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),…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.