His own character was one of his greatest inventions: traveler, adventurer, story-teller, mimic, the most English of eccentrics abroad, and at the same time the most restlessly cosmopolitan English writer of his generation. This multifaceted persona became an essential part of the appeal of his writing. In his books you were addressed not merely by a distinctive voice, but by the fabulous character he had fashioned for himself.
His life could be described as a sequence of escapes—from the English class system and his public school education; from Sotheby’s, where he made himself a career as an art dealer when in his twenties only to throw it all away when he felt he was becoming a “smarmy” and inconsequential success. After a period studying anthropology and archaeology, he escaped into journalism and then into a life on the road, which produced the book—In Patagonia—that heralded his arrival as a writer of extraordinary promise.
He was a master, in his life and in his work, of the art of eluding expectations. When he felt pigeonholed as a travel writer in the English tradition of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Wilfred Thesiger, he wrote The Viceroy of Ouidah, a surreal fable of slavery set in Dahomey, and then when his public began to think of him as a writer of the exotic, he produced On the Black Hill, about two Welsh hill farmers who had never left the confines of the Welsh valleys. And when he felt enclosed again by the idea that he was an English realist, he wrote Songlines, a metaphysical novel about nomads and wandering, set in the Australian outback, which—like all of his work—was unclassifiable. Was this anthropology, fiction, an essay, disguised autobiography? It was all of these. His best work redrew the borderline between fiction and nonfiction.
Songlines brought him success but did not tempt him into repeating himself. No sooner had he finished it than he began exploring radically different terrain. The result was Utz, a strange miniature, in the tradition of Borges, on a porcelain collector in Prague, a pertinacious eccentric who pursued his obsessions in healthy obliviousness to the Iron Curtain across the heart of European culture. As a parable about the human fascination with the beautiful, Utz was also Chatwin’s oblique commentary on the art of writing. When the book was nominated for the Booker Prize, he said Utz was about art and then added, “Art is never enough. Art always lets you down.”
Illness began to engulf him in the autumn of 1986 as he struggled to complete Songlines. There was then a miraculous period of remission in 1987, when he composed Utz; and then illness returned again in 1988. Throughout the final years, he was cared for with devotion by his wife Elizabeth.
To the astonishment of those who visited him this past winter, reduced and emaciated, he managed to complete the editing of a collection of his short writing and journalism called What Am I Doing Here? (to be published later this year). He rediscovered and rewrote these old pieces with pleasure, as if they reminded him of old selves left behind on his travels.
By the autumn of 1988, he was too weak to work, too weak to hold a pen. But the bed was still covered with books. He would still toss odd and unfashionable treasures at you and say, Had you read that? In a weak but excited whisper, he would sketch out scenes from a projected novel. On good days, the best scenes, set in the all-black apartment of a bizarre Russian painter, came alive as vividly as his written books. If you ventured to hope he would soon be able to dictate, he would snap—blue eyes flashing—that he was not going to dictate anything. He was bloody well going to write it, on his yellow pads. His hope was contagious.
The novel died with him, and half a lifetime of the work that was in him will not see the light of day. What he did have time to write had a piercing clarity and economy. His books are models of transparency, lightness, and elusiveness in literature; he never mined the same vein of inspiration twice. As a writer, he was a magician of the word; as a man, he lived with a verve that left his friends breathless. He traveled light, and there was nothing—except friendship—he wasn’t prepared to leave behind.
On the final page of Songlines, composed when he was beginning to die, he wrote: “The mystics believe the ideal man shall walk himself to a ‘right death.’ He who has arrived ‘goes back.’… The concept is quite similar to Heraclitus’s mysterious dictum, ‘Mortals and immortals alive in their death, dead in each other’s life.’ “
I shall always think of him on a day in the last autumn of his life, lying on the grass outside his house, wrapped in blankets, weak, gray-haired and emaciated, but still incorrigibly stylish in a pair of high-altitude ski sunglasses. He said he had bought them for his next trip to the Himalayas. He lay there and talked in a faint whisper, full of cackles and laughter like some grand and unrepentant monarch in exile, or like one of the fantastic and touching figures of his own fiction, staring up at the bright blue sky, while the white clouds scudded across his black glasses.