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Nomad

With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer

by Susannah Clapp
Knopf, 241 pp., $23.00

Anatomy of Restlessness

by Bruce Chatwin
Penguin, 205 pp., $12.95 (paper)

If Bruce Chatwin had been portly, myopic and mouse-haired,” writes Susannah Clapp, “his life and reputation would have been quite different.” Chatwin’s death might have been different too. When he died in January 1989, his fatal illness, not yet acknowledged to be AIDS, was still a matter of speculation; his memorial service, at London’s Greek Orthodox cathedral, compounded the mystery: the proceedings were conducted in a language none of his friends could understand, under the aegis of a faith few of them knew he had espoused. There was no encomium at St. Sophia, no valedictory address—no account of Chatwin’s childhood, of his early career in the art world, of his reinvention of himself as a writer, of his marriage, his illness, or his death. There was no evocation of his flirtatious charm, his inexhaustible conversation, or his literary originality, the gifts that had brought hundreds of mourners together under the bare brick dome of the cathedral, in an atmosphere thick with incense and liturgical Greek. Those gathered there could note only, with bemusement, that the combination of austerity and exoticism was in keeping with Chatwin’s own taste in such things.

The occasion was made more fateful by the news, a few hours before the ser-vice began, of the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie, who had become friends with Chatwin in Australia when Chatwin was researching The Songlines, the book that transformed him from a cult writer to a bestseller. The service was to be Rushdie’s last public appearance for three years. It was St. Valentine’s Day. In these ill-starred convergences, the mourners could again recognize something Chatwinesque.

Not long after the St. Valentine’s Day fatwa, Rushdie wrote a review of a posthumous collection of Chatwin’s work. Chatwin, said Rushdie, was “secretive about the workings of his heart.” “I wish it were not so,” he continued, “for he was a man of great heart and deep feeling.”1 Other friends of Chatwin’s—one in particular—were not so generous. In an ill-tempered memoir Paul Theroux portrayed Chatwin as a braggart and a snob. (Rushdie, too, had called him a “gilt-edged name-dropper.”) Irritated by Chatwin’s reticence, Theroux broached in print the topic others had only spoken of. “We had met his wife,” he wrote, “…but the very fact of Bruce having a wife was so improbable that no one quite believed it…. That he was homosexual bothered no one; that he never spoke about it was rather disturbing.”2 It bothered AIDS campaigners too. They thought that Chatwin, like Michel Foucault, should have proclaimed the true nature of his illness—and its etiology—countering its stigma with his fame.

A certain maudit glamour thus attaches itself to Chatwin’s name, even as his six books—now joined by a seventh—consolidate his literary presence. It is clear from With Chatwin that, while he may not have confided in straight friends like Theroux, Chatwin was no wallflower. Susannah Clapp mentions three liaisons: an affair in his twenties with the wealthy British expatriate Edgar “Teddy” Millington-Drake (who also died of AIDS), an interlude with an unnamed pianist in Patagonia, and a later involvement with the fashion designer Jasper Conran; there were others too. More to the point, Chatwin’s writing reflects the play of desire across all sexual kinds: male, female, and inanimate. In the opening pages of In Patagonia, his first book, he is detained by a painting of a gaucho, swathed in a blood-red poncho, described as “a male odalisque, cat-like and passively erotic.” In Senegal, he writes in one of his notebooks, “both sexes are irresistible.”3 In his account of the sexual career of Francisco da Silva, the slavetrading Viceroy of Ouidah, in the description of the relationship of the farming twins in On the Black Hill, in his study of the pathology of art collecting in Utz—in each of these books Chatwin shows himself alive to the full range of erotic possibility, both its expression and its denial.

Sexual inclination also seems to have influenced where he chose to travel: southward, to the relaxed latitudes that Sir Richard Burton termed the sotadic zone, where other writers Chatwin admired—Norman Douglas, Axel Munthe, T.E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger—had preceded him. A touch of polymorphous perversity may be the sine qua non of travel narrative. Those propelled to the margins of their own society find it easier to step into another. The oblique become acute. But Chatwin was not one to be tied down by sexual categories, nor accept the social straitjacket of a gay identity, especially when, with the advent of the viral cull, gay ceased to be chic.

As Susannah Clapp notes, posthumous gossip has amplified the Chatwin legend. He liked to tell stories; his friends liked to tell stories about him. The stories stressed his good looks—bright blue eyes, fair hair, a hybrid of blond beast and Peter Pan. They featured unexpected arrivals and sudden absences. There was the story about his resignation from Sotheby’s: how one day he woke up blind, the result of looking at too many pictures. The country’s leading eye surgeon, it was said, told him that the only cure was a sojourn in Africa—so he went to Sudan, where he lived with nomads, found snakes in his sleeping bag, and learned to read footprints in the sand. And there was the story of his equally abrupt departure from the London Sunday Times: a telegram saying “Gone to Patagonia” and then silence, till he reappeared en route to fame.

The elements of exaggeration and self-dramatization in the Chatwin legend sharpen the question raised by the work of all travel writers: Where is the truth in these glittering anecdotes, and where does invention take over? Travel writers are no friend to the fact checker; their lies are legion. Some of their untruths matter because they misrepresent the living, or traduce the dead; some because they glamorize the author at the expense of modesty and accuracy, making him or her braver, wittier, or quicker off the mark. Other inventions, it may be argued, are designed for the narrative convenience of the reader—eliding gaps of time, transposing places, or conflating incidents. Do they matter? Maybe not. But it is too easy a step from here to the idea that invention may usefully enhance reality, transfiguring events from the banal to the sublime, thus removing the author from any accountability to the facts. Chatwin used all these tricks. As he said to Paul Theroux (and as he might also have said to the AIDS lobby), “I don’t believe in coming clean.”

In his case, it is true, the label “travel writer” is of limited application. He hated the term, as all travel writers do, not so much because he disdained the constraint of fact as because he saw it as a low-rent genre. All his books after In Patagonia he described as “stories” and “works of the imagination.” Yet, with the exception of Utz and On the Black Hill, these books still deal with events in the real world. They have characters who bear the names of real people, including the author himself. This gives them a quality that is both postmodern and archaic: they are a return to the eighteenth century, when a book like Robinson Crusoe could be announced unblushingly as a “history.” Defoe disguised Alexander Selkirk’s identity, but the name of Chatwin’s Brazilian slavetrader, protagonist of The Viceroy of Ouidah (who, like Crusoe, becomes the embodiment of savage capital, marooned among the primitives), is altered only slightly, from Souza to Silva; and the book reproduces a photograph by Chatwin of a portrait of the real Francisco da Souza, still hanging in a house in Dahomey.

Some readers, those who seek the reenchantment of the world, may enjoy such ambiguities. Chatwin certainly did. As in other areas of his life, it was an imprecision that he exploited. He liked to keep his terrain vague: the locations of his books, typically, are not countries, but places between and beyond countries: Patagonia, the backlands of Brazil, the Welsh Marches, the Australian Outback—remote places, where a writer’s subjects are hard put to answer back. And the books themselves occupy a zone between genres—the twilight of veracity.

This is the landscape of fact and invention traversed by Susannah Clapp in her biographical essay. With Chatwin is not a full biography—the official version, by Nicholas Shakespeare, is due two years hence—but it is something more than a memoir. As Chatwin’s first editor and one of his literary executors, Clapp is close to both the life and the work. She has spoken to many of Chatwin’s friends and adds some telling reminiscences of her own. Her book is nimble and affectionate, full of lively recollection and critical acuity; it tones down some of the famous Chatwin stories and knocks others on the head (there is no record of a telegram saying “Gone to Patagonia”; the eye affliction cleared up at the airport), while keeping a steady gaze on the more important question: how these tales were transformed into writing of such startling originality, writing which still retains the shock of pleasure it gave when it was new.

As the subject of a certain legend herself—it was she, it is said, who transformed the vast, unruly manuscript of In Patagonia into the sleek, quirky book that made Chatwin’s reputation—Clapp’s account of the pleasures of the editing process, the art that assists art, is of special interest. (The legend, in her case, has more than a kernel of truth.) She also draws out the abiding themes that underlie Chatwin’s superficially diverse output. Thanks to her we now have a better understanding of what made Chatwin tick, the workings of the heart that Salman Rushdie wished to see.

The son of a lawyer, Bruce Chatwin was raised in the rustbelt, in Birmingham, Britain’s unloveliest city. Although it irritated him when the poet Peter Levi cast aspersions on his home town,4 there is no evidence that he ever wanted to go back there. A middle-class boy from middle England, with an undistinguished educational record, he entered the orchidaceous world of the London auction rooms—to use Clapp’s phrase—as a porter, in 1958, at the start of the boom in the art market. It was the first of several pieces of good timing. Chatwin had just left Marlborough, one of Britain’s ranking public schools. Under the tutelage of Peter Wilson, the sinister director of Sotheby’s, he became an expert on Antiquities and Impressionist paintings. He had, as the phrase went, “the eye”—an eye for saleability as much as aesthetics—and for a time contemplated going into business as an independent art dealer. But he had also developed a passion for ideas, ideas of a kind that did not fit with the predatory suits and spotted handkerchiefs of New Bond Street. In an address at a charity art auction, reprinted in Anatomy of Restlessness, he declares:

…What on the face of it enhances life less than a work of art? One tires of it. One cannot eat it. It makes an uncomfortable bedfellow. One guards it and feels obliged to enjoy it long after it has ceased to amuse.

In 1966, accordingly, he decided to leave Sotheby’s and study archaeology at Edinburgh University. Two years later he abandoned the course and returned to London, but the break in his career marks a shift from the cultivation of expertise in art to a study of the history of societies that produce it and the psychology of those who collect it, a study that continued for the rest of his life. Chatwin’s radical ambivalence about the commodity fetishism of the art world was the start of the quest that was to turn him into a writer.

Back in London, Chatwin found a job on the magazine section of the Sunday Times, which for a period in the 1970s provided a niche for aesthetes and highbrows, a world apart from the journalistic milieu of the main paper. Here, encouraged by the novelist Francis Wyndham, a senior editor at the magazine, he began to develop the ear to complement the eye he had developed at Sotheby’s. The short paragraphs, sharp sentences, and nifty transitions of In Patagonia have their origin in journalistic discipline. Chatwin took the mold of brevity, where every sentence counts, and poured into it an unjournalistic distillation of detailed observation and research. He was a stranger to the semicolon; grammatical simplicity enabled him to embrace arcane knowledge and recondite terminology without slowing the pace of his prose, generating what he later referred to, with ironic self-regard, as “my bleak, chiselled style.” At the same time his sentences are made for appreciation; they are Fabergé sentences, designed to be held up to the light, turned in the hand, their craftsmanship admired. Sometimes Chatwin’s writing seems to be too much about this exercise of taste, fetishizing words in place of objects. As Wittgenstein remarked, taste can be charming, but not gripping.

By this time Chatwin was married, to Elizabeth Chanler, an American from an East Coast Catholic family, who had been one of Peter Wilson’s secretaries. Paul Theroux describes their relationship as a mariage blanc, but it was clearly far more than this. They were married for twenty-four years, though they did not always live in the same place. (“For writers like myself,” wrote Chatwin, in a tribute to one of his hosts, reprinted in Anatomy of Restlessness, “‘home’ is synonymous with writer’s block.”) Chatwin often traveled with his wife, and his last major book, The Songlines, is dedicated to her. They had no children, but she nursed him through his final illness and was with him when he died. In the pages of With Chatwin she is a silent but benign presence, settled where he is peripatetic, constant where he is mercurial. Chatwin’s most moving book, On the Black Hill, the story of two farming twins, is set in the Welsh Marches, where Chatwin and his wife set up house, and much of it was written there. Clapp compares the book to Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple.” The analogy is not only with the lapidary quality of the prose. Just as Flaubert wrote “Un Coeur Simple” to show George Sand he had a heart, so Chatwin, in On the Black Hill, seems to mute his hard style and dwell more on the play of feeling between two people and the forces that keep them together.

The pieces in Anatomy of Restlessness—an uneven but illuminating collection of stories, reviews, and memoirs that were not included in the earlier collection What Am I Doing Here (1989)—are drawn from all stages of Chatwin’s writing life. They reveal the diligence of his book research and his close engagement with authorities in the fields he wrote about. It seems that, despite his famous absences, Chatwin managed to spend as much time in the bookstacks as in the bush. The Viceroy of Ouidah is the outstanding example of this. The two volumes of Pierre Verger’s Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos—a title Chatwin produces with a magician’s flourish—and a shelf-full of works by the historian Gilberto Freyre are sifted for rarities to set into Chatwin’s accounts of Dahomey and the backlands of Brazil. (Mario Vargas Llosa, by contrast, took just one of the classics of Brazilian historiography—Euclides da Cunha’s account of a nineteenth-century millennarian revolt in the backlands—and turned it into a full-length novel, The War of the End of the World; Chatwin condenses it, with Borgesian brevity, into a few vivid sections of The Viceroy.)

Chatwin’s lifelong topic of research, however—his big idea—was something he never quite managed to write a book about. This was the notion that nomadism is the true condition of man, that natural selection has fitted the human race for wandering, not for a sedentary life, and that the ills of civilization issue from the neglect of this nomadic imperative. From his early days as a writer, before In Patagonia, Chatwin had wanted to write a book on the nomadic theme. “Anatomy of Restlessness” was a working title for this projected book; three of the pieces in the collection now published under that name are concerned with various stages of its composition. The Songlines, his exploration of Australian Aboriginal cosmology, is the closest he actually got to writing it.

The failure of The Songlines—the most ambitious but least successful of his works—is explained to some extent by the weight of expectation behind it. The problem is not the ethnography. Though he was criticized by anthropologists for relying on third-party informants, this is something he makes a virtue of: the ethnography of the ethnographers is one of the diverting aspects of the book. And Chatwin’s account of Aboriginal cosmology, though selective, seems to be broadly accurate. Even his reliance on non-Aboriginal people, as Howard Morphy has argued,5 may be closer to the reality of field work than anthropologists care to admit.

But there is still a problem with The Songlines, a twofold problem: the implausible figure of his protagonist, a schoolteacher with the archly emblematic name of Arkady, and the strange irruption of extracts from Chatwin’s notebooks in the middle of the narrative. The book is misshapen; there is no suspension of disbelief. It was written, we learn from With Chatwin, when he was first diagnosed with AIDS and thought he was dying; so its broken-backed quality may be explained by an anxiety to get some, at least, of his research into print.

It may be that Chatwin could never have written the book he wanted. For him, the nomadic imperative had come to explain almost everything. It explained the urge to travel, it explained why, in his phrase, “possessions exhaust us.” It explained human nature in general and his own life in particular. It made the centrifugal central and gave roots to restlessness. The nomad book was to be his Tristes Tropiques, his White Goddess, and his Golden Bough. It was no wonder he could not finish it. His “Anatomy of Restlessness” is not an anatomy but a pile of bones. Still, the books Chatwin finished are enough. What this posthumous collection confirms is that his gift was brevity: short sentences, short paragraphs, and short books. In a world of information glut, of blockbusters and inflated reputations, that is no small thing.

  1. 1

    Chatwin’s Travels,” reprinted in Imaginary Homelands (Granta Books, 1991).

  2. 2

    Chatwin Revisited,” Granta 44 (1993), pp. 217-218.

  3. 3

    Bruce Chatwin, Far Journeys, edited by David King and Francis Wyndham (Viking, 1993), p. 40.

  4. 4

    Chatwin, Far Journeys, p. 127.

  5. 5

    Proximity and Distance: Representations of Aboriginal Society in the writings of Bill Harney and Bruce Chatwin,” in Jeremy MacClancy and Chris McDonaugh, editors, Popularizing Anthropology (Routledge, 1996), pp. 157-179.

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