Jonathan Yardley

"The Letters of Bruce Chatwin"

Bruce Chatwin in 1987
Bruce Chatwin in 1987
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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 13, 2011

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.

The book that resulted is a minor classic, but an unclassifiable one. It was commonly received, by reviewers and readers alike, as a travel book, but Chatwin resented being pigeonholed. To a friend he said: "Of course, 'In Patagonia' isn't meant to be a travel book, but. . . I have been so browbeaten by people saying it is a travel book that I half came to believe it - or believed that I had failed in my purpose - to write an allegorical journey on the classic pattern (narrator goes in search of beast etc)."

Doubtless the pigeonholing was inevitable, since in "In Patagonia" and his subsequent books Chatwin always sought out exotic or little-known places. His chief interest may not have been to give readers armchair tours of these places, but that is what many of them found in these books - and who can blame them? He does not seem to have believed, as his friend and contemporary Paul Theroux did, that it is the journey, not the destination, that matters, but he took readers on journeys all the same, and many people were more than happy to travel with him.

Those who knew him were more or less equally enchanted and vexed by him. One friend wrote that he was a demanding visitor, expecting to be fed and running up vast long-distance telephone bills: "At the end of the visit he would offer 10,000 lire (about £4), saying he hadn't used the 'phone much. But his friends didn't mind because we were so fond of him, though he was selfish and self-centred like most artists are." One of his male lovers said: "There was nobody like him. He was gorgeous and he knew it. To be clever, witty and bright is a devastating combination." A fellow writer recalled a couplet by Oliver Goldsmith: "And still they gazed and still the wonder grew/That one small head could carry all he knew."

He was a charmer, but he was also full of himself and given to occasional tart and sometimes contradictory opinions. He felt that he got more perceptive reviews in the United States than in England; he cherished his American editor, Elisabeth Sifton, as an alter ego; and he happily accepted American royalties, yet he saw the Unites States as "the most corrupt decadent country in the world, well on the way to ruin, if you ask me." Perhaps so, but a far stronger case can be made for this: "English newspapers are dreadful. Unreadable, so why should one presume to write for them? The besetting sin of all English writers is their fatal attraction for periodicals, their fascination for reviews, and their passion for bickering in print." Let's close, though, with this marvelous passage, written from Afghanistan in 1963 when he was young and unknown:

"What is extraordinary in this last outpost of untrammelled orient is that all are Western. A genius has bought up a gigantic horde of American ladies dresses and has sold them here. A student of modern fashion could find no better museum of modern dress. From Maine to Texas, from Chicago to Hollywood the wardrobes of thousands of American ladies over forty years are hanging into the breeze. Gowns that could have been worn by Mary Pickford, shiny black velvet with no back, or by Clara Bow, red lace and bead fringes, Jean Harlow, flamingo pink crepe off the shoulder with sequin butterflies on the hips, Shirley Temple, bows and pink lace, the folk weave skirts they square-danced in, the crinolines they waltzed in, fiery sheaths they tangoed in, utility frocks they won the War in, the New Look, the A line, the H line, the X line, all are there, just waiting for some Afghan lady to descend from her mud-built mountain village and choose the dress of her dreams all to be closely concealed under her yashmak."



T he Letters of Bruce Chatwin

Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare

Viking. 554 pp. $35

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