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 …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.