bible since age fifteen, and, at twenty-two, he made his first journey to Afghanistan in imitation. (His trip with Levi was his third.) While dissecting Byron’s brilliance—“On reading The Road to Oxiana you end up with the impression that the Iranian plateau is a ‘soft centre’ that panders to megalomaniac ambitions in its rulers without providing the genius to sustain them”—he paid tribute to a country that had vanished into the violent arms of modernity. Of the Soviet invasion, he noted, “in time (everything in Afghanistan takes time), the Afghans will do something quite dreadful to their invaders.” But this would “not bring back the things we loved”:

We shall not lie on our backs at the Red Castle and watch the vultures wheeling over the valley where they killed the grandson of Genghiz. We will not read Babur’s memoirs in the garden at Istalif and see the blind man smelling his way around the rose bushes. Or sit in the Peace of Islam with the beggars of Gazar Gagh. We will not stand on the Buddha’s head at Bamiyan, upright in his niche like a whale in a dry-dock. We will not sleep in the nomad tent, or scale the Minaret of Jam. And we shall lose the tastes—the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt.

How did Chatwin advance from the ambitious mediocrity of his Times pieces to the impassioned, lapidary style of his best works? Some of it was practice and careful imitation of a small pantheon. He was deeply influenced by Hemingway’s early stories: mastering from them the habits of leaving out key information that the reader can intuit, of letting small details stand for large, and of pruning to spare essentials. He learned the power of lists and describing smells and gradations of color from Byron. He picked up cadences and descriptive techniques from Osip Mandelstam (whose Journey to Armenia often joined In Our Time and The Road to Oxiana in Chatwin’s travel luggage), Isaac Babel, and Chekhov. But the key was his slow discovery of how best to employ his narcissism.

Narcissism may be a fault, but it has its usefulness to the writer.

Narcissism may be a fault, but it has its usefulness to the writer, who must unquestionably believe in the general interest of the oddities he is placing on the page. Chatwin was a man who, in twenty-three years of marriage, never once helped with the dishes; who was an appallingly presumptive house guest, appearing whenever he felt like it, asking for coffee or lunch, and running up hefty international phone bills; who thought nothing of borrowing homes or money. With his first book, In Patagonia (1977), he learned how to deploy his self-absorption, taking readers on a hypnotic journey that is as much through his mind as through Patagonia.

Attending his father-in-law’s funeral in New York in late 1974, Chatwin had expense money from the Times for a story on the Guggenheim family. He headed, instead, to the vast southernmost region of South America. In Patagonia describes the trip and a spoof quest for a lost family heirloom, but it is really a study of the many impulses to leave your native land. In ninety-seven short chapters, Chatwin describes a controlled selection of people who have made Patagonia home, past and present. He meets numerous emigrants—from Wales, England, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Russia, the Baltics, and more—all dreaming of far-away places. A Swiss operetta singer, for instance:

At some negative turning point she had married a moon-faced Swede. They joined two failures in one and drifted towards the end of the world. Caught by chance in this eddy, they built the perfect cottage of his native Malmö, with its intelligent windows and vertical battens painted red with iron-oxide.

He falls in with constant travelers—a trucker, a hippie miner, gauchos—and investigates various historical figures: revolutionaries trying to bring European isms to the tip of the world and outlaws like Butch Cassidy finding a new open country as the American West grew too small. No aspect of the telling is accidental, and no detail less than symbolic. It is Chatwin’s nomad book by another means; what he had been unable to describe in the intellectual abstractions of scholarship becomes clear in elliptical stories.

In Patagonia was one of the most influential book of the 1970s: the key text in the silver age of travel writing. But it is not a travel book; Chatwin in no way related his actual journey and instead molded events to suit the exploring of an idea. The main figure is not even really Bruce Chatwin. In writing and rewriting, he created a desired persona—like a director lighting a starlet. He never gets rained upon or trapped endlessly waiting for a train or bus. He never meets dreary people or is at a loss for words. The book is a steady progression with events that don’t suit the main subject stricken from the record. Chatwin was arrested by the Chilean military police at one point; had an affair with the young Patagonian pianist Anselmo; traveled many weary miles between towns by foot, hitching, bus, and train: None are included.

Its great influence comes in equal parts from its being written in flight from the humdrum—legend has it Chatwin announced his departure with the telegram “Gone to Patagonia for four months” and who hasn’t longed to send such word to the office—and from the mistaken idea that the dazzling writing just sprang out of an attractive young man (another legend, of effortlessness, that Chatwin cultivated). But the writing is dazzling:

It was lovely summery weather the week I was [in Buenos Aires]. The Christmas decorations were in the shops. They had just opened the Perón Mausoleum at Olivos; Eva was in good shape after her tour of European bank-vaults. Some catholics had said a Requiem Mass for the soul of Hitler and they were expecting a military coup.

And the best parts memorably aphoristic:

In the 1890s a crude version of Darwin’s theory, which had once germinated in Patagonia, returned to Patagonia and appeared to encourage the hunting of Indians. A slogan: “The Survival of the Fittest,” a Winchester and a cartridge belt gave some European bodies the illusion of superiority over the far fitter bodies of the natives.

The book was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and Chatwin embarked on The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), a work about the nineteenth-century Brazilian slave trader Francisco da Silva—with, as ever, the theme of wandering and longing for imagined homes. Da Silva had held the slaving concession from the king of Dahomey (modern Benin). Chatwin spent time in both Benin (even witnessing a coup) and Bahia, where da Silva was born, but could never find his way through a story lacking any strong personal element. Only turning it into a semi-novel allowed him to finish. In Patagonia is stately with its brief, dense chapters.Viceroy is clumsy and seems mostly driven by obscure vocabulary—“harmattan,” “dados,” “bombax,” “omphalos,” “knop,” “krumen,” “puncheon,” “fetor.”

The book was not a success and would be unreadable were it not brief. The reception and Chatwin’s troubles writing nonfiction led him to try his hand at a novel about a place he knew well: the Welsh border country. Here his literary powers and his subject clicked. The story of twin brothers, On the Black Hill (1982) is a portrait in polarities and an attempt to show time as cyclical rather than linear. Born in 1900, Lewis and Benjamin Jones experience almost the whole of the twentieth century as doings remote from their Welsh farm; all that is human is experienced and very little of the topical is anything but tragedy or farce:

Then, one lovely spring morning, the war came to an end with a bold headline in the Radnorshire Gazette:
Brigadier tells of a 3-hour struggle with titanic fish
For readers who wished to keep abreast of international events, there was a shorter column on the far side of the page: “Allies enter Berlin—Hitler dead in Bunker—Mussolini killed by partisans.”

Chatwin had known the Welsh borderlands since youth. Freed from having to write around facts, he poured forth a prose poetry. It is his finest book and full of memorable set-pieces. The chapter describing the post–World War I peace celebrations is like early Waugh in the violence of its humor and the way it builds. A plane flight late in the novel suggests, not unintentionally, Out of Africa. And for all the differences—straight fiction, pastoral setting, traditional literary models—On the Black Hill is also the same book again. In Patagonia and The Viceroy of Ouidah investigate exile and escape; the Welsh tale is about the opposite extreme, staying at home. Chatwin saw his life as a veering between these, and all his books are deeply autobiographical. The Jones brothers are both self-portraits of the author—an early draft of the novel even had one brother homosexual and one straight.

Chatwin was also still obsessed with his nomad project’s failure, and in the wake of On the Black Hill’s positive notices, he took up his old notebooks and ran away to Australia. The book he wrote from this journey, Songlines (1988), was an international bestseller and is terrible. It takes the form of an English writer named Bruce Chatwin going to Australia to find a quiet place to look back at his notebooks from a failed work about nomadism. (He quietly called it a novel; everyone assumed it was a travel book.) It opens with him meeting Arkady, a well-educated Australian of Russian descent, who works tirelessly for Aboriginal causes and describes the nomadic and creative habits of the Aboriginals. After a random chapter of “Bruce” describing what Australia meant to him as a boy, we get 150 pages of Ark taking him around. He falls for various women, meets a variety of Aborigines, gets cut off in the backcountry by a flood, and settles down for a few weeks to look back over his notebooks. The story just peters out: the last hundred pages are mostly an anthology of extracts. Characters who were introduced and left in extremis are never mentioned again. The nomad material leads nowhere.

It is a mess. Where In Patagonia had none of the quotidian details, Songlines, brief as it is, has all too many: “Next morning the cloud had cleared and, since the motel did not serve breakfast till eight, I went for a run.” And then there is the pretentious dialogue:

“Renunciation,” I said, “even at this late date, can work.”

 “I’d agree with that,” said Arkady. “The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future.”

There are lovely passages and descriptions—about hunting with the Nemadi in Mauretania and his first trip to the Sudan—but the whole is depressingly slight. I would say that Chatwin must have laughed to get away with it, only he became deathly ill just after he finished it. He had contracted aids (likely from taking part in the anonymous gay sex of the Mapplethorpe scene in 1980s New York) and nearly died before the disease was diagnosed. He went to great lengths to deny his illness, fearing the public exposure of his sexuality.

As a distraction from his struggles, his wife suggested he write a short story about a collector he had met in Prague in the 1960s. Utz grew into a magical novella. From youth, the Czech Kaspar Utz is obsessed with Meissen porcelain and steers his way through the pitfalls of Nazism and Communism to maintain his hoard. He comes to identify with his commedia dell’arte figurines and plays his own version of Harlequin (though in this tale a combined Clown/Columbine gets her man). Chatwin was back in a world he knew well and able to express many of his longest held beliefs about beauty and art: “The collector’s enemy is the museum curator. Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years and their collections returned to circulation.” In a letter about the novella (actually a complaint to his publisher about all the nuances that a blurbist missed), he noted, “Art collecting = idol worship = equals blasphemy against the created world of God.”

It is a sprightly portrait of this writer’s world: full of good snobbery, places, and ideas.

Utz is filled with marvelous minutiae about art and Old Europe (especially the wünderkammer of Prague) and the writing is again a delight: “If you happened to be Jewish and a survivor of the death-camps, this branded you as a Nazi collaborator” is a taut summation of Czechoslovakia in the era of the Slánsky Trial. But Utz was an Indian summer project. As he grew sicker, Chatwin wrote just a few more semi-fictional tales of the art world—“The Bey” and “The Duke of M” are as tempting as Utz. They became part of the anthology What Am I Doing Here, published shortly after his death in January 1989. It was the first production of the Chatwin industry, which has churned out many more pages than the writer himself ever did: a second collection of journalism, volumes of notebooks and photographs, memoirs, two unauthorized biographies and then Nicholas Shakespeare’s exhaustive official one (1999). Now the biographer and the widow have collaborated on a collection of letters, Under the Sun.[1]

It is a sprightly portrait of this writer’s world: full of good snobbery, places, and ideas. The gems are the half-dozen letters where he talks about his books in depth, though what’s most quotable is the literary gossip. From Yaddo to Paul Theroux: “Your name, bandied about the breakfast table at this colony of insecure and initiated writers and artists, prompts me to send a card to say hello. V strange. A lot of lady artists—vaginal iconography in sand and acrylic.” To his wife: “One could easily develop into an exclusive foreword-merchant: for a photograph book on Macchu Pichu; for Clemente’s paintings of S. India; for the Sierra Club Calendar; and latest for Jackie O’s book on Indian costume.”

There is, of course, much to despair of—endless whining about money, work, publishers, people, places; the use of his wife as a permanent dogsbody. (One longs to see her letters back to him.) There’s also almost nothing of his love affairs. Under the Sun shows how tightly Chatwin compartmentalized his life. The majority of these letters are public performances rather than intimate communication. But his enthusiasms are infectious and, with judicious headnotes, Under the Sun proves the ideal biography of a major minor talent like Chatwin’s.

The letters also answer the charge laid regularly at Chatwin’s feet: that he was a fabulist and his most famous books (In Patagonia and Songlines) somehow discounted for not being pure reportage. The letters demonstrate that he was never a travel writer, but a writer who traveled. Like Saul Bellow or Hemingway, Chatwin closely reworked the events of his life. He was, moreover, a permanent performer: always telling stories, always editing, always honing—you see it as anecdotes get repeated in the letters. His Edinburgh mentor Stuart Piggott thought him “genuinely incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction. It wasn’t pretence.” Piggott cited a drunken evening in Russia. Chatwin’s recitation of a Shakespeare sonnet to the wife of an archaeologist in Leningrad became in the writing the opening lines of Twelfth Night to the archaeologist’s sister in Moscow. Hardly the stuff of libel.

Nor was it done entirely to make himself seem finer. The loveliest passage in “A Lament for Afghanistan” comes in Tashkurgan:

It was a very hot and dusty afternoon and Peter was looking for traces of the Bactrians. “Go and find your Greeks,” I said. “Give me your Marvell and I’ll find a garden”—where I really did stumble on melons as I passed and had green thoughts in a green shade.

I used to doubt that it was Marvell: too perfect to be able to quote “The Garden.” And in Shakespeare’s biography we do indeed learn that Peter Levi wasn’t traveling with a volume of Marvell. It was Chatwin himself who had brought the poems.

[1]Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare; Viking, 560 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 7, on page 22
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