With the publication in 1977 of his first book, "In Patagonia," the virtually unknown British writer Bruce Chatwin became an instant literary celebrity, and remained one until his death 11 years later of complications arising from AIDS. Today, more than two decades later, his star has dimmed a bit - as always happens in literary circles, a few vultures have flown in to gnaw away at his corpus - but when one considers that between 1977 and 1988 he published five books, and that these have been supplemented by four more posthumous ones as well as three biographies, he remains a formidable if enigmatic presence.
Now we have this fat collection of letters, edited by his widow, Elizabeth Chatwin, and Nicholas Shakespeare, the author of "Bruce Chatwin" (1999), the most recent of the biographies. There is some lovely stuff in it, but it makes a less significant contribution to that corpus than its immense bulk would suggest. To be sure, it gives a strong sense of the "itchy feet" that kept Chatwin forever on the move throughout his adult life, of the passionate commitment he had to his writing and the obsessive care with which he refined it, of the complexity of his emotional and sexual relationships. But there is also a huge amount of ephemera - terse postcards, itineraries, money matters - that could and should have been pruned. Like "Saul Bellow: Letters," published last fall, "Under the Sun" reminds us that not everything written by an accomplished writer merits publication, and leaves one wishing that the editors had exercised more discrimination in making their selections.
Chatwin was born in England in 1940 to middle-class parents who clearly treasured him and gave him strong emotional support throughout his life, as he wended his somewhat quixotic way toward the writing career that ultimately awaited him. In the late 1950s and early '60s, he worked at Sotheby's, where he was only intermittently happy but where he met Elizabeth Chanler, an American, whom he married in 1965, and where, the editors report, he learned "how to look at and handle a work of art, describe it concisely and to judge its market value" - lessons that assumed increasing importance as he developed a style of writing that depended heavily on acute observation of the physical world. In 1966 he left Sotheby's to study archaeology, which he did in Edinburgh for a couple of years without getting a degree.
Instead he went to work as a feature writer for the magazine section of the Sunday Times, then one of the hottest, hippest publications in British journalism, and set off on the travels that ultimately made him mildly famous. At the same time he worked steadily on what he intended to be a book about nomadism, examining "what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness." To a prospective editor he said, "The question I will try to answer is 'Why do men wander rather than sit still?' "
Chatwin's real subject, however, was not nomadism but himself. When he was still at Sotheby's, he told a friend: "Change is the only thing worth living for. Never sit your life out at a desk. Ulcers and heart condition follow." And he followed his own counsel to the letter. In 1972, interviewing the noted designer and architect Eileen Gray (for a profile that never got written), he noticed a map of Patagonia in her salon and said, "I've always wanted to go there," to which she replied, "So have I. Go there for me." Whether it is really true, as he claimed, that he wired his editor at the Times, "Gone to Patagonia for four months" remains an engaging mystery, but go there he did, at the end of 1974.