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.