Feb/Mar 2011

Wanderer Fantasy

The peripatetic genius of Bruce Chatwin comes alive in his letters

Michael Dirda


Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989) may have been the last important writer in English to model his prose after Hemingway's. When he wrote, he chiseled away everything except what he wanted the reader to see. Employing lean, declarative sentences and short paragraphs, Chatwin's prose relied almost wholly on exact word choice and careful sentence rhythms. There's no clutter, no mush, no padding, nothing overemphatic. Even the Shakers could learn from Chatwin's simplicity and clarity. Take, for instance, this brief Buenos Aires vignette from an early chapter of his travel classic In Patagonia: "By day the city quivered in a silvery film of pollution. In the evenings boys and girls walked beside the river. They were hard and sleek and empty-headed, and they walked arm in arm under the trees, laughing cold laughter, separated from the red river by a red granite balustrade."

For many admirers, it can be hard to distinguish Chatwin the writer from Bruce the golden boy, the heartthrob of six continents. In his twenties, the elfin Chatwin worked at Sotheby's auction house, where he was known to possess an eye for art of all kinds—ancient pots, Peruvian feather capes, ivory carvings, Impressionist paintings. But as Chatwin wrote to a colleague when he resigned, "Change is the only thing worth living for. Never sit your life out at a desk. Ulcers and heart condition follow." Disgruntled with the art business, he left to spend a couple of years studying archaeology and anthropology at Edinburgh, then abandoned his studies to write for London's Sunday Times magazine.

As a journalist, Chatwin specialized in profiles and features. He covered Indira Gandhi on the campaign trail, interviewed aesthete-adventurers like André Malraux and Ernst Jünger, spent an afternoon with couturier Madeleine Vionnet. Much of this work for hire was brought together in two collections: What Am I Doing Here (1989) and Anatomy of Restlessness (1996). They still make for splendid reading. In fact, the classicist Robin Lane Fox, in a brief note included among the delicious letters now gathered in Under the Sun, confesses to Chatwin that he actually prefers those early pieces: "I think you are better in fragments than in a full-flown novel, but best of all I thought you were better in full-blown features." Even when the articles were given silly titles like "It's a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World," the Chatwinesque sentences leap forth. In an essay called "Heavenly Horses," Chatwin describes the barbarians who would devastate the China of Emperor Wu-Ti: "Without provocation their mounted horsemen would spill over the Wall, swoop on farmsteads 'like flocks of crows,' spatter the countryside with blood, truss up their loot and disappear into fogs."

Click to enlarge

Bruce Chatwin

From childhood, Chatwin had been obsessed with man's apparently innate restlessness. In the longest letter in this substantial volume, he presents editor Tom Maschler with the virtual outline for a possible book about nomadism. "The question I will try to answer is 'Why do men wander rather than sit still?'" While he worked for many years on this magnum opus, the text remained, in the view of his agent, Deborah Rogers, leaden and dull.

The day came, however, when Chatwin—according to unconfirmable legend—sent his Sunday Times editor, Francis Wyndham, a telegram: "Gone to Patagonia for four months." This journey, during which he hoped to discover the truth about a piece of supposed brontosaurus skin he'd been shown as a boy, would change his life. When published, In Patagonia (1977) proved a sensation, eventually winning Britain's prestigious Hawthornden Prize. In a letter here, Chatwin calls it his "Wonder Voyage": "All the stories and characters were chosen because they illustrate some particular aspect of wandering and/or exiles." Writing to his wife, Elizabeth, while still in Patagonia, Chatwin gets quite carried away:

You would think from the fact that the landscape is so uniform and the occupation (sheep-farming) also, that the people would be correspondingly dull. But I have sung "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in Welsh in a remote chapel on Christmas Day, have eaten lemon curd tartlets with an old Scot (who has never been to Scotland) but has made his own bagpipes and wears the kilt to dinner. I have stayed with a Swiss ex-diva who married a Swedish trucker who lives in the remotest of all Patagonian valleys, decorating her house with murals of the lake of Geneva. I have dined with a man who knew Butch Cassidy and other members of the Black Jack Gang, I have drunk to the memory of Ludwig of Bavaria with a German whose house and style of life belongs rather to the world of the Brothers Grimm. I have discussed the poetics of Mandelstam with a Ukrainian doctor missing both legs. . . . I have listened to the wild outpourings of the Patagonian archaeologist, who claims the existence of a. the Patagonian unicorn b. a protohominid in Tierra del Fuego (Fuego pithicus patensis) 80 cm high.

In the pages of In Patagonia, all this litanized material took on extraordinary vivacity through Chatwin's laconic, military style: ninety-seven short chapters; sharp, Tacitus-like sentences and paragraphs; a painterly feel for place; and, not least, the dryly ironic tone that turns lapidary observation into worldly-wise commentary: "The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild—five names taken at random from among the R's—told a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains."

Chatwin's next book, The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), lightly fictionalized the bloody history of a Brazilian slaver who became the richest man in Dahomey yet died a ruined, embittered man. In a letter, Chatwin reminds his American editor that it "is not a novel but a TALE." Reviewers complained of an occasional sententiousness—ever the danger for the writer of compact, aphoristic sentences. After these two books about exotic locales, the pastoral novel On the Black Hill (1982) lyrically chronicled the lives of twin brothers who never leave their farm on the border of Wales and England. It was likened to Thomas Hardy and awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Yet readers hungered for a return to the more personal vein of In Patagonia. In 1987, Chatwin delivered The Songlines, an account of a month or so spent in Australia trying to understand the mystical system by which Aborigines make their way across the outback. It incorporated many of his long-held ideas about nomadism and became a best seller.

"In Alice Springs—a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers—I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals." So the book opens, sounding for all the world like travel literature. Except it isn't. "In order to compress my ideas into a manageable form," Chatwin explained in an introduction to a signed limited edition, "I chose to write an imaginary dialogue which takes place on an imaginary journey. To call it—or all of it—fiction is not strictly true. To call it non-fiction would be an outrageous lie. I would like, if possible, for it to be read as an 'experimental story.'" In a letter, he refers to the text as "a complete hybrid between fiction and philosophy." Apart from the very different prose style, it frequently recalls the work of W. G. Sebald, who also regularly mixed history, philosophical essay, imaginative extrapolation, and personal experience. Still, one is slightly disconcerted when Father Dan O'Donovan states, in one of the footnotes to a letter collected in Under the Sun, that virtually everything said about him in the book is "purest fantasy."

Like many novels—and most travel literature—The Songlines springs to life through its subsidiary characters. Out in the desert, a tough police inspector pumps iron and reads Spinoza's Ethics for fun. A randy old political activist intones a passage from Marx as grace before meals. When an Aboriginal foundling, given the name Flynn, becomes a Catholic priest, he studies theology in Rome, then returns to Australia to head up a mission. Once home, he goes native with a vengeance, enlists in radical politics, and eventually takes up with a girl named Goldie—but only after writing a letter, "in faultless Latin," requesting the pope excuse him from his vows.

Still, it is Australia's geography and its Aboriginal people that particularly consume Chatwin as he tries to understand the "question of questions: the nature of human restlessness."

What I learned—in some 20 years as a modern nomad through Africa, Asia, South America and Australia—seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us—from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe—for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

Some ponderous theorizing about man's nature and our longing for our desert "home" nearly sinks the later pages of The Songlines. But Chatwin himself had very much been, as he suggests, a pilgrim on the earth, constantly on the go. Over the course of his life, he trekked through Afghanistan, was caught up in an insurrection in Benin, did historical research in Brazil, enjoyed a raja's hospitality in India, and experienced a religious epiphany on Mount Athos in Greece. He even worked for a while in a cabin in Oregon, where he would hike in the nude. Meanwhile, Elizabeth kept the home fires burning, and the wandering lad would periodically return home to Holwell Farm or a flat in London.

In his correspondence, Chatwin is often bossy, constantly fussing with travel schedules, distinctly self-centered. Elizabeth (who coedited this collection) remarks in a footnote: "He'd suddenly come down from the top floor and say, 'Where's the coffee?' or 'What's for lunch?' He wanted to be waited on all the time." What's more, she notes, for a self-professed nomad "he was very untidy at loading things. You should have seen his baggage. He had no system at all. It was all jumbled together." The writer Gerald Brenan succinctly characterized him as "a man enclosed like an insect in a tight coating of chitin—totally insensitive." Yet Chatwin was devoted to his godson, to whom he addressed a series of playful postcards over the years, and when the boyfriend of a friend's daughter was killed in a car crash, Chatwin was the only person to send a letter of sympathy to the girl.

In an unexpected complement to his gypsy soul, Chatwin the writer could grow compulsive about finding just the right working space. Ideally, he would have liked "a courtyard, a flat roof with walls with a room open to the sky, 2 bedrooms (1 a library-cum-bedroom) and a living-room-cum-kitchen with an open fire. All simplicity itself like that Portuguese architecture from the Alentejo."

Chatwin's letters are often mildly flirtatious, with men and women of all ages. He can sound distinctly precious, too: "One day before Christmas I mean to go to the hawking centre in Newent. They train eagles like the Kirghiz—imagine!" At one point he recites Sanskrit verses in Sanskrit. His literary taste was impeccable: Racine, Turgenev, Babel. He called Flaubert's story "Un Coeur simple the "best thing written in the 19th century—and ours?" Little surprise, then, that this self-described "miniaturist" tore up page after handwritten page in his quest for verbal perfection. His three favorite travel books were a collection of poetry, The Open Road, edited by E. V. Lucas; Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana (famously described by Paul Fussell as the Waste Land of travel literature); and Osip Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia.

Chatwin, as famous for his schoolboy good looks as for his prose and his wanderlust, clearly loved Elizabeth but was seldom faithful to her. He slept with African women and Australian men, hung out with Robert Mapplethorpe in the New York gay world, and, at some point, was infected with HIV. He grew ill, then recovered for a year or so. When the disease returned, it affected his brain: He spoke of becoming a lay brother in the Orthodox Church, then impulsively spent thousands of pounds on art. He told one friend after a day of shopping mania: "Tomorrow, musical instruments, women's clothes and incunables."

Yet before he died in 1989 from AIDS at the age of forty-eight, Chatwin produced one last book, a brilliant short novel about collecting called Utz. "With so many 'cooked-up' books knocking around," he once wrote, "I don't really believe in writing unless one has to." As in the past, Chatwin extrapolated from an event in his own life. On a journey through what was then Czechoslovakia, a young art expert is told to look up a private collector of Meissen figurines named Utz. He does so, visits the old man's apartment, where his porcelain "dwarfs" are displayed, and sometime later starts to reconstruct this crotchety character's history. Neatly, Chatwin modulates into and out of Utz's point of view, describing the birth of his collecting urge, his subterfuges to preserve his collection during World War II, his vain effort to escape cold-war Prague, and the final disposition of his property.

All of this is enlivened by an almost Nabokovian mix of gravitas and humor. Here, for instance, Utz fantasizes about a sad yet still beautiful woman he has glimpsed at Vichy:

He spent the rest of the afternoon . . . attempting to compose a history for her. He imagined the downward spiral of emigre life: the rented apartment in Monaco; later, when the jewels ran out, the lodgings in Paris where her father drove a taxi and played chess after hours. To pay for his medical bills, she had sacrificed herself to the businessman who kept her in a certain style, but also kept a younger mistress. He had taken the mistress to the Riviera and sent his wife, who was childless, to Vichy.

In this deceptively intricate, very European novella, the former Sotheby's art expert beautifully evokes the pleasure of investing one's life in objects and, through them, of forgetting personality, history, politics. Yet Chatwin ultimately rejects this unnatural passion for things. A solitary vice, collecting deflects love from the human. Things are finally "the changeless mirror in which we watch ourselves disintegrate." In the tale's climax, Utz himself has to choose between flesh and porcelain.

Much has already been written about Chatwin—a superb memoir by his editor Susannah Clapp, a witty if immensely long biography by Nicholas Shakespeare (who also coedited Under the Sun), reminiscences by such notable friends as Paul Theroux and Salman Rushdie. Indeed, as the correspondence here shows, Chatwin got around and usually went first class: His intimates included filmmakers James Ivory and Werner Herzog, as well as such cosmopolitan writers as Gregor von Rezzori, Shirley Hazzard, Roberto Calasso, Murray Bail, Susan Sontag, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Above all, though, these letters allow us to hear Chatwin's voice one last time—as in this dispatch: "Kasmin marvelously well behaved in Haiti—as he had to be because the silly ass went out into a carnival crowd—despite my warning—with a wallet containing 800 bucks in cash and travellers' cheques, and we were knocked over by four transvestites wearing Fidel Castro masks and relieved of it. I paid thereafter. Mad about Haiti."

A no-less-welcome pleasure of Under the Sun lies in its secondary matter. There are connecting passages that allow the book to function as a biography, while the footnotes offer their own delights, such as this one for Stephen Tennant: "British aesthete and eccentric (1906–87) who spent much of his latter years in bed in Wilsford Manor, designing jackets for a novel set in Marseilles that he never wrote: Lascar, A Story of the Maritime Boulevard, A Story You Must Forget."

We mustn't, however, forget Bruce Chatwin. He was far more than just a pretty face, and his handful of books remain elegant minor masterpieces. His letters, nevertheless, remind us that he was hardly a natural classicist. Instead they show us an ecstatic Chatwin, always excited, even overexcited, by writing and ideas, by people and places, a man constantly on the move intellectually as well as physically, restless and impassioned to the last.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book columnist for the Washington Post.

Advertisement