Bruce Chatwin at 80. May 13, 2020
I still can remember my shock when I heard that Bruce Chatwin had died. It was Wednesday, the eighteenth of January, 1989. I was thirty-one, and, like many who had known or read him, I felt a grief out of all proportion to my expectation.
He died young, but not so young as most people think. At 48 he had outlived many of his influences: Robert Louis Stevenson, T.E. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, Robert Byron, Osip Mandelstam. Had he lived, he might have grown to resemble Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Or his own description of Klaus Kinski playing the Viceroy of Ouidah: “a sexuagenarian all in white with a mane of yellow hair”. And behaved, perhaps, at 80, like Charles Milward the Sailor, home from the sea. “Charley the Pioneer with his restlessness gone, pottering round his garden, the Elms near Paignton.”
Yet few of his friends could picture an elderly Chatwin. “I have great difficulty imagining him as an old man,” said the art critic Robert Hughes. “I think he would have been very crabby.”
Bruce’s dense, intense short life had a preordained and mythic quality. “Great people have an inbuilt instinct about how long they’re going to live,” said the Australian poet Pam Bell, with whom he stayed while researching The Songlines, “a sort of rhythm to the way they rule their life.” This explained the disciplined economy of his writing, his manic behaviour, his impatent appetite for experience.
With characteristic timing, Bruce died on the eve of the transformation of Central Europe, bringing down the barriers of the old and new worlds. Missing would be his despatches from the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, Prague in the Velvet Revolution, the Twin Towers, the invasion of Iraq, the coming of Donald Trump and Brexit. He died, too before the revolution in information technology. He hated computers, but he was a precursor of the Internet, a connective super-highway without boundaries, and with instant access to different cultures. He was a storyteller of bracing prose, at once glass-clear and dense, who offered a brand new way of representing travelling. And he held out in his six books the possibility of something wonderful and unifying, inundating us with information but also with the promise that we will one day get to the root of it. As his friend Robyn Davidson said: “He posed questions that we all want answered, and perhaps gave the illusion that they were answerable.” “You always felt with Bruce,” said the travel-writer Colin Thubron, “that he was capable of coming back with the key to everything.”
He was a storyteller first, who set free other writers and taught them not to be tamed by conventional boundaries. “I’ve always loved telling stories,” he told Thubron. “Everyone says: ‘Are you writing a novel?’ No, I’m writing a story and I do rather insist that things must be called stories. I don’t quite know the meaning of the word novel.” And in telling stories, he didn’t care so much if they were true, only if they were good. For Bruce, a good story was also, in a real sense, a true story. I like to say that he didn’t tell a half-truth, but a truth and a half.
In his memoir Anecdotage, Gregor Rezzori asked this question of Bruce: “What would his life’s work have looked like if he hadn’t died in his 40s after Utz, but had gone on living and writing until the blissful age of 80?”
Salman Rushdie felt that Bruce had only just begun. “We don’t have his developed books, the books that might have come out of falling in love with his wife. We saw only the first act. He was just creating himself into the person he’d be happy to be. Out of all the people he’d experimented being, he quite liked being the writer Bruce Chatwin.”
Thirty-one years on, I still miss him.
Best novels read in the past decade
Elizabeth Hay, A Student of Weather
Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Jorge Semprun, Life or Literature
Jean D’Ormesson, At God’s Pleasure
W. Sebald, Austerlitz
Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog
James Salter, All There Is
John Williams, Stonor
Amy Sackville, Orkney
Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods
Murray Bail, The Voyage, Eucalyptus
Patrick White, Voss, A Fringe of Leaves, The Vivisector
Haldor Laxness, The Fish Can Sing, World Light, Independent People
Wallace Stegner, Remembering Laughter, Crossing into Safety
Miklos Banffy, They were all counted (first in The Transylvanian Trilogy)
Rudyard Kipling’s son
To dine in Hall by candlelight remains a great tradition at Magdalene College, Cambridge. At my matriculation dinner, aged 18, I was put next to I. A. Richards, the father of modern English studies. Thick spectacles, long white hair, he lifted his head towards the other tables, and revealed how, sixty years earlier, he sat where I was sitting, when the Honorary Fellow in the chair beside him was Rudyard Kipling, who recently had lost his 18-year-old son Jack at the Battle of Loos. Kipling had gazed into the sea of young faces, underlit by bright, twisting flames, and exclaimed, eyes overspilling: “Look at them, they are the future.”
The glow of the memory permeated Richards’ voice, and for a flash I was sitting beside Kipling.
Nicole Kidman was stirring feathers as Princess Grace in Cannes this week. It reminded me that one of Priscilla’s lovers in Occupied France, the Belgian racing ace Emile Cornet, became Princess Grace’s press secretary after war, causing an international hullabaloo in March 1962 when he broke the news that Grace was to return to the screen to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie”. Cornet had to rescind the announcement almost immediately after conservative Monaguesques, led by Prince Rainier’s mother, discovered that in the most controversial sequence the outwardly frigid bride was to be assaulted on honeymoon by her husband (Sean Connery). They objected to their princess demeaning herself by playing the role of a cool and beautiful blonde rape victim who was a forger, a kleptomaniac and a liar, and whose sexual problems stretched back to her dysfunctional childhood.
At a moving ceremony on Friday evening a prayer was said for my aunt Priscilla, who died 41 years ago. In 1938, she had become a Catholic in order to marry her first husband, and then, rather like Graham Greene, started to take her new faith seriously, but concealing this from her friends and English family. Only to her sister Vivien did she confess that she wanted the ritual of a Catholic burial. Her second husband, a militant atheist, denied her this: she was cremated hurriedly and her ashes scattered on a lawn at Chichester crematorium without any witnesses present.
It was our local vicar in Jericho who reminded me that a mass could still be said for Priscilla, even so long after her death. I mentioned this to my friend Frances Stonor Saunders, who immediately put me in touch with her cousin, the Dominican Father, Timothy Radcliffe – who by spooky coincidence had just finished reading Secrets of the Sea, a novel I’d set in Tasmania. Well, that clinched it. We met up, and he offered to say Priscilla’s name in the course of a community mass. This took place in Oxford in a service at Blackfriars, during which Radcliffe spoke of her life in a short homily, equating her apparent promiscuity to a search for an infinity of love which only, in the end, her denied faith could have provided. Of course, he said this much better, in a brisk, efficient mass at which there were, intriguingly, quite a lot of young people, as well as a gathering of Priscilla’s step-children and god-children. All I can say is that they too were suddenly humbled by the exquisite voices of the Dominicans singing the prayers. I am not a Catholic, but as I listened to Radcliffe’s prayer for her, I had the very real sense of an exhalation from somewhere beyond, rather like the sound of the sea after a large wave crashes onto our Tasmanian beach, the silence of something settling back, of being re-accepted. The terrific thing is that all her relatives admitted that they had felt this too.
The whole business of being published is the literary equivalent of the bends. Submerged for four years during the researching and writing, you are propelled, gasping and choking, to the surface. From having existed, as it were, as a solitary fish – living a life of “problems and drudgery” in Halldor Laxness’s phrase about writing – you are suddenly expected to be a performing poodle, articulate and entertaining. The official launch day of a book is traditionally a Thursday. In 1993, to avoid pre-publication nerves, I went to Essaouira during the week of The High Flyer‘s publication. This time I have submitted to an interview with the Telegraph’s books editor Gaby Wood. It’s the first time I have done this in the UK, largely because, having interviewed many writers, I’m aware of the dangers. Not only the peril of the interviewer who has not read the book (this happened to me once, when at the last minute I had to stand in for Caroline Moorehead, slotted by the Times to interview Robert Hughes about The Fatal Shore). There’s also the panicky search for a revealing motif that the book is suspected of having failed to disclose – ie the way the writer dresses in white socks or, unknown to his wife, smokes a cigarette, or speaks, as I made Hughes do, like a woodcock batting out of a thicket. But my deepest reservation is about how the interview a) becomes an extremely pale stand-in for the work, and gives permission to lazy readers to gut and fillet in five minutes what you have spent years working on; and b) an excuse for people automatically to despise the author for their perceived vanity/self-obsession. The late German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki wrote that he had never met a writer of any worth who was not vain and egotistical. This fear of vanity is the reason Graham Greene gave when asked why he didn’t appear on television: “Because I think it’s not my business. I can think of too many writers who’ve become actors, even stars, on TV to the detriment of their work as writers. A writer depends a great deal on not being recognized.”
Temperamentally, I side with Laxness – “I enjoy being by myself and prefer to let no-one know about me” – and even with Brett Easton Ellis: “The problem is that you write the novel because you want to write the novel. I don’t want to talk about the novel. I just want to write the novel. I don’t really care what people’s reactions are to the book. I just want them to like my books and leave me alone.”
That said, anyone interested in my new book might like to read:
Nicholas Shakespeare: ‘My aunt the collaborator?’
Telegraph.co.uk - 4 days ago
Nicholas Shakespeare on how he pieced together the compelling wartime story
|‘It’s never mentioned’: Nicholas Shakespeare on the British women …Telegraph.co.uk-28 Oct 2013|
Sleeping with the enemy: My aunt’s wartime secret
The Guardian-2 Nov 2013
Nicholas Shakespeare was always intrigued by his aunt Priscilla, who had a glamorous if mysterious presence in his childhood. After her death …
What compels you to buy a novel? I bought Offshore on the day after it won the 1979 Booker Prize. This was partly in response to the dismissive BBC Book Programme about “this trouble-creating Booker Prize” in which Robert Robinson, himself an abysmal novelist, proposed to everyone on the panel, including Fitzgerald, that “the Booker judges had made the wrong choice” and “the best book didn’t win.” The novel was quiet and familiar; also flinty and powerful, with some of the same notes I later recognised in W.G. Sebald (who, like Fitzgerald, was to write about Southwold). It also reminded me of John Williams’ reissued Stoner. Like Williams, Fitzgerald has been there all along, right under our noses, yet she remains undervalued. (Another to suffer this temporary oblivion is the marvellous Wallace Stegner). Perhaps Hermione Lee’s biography will draw Fitzgerald back into circulation. I particularly like her explanation of fiction. “I would say it started as soon as people realised that it was dark as night – that it was dark outside. And they felt that they would like a story told them And that’s what novels are for.”
Isle of Wight Literary Festival
Talk in the Villa Rothsay Hotel was of an impending authors’ rebellion against free appearances. One director of a British Literary Festival, so the story goes, recently offered an American novelist £20,000 to appear, plus a first class air ticket. And yet we are supposed to be on a level playing field.
The last time I was on the Isle of Wight was 29 years ago, when I addressed a small audience of convicted murderers at Parkhurst prison on the subject of exiled royalty. Among the attentive group was Reggie Kray who told me, as he must have told others: “I wouldn’t like to live in London today, Nick. You can’t walk down the street without being mugged.” An old friend and colleague, the late Serena Allott, seduced me back. The sight of her parents sitting in the front row brought back memories of their beautiful daughter, who died in May and whose legacy is this festival.