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Young man on the make

We are not going to agree about Bruce Chatwin.

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare

Cape, pp.554, 25

We are not going to agree about Bruce Chatwin. The five books he published in his lifetime are, to some readers, magnificent works of art, setting out grand ideas about the human condition with reference to a closely observed local type — a Czech porcelain collector, Australian nomads, a displaced slave-king, taciturn British farmers and the communities of remotest Patagonia. In other eyes, he was an absurd pseud and show-off, whose work never extended much beyond a tremulous aesthete’s gush over exotic objects, half-digested history and anthropology.

It is fair to say that the latter view has gain- ed ground since his death, and even his most passionate defenders would concede that his work was advanced, during his lifetime, by an unusually compelling personality. His books do not enjoy much esteem among professional students of the communities he wrote about. Few anthropologists have a kind word to say about The Songlines. But for all his absurdity, his books remain highly readable. He was a reporter of considerable talent, who had the wit to go to some very interesting places.

The outlines of Chatwin’s life are well known. Though it is sometimes assumed, from his energetic tuft-hunting in later days, that his origins were somehow low or even shameful to him, in fact he came from a perfectly respectable background, and was born in Sheffield, in 1940. After school, he worked at Sotheby’s, where his talent was quickly recognised. He married an American colleague, Elizabeth Chanler, to the astonishment of everyone who knew him.

A brief and uncongenial spell studying archaeology at Edinburgh was followed by a stretch at the Sunday Times magazine in its golden period under the eye of Francis Wyndham. All this time, he was working on an ultimately unpublishable book about nomadism. His Sunday Times stretch came to an end when, he claimed, he sent a telegram to his editor reading ‘Gone to Patagonia for four months’.

The story seems not to be true, but he got his first book, In Patagonia, out of it. The four books that followed came out of years of travelling, and some curious personal habits. Nobody really knows what sustains a marriage, and the indomitable Elizabeth stuck by Bruce as, by all accounts, he went to bed with large numbers of men, both casually and in the context of long-term affairs. He contracted Aids and died, a recent convert to Greek Orthodoxy, in 1989. For much of his illness, he suggested, with that morbid chic which characterises so much of his writing, that he was suffering from an all-but-unique infection proceeding from a rare Chinese ‘fungus of the bone marrow’.

These letters are performances, as they were always intended to be, and there is not much separating the style of those to his wife or intimates from those to his agent or publisher. Many of them are clearly meant to be shown around to a circle, and perhaps even intended ultimately for publication in a volume such as this. Someone who travelled as widely as Chatwin was always reporting back; if there was no book to be written, or magazine article commissioned, then one of his regular correspondents would do to practice on. From Brazil, to John Kasmin in 1977:

Last night I went to a candomblé in a fetish house . . . the boys — girlie boys — in silver and lace all shuddering as the God Shango hit them through the shoulder blade, one boy twisting and whirling off the platform . . . and coming back up again and collapsing into the arms of the ‘mother’ — a middle-aged white lady with spectacles, hair in a scarf and the air of a bank manager’s secretary.

This style of letter writing — observational but not confessional, and always more interested in the facts of the world than in announcing intimate news — makes for an engaging volume. (Of course, like many show-offs, the amassing of abstruse details is ultimately intended to direct the attention back to the author’s worldliness.)

The strongest impressions of Chatwin himself come from outside observers, of which there were many. My favourite is his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor’s description:

Very nice, tremendous know-all, reminds me of a couplet by O. Goldsmith. ‘And still they gazed and still the wonder grew/That one small head could carry all he knew.’ He’s a great friend of Jackie Onassis.

As indeed he was. It seems odd to couple knowledge with social status, but, as Christopher Hitchens has remarked, there has always been an overrated society traveller in London similar to Waugh’s John Boot. There seems little point in denying that Chatwin was a tremendous snob. Many of his values and standards of judgment were, to a surprising degree, social ones (‘ “Oh God!” — as Joan Leigh Fermor would say.’).

And like many snobs, he was also devoted to pastoral notions of the simple life and the noble savage. These emerge in the letters as much more absurd and jejune than in the finished books. Chatwin, in a tearing haste to Joan in November 1971, can show how superficial some of those enthusiasms really were:

I have the most itchy feet and want to go to Niger — more nomads, the Bororo Peuls, the most beautiful people in the world who wander alone in the savannah with long-horned white cattle and have rather startling habits like a complete sex-reversal at certain seasons of the year.

Much of this was pure showing off — ‘I personally hardly know of a more satisfying Eskimo object,’ he swanks to Cary Welch, ‘than an arrow shaft straightener . . . in MAMMOTH ivory.’ In many ways, Chatwin was an old-fashioned aesthete of the Huysmans type, always travelling to obscure parts of the world, trembling before exquisite objects in complicated conjunctions, and dashing off to boast about it afterwards. Again to Cary Welch (February 1968):

I have promised to take him [Andrew Batey] to the Stocklet House, which is a marvel. Last time I sat in a white leather sheepfold, drank wishy-washy tea from rock crystal cups, and watched the Rembrandts and a Simone Martini wheeled by on a stainless steel trolley.

If these objects had some kind of extravagant provenance, so much the better. One of his most treasured possessions is here described as ‘a bargeboard from a Polynesian hut that had belonged to the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who used it as a bedhead.’ I am sorry to say I burst out laughing when I read the apparently serious sentence, in a letter to his wife: ‘I hope you bought the Maharajah’s dumb-bells.’

Much of this acquisition, presented as an intellectual rapture before an exotic object of great simplicity, was in fact hard-nosed dealing. Some of the profits made by selling these bizarre objects are catalogued here. You can’t blame Chatwin; he had a congenital restlessness and, until later in life, was often short of money. His urge was not that of the collector, but just of the shopper.

What emerges from this self-portrait is not the intellectual giant he was often thought to be — his knowledge was extensive and abstruse, but unsystematic and frequently cranky. Rather, he looks like that very familiar figure whom we ought to regard with forebearance: the young man on the make in London. Had he lived longer, he would have outgrown a lot of the painful brilliance. His best book is his last, the lovely novel, Utz.

This is an enjoyable volume, selected and edited by Chatwin’s biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, and his widow Elizabeth, whose acerbic comments on some of Chatwin’s absurdities are one of the chief pleasures of the collection. (‘Nonsense’, she is apt to remark in a sharp footnote). I only picked up one error: the 10th Duke of Beaufort was known as ‘Master’ not because he was Master of the Horse to monarchs but because he was called that from childhood, according to James Lees-Milne. It is interesting to note that Chatwin’s editors have left the uneasy spelling of this supposed genius of the English language, and also his occasionally awful grammar: ‘So the next morning at a quarter past eight found Maurizio and I in archaeological clothes.’

Clearly, Chatwin’s reputation has declined since his death and seems likely to diminish further. One of the reasons for this is that we can all now go everywhere — I mean, I’ve been to the Sudan on holiday, and Uzbekistan is like Majorca these days — so the appeal of the rarefied destination has more or less dis- appeared.

But there was always something antique about Chatwin’s writing, always a whiff of crème de menthe and Anthony Blanche. About the enjoyment of that, as I say, we will disagree. q

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