The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

The Letters of Bruce Chatwin


The letters of Bruce Chatwin, by Nicholas Shakespeare

I am most certainly in the mood for writing letters

A year before his death in January 1989, Bruce Chatwin opened a letter from his London publisher, Tom Maschler, and read the following:

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there is simply no writer in England for whose work I have a greater passion than yours. This statement is made with all my heart.”

Twenty-one years on, Maschler finds no reason to alter his opinion. “Of what I call ‘my lot’ – Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – Bruce was the one I was most anxious to know where he was going to go. I think had he lived he would have been ahead of all of them,” he told me.

Chatwin’s compelling narrative voice was cut off just as he found it. In his last months, wrapped in a shawl beside the stove at Homer End near Oxford, he lamented to Elizabeth: “There are so many things I want to do.” A work on healing to be called The Sons of Thunder; a triptych of stories after Flaubert’s Trois Contes, “one set in Ireland in the days of Irish kings”; an Asian novel about the Austro-American botanist Joseph Rock who lived in China; another novel, based in South Africa, which would explore the gossip and jealousies of a Karoo doorp. And, of course, his Russian epic Lydia Livingstone, a love story first and foremost which was to weave in three cities – Paris, Moscow, New York – and attempt to fictionalise his wife’s Jamesian family. “Bruce had just begun,” says his friend Salman Rushdie. “We didn’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.”

One of the titles he liked, though he did not yet have a book for it, was Under the Sun.

It was a foreigner who asked the question: “Why should the disappearance of Bruce Chatwin make such a difference?” Writing in June 1989 in the Times Literary Supplement, Hans Magnus Enzensberger answered his own question in this way: “it is surely as a story-teller that Chatwin will be remembered, and missed – a story-teller going far beyond the conventional limits of fiction, and assimilating in his tales elements of reportage, autobiography, ethnology, the Continental tradition of the essay, and gossip.” For Enzensberger, with whom Chatwin had plotted a future walk along the Berlin Wall and down the East German border, it was not enough to say that he died young or was full of promise. “Chatwin never delivered the goods that critics or publishers or the reading public expected. Not fearing to disappoint, he surprised us at every turn of the page.” Enzensberger concluded: “Underneath the brilliance of the text, there is a haunting presence, something sparse and solitary and moving, as in Turgenev. When we return to Bruce Chatwin we find much in him that has been left unsaid.”

While we shall never know the surprise of his unwritten works, Chatwin has left behind a body of writing that is striking for its freshness; an authentic conduit which allows us to return to him and even to be rewarded in the manner Enzensberger hints at: namely the letters and postcards that he wrote from his first week at boarding-school, two weeks shy of his eighth birthday, until shortly before his death at the age of 48.

Assigned in Nazi-occupied Paris to censoring civilian mail coming from Germany, Ernst Jünger, the subject of one of Chatwin’s best essays, confided to his diary: “There’s nothing people won’t set down in letters.”

Whether typed on Sotheby’s notepaper, or written with a Mont Blanc pen on sheets of blue stationery from a shop in Mount Street (with a proper dye for his address), or scribbled on the backs of postcards with a blunt hotel pencil, Chatwin’s correspondence reveals much more about himself than he was prepared to expose in his books.

Alone in his letters did he make known that he had been present on a February day near Johannesburg when a cracked fragment of antelope bone was prised from the floor of the Swartkrans cave, soapy-feeling and speckled with dark patches as if burned: evidence, it turned out, of man’s “earliest use of fire”. For all his brilliance, Chatwin could be disarmingly modest, hiding his light under the same bushel as his well-concealed darknesses. The Bruce Chatwin who appears in The Songlines, In Patagonia and What Am I Doing Here is his own best, most achieved character: observant, intelligent, sharp-witted, heterosexual, generous, intrepid. This persona was an essential part of the appeal of his writing. “In his books you were addressed not merely by a distinctive voice,” observed Michael Ignatieff, “but by the fabulous character he had fashioned for himself.” The Bruce Chatwin of the letters is less certain of who he is, more vulnerable but more human. Delicate about his health and finances; uneasy about his sexual orientation and his relationship with England; above all, restless almost to the point of neurosis.

In his passport, Chatwin put “farmer” as his profession, but his life was spent on the hoof, a sizeable proportion of it in the study of nomads. An internal memo circulated at Cape in October 1982 gives a flavour of his travels, their tern-like spread. “Publicity have no idea when Bruce Chatwin will be in Australia – neither does his agent! As far as we know he is still in Siberia/Russia.” He copied into one of his signature Moleskine notebooks this telling line from Montaigne: “I ordinarily reply to those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.” About the motivations for Chatwin’s restlessness, I have not yet found a more convincing explanation than this, by the Vietnamese writer Nguyen Qui Duc. “Nomads in the old days travelled around looking for food, for shelter, for water; modern day nomads, we travel around looking for ourselves.”

Written with the verve and sharpness of expression that first marked him out as an author, Chatwin’s correspondence gives a vivid synopsis of his interests and concerns over forty years. To read his letters and postcards is to be with him on the road: in the Sudan, Afghanistan, Niger, Benin, Mauretania, Tierra del Fuego, Brazil, Nepal, India, Alice Springs, London, New York, Edinburgh, Wotton-Under-Edge, Ipsden – in pursuit of the restless chimera that was Bruce Chatwin, that “haunting” and elusive presence who is at once “sparse and solitary and moving”.

A life revealed through letters is not nowadays so linear as a biography. It zig-zags through time and space rather in the manner of Chatwin’s accounts of his journeys to Patagonia and Australia; it is messy, repetitive, congested, of the moment. Nor, frustratingly, can you rely on it to deliver letters when you want – from periods, and about incidents and people, just when their insight might prove most welcome. But it has this virtue: it is a life told at the time in the subject’s own voice and words. It is the closest we have to his conversation.

The multifaceted narrator of Chatwin’s books is a person who says remarkably little. He is virtually a mime artist, a character of laconic observations and lapidary asides that camouflage what he is thinking – “stepping back to hide himself,” as his friend Gregor Von Rezzori saw it, “in the cultivated impersonality of a newspaper article.” This impression is misleading. In his letters, as in life, Chatwin was no less voluble than was Marcel Marceau when not being silent on stage.

“I don’t believe in coming clean,” Chatwin famously told Paul Theroux. In his letters, he cannot avoid it. They are the raw matter of his thoughts, a way of trying them out on the page, the first version. They chart his struggle with who he was and what he wanted to be; art expert, husband, archaeologist, writer – first as an academic theorist, then as an unrepentant story-teller. They are as much a communication with whoever he is writing to as a continuing natter with himself.

Chatwin’s Gloucestershire neighbour, Jim Lees-Milne, recorded in his diary the local Duke of Beaufort’s opinion that “posterity should never judge people by their correspondence, as what they wrote one day was often the opposite of what they thought the next.” The shifting stream of Chatwin’s mental processes is part of what injects his letters with their vitality. It is not uncommon for him to change his mind from one letter to the next, even between the paragraphs of a single letter. He changes his mind about his house, Australia, Africans, about whether to join his wife in India. “He’s thinking on paper and clarifying his mind, like a conversation,” Elizabeth says. Especially volatile are his travel plans, more uncertain than the on-again-off-again sale of his Maori bedpost that once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt; or the saga of the long-awaited cheque from James Ivory to cover the cost of a week’s car hire in France. No sooner does he arrive anywhere than he is shouldering his rucksack, plotting to leave. “Everything is always perfect to begin with, but he gets fed up with a place very quickly and in no time at all he’s picking holes.”

Then, sent as often as not from the next place – a postcard.

For Paul Theroux, with whom he once gave a talk at the Royal Geographical Society, Chatwin’s postcards have the effect of miniature billboards, being “the perfect medium for many boasters, combining vividness, cheapness and an economy of effort”; they allow him to stay in touch without the depth and commitment of letters. But another American writer, David Mason, is less sure that these postcards betray the vice of the self-advertiser. Mason met Chatwin just once, at a bus stop in Greece: “His terse correspondence with acquaintances like me was surely the product of a gregarious sensibility. Some writers become self-advertisers out of a grating neediness. What I sensed from Bruce was more akin to uncontainable enthusiasm.”

This enthusiasm is certainly what appealed to Chatwin’s editor, Susannah Clapp, for whom the idiom of the postcard chimed with his dash and mystery and elipses as a writer. He liked short sentences, short paragraphs; the condensed description of the Sotheby’s cataloguer and postcard sender. “Pungent, visually arresting and on the run,” Clapp writes, “for Bruce Chatwin postcards were the perfect means of communication” – and allowed him to startle with a bolt from the blue. Arguably his most famous sentence (though the hardcopy has not been traced) was the telegram (it may have been a letter) that he is reputed to have sent to his editor at the Sunday Times magazine, saying GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR FOUR MONTHS (it may have been six). A postcard to his Italian publisher, also missing, contained, apparently, the warning line: “Australia is Hell.”

A line that does reoccurr is “I think of you often.” One of many to receive it was the Queensland poet, Pam Bell, with whom Chatwin stayed on the last leg of his second and final journey to Australia. “There was warmth in his postcards,” she said. “You felt he really wanted to bring you up to date. People very often say they thought of you and it’s just a skim, but with Bruce, you did feel that for some minutes he cared about you.” He posted a card to the classical historian Robin Lane Fox, whose ancestor General Augustus Pitt Pivers had amassed a collection of priceless Benin Bronzes seized by a British raiding party in 1897. “Bruce wrote that if I didn’t get in touch he would launch a punitive expedition and come and take my willow-pattern cups away.”

Chatwin is not everyone’s cup of tea. Under-appreciated for most of his writing life, more or less until the 1987 publication of The Songlines, his reputation after he died ballooned very briefly into a cult-like phenomenon, only to undergo a deflation. The nation’s favourite author, Alan Bennett was turned into a “mean-minded” reader by Chatwin’s introduction to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana. “One afternoon,” Chatwin writes, “I took The Road to Oxiana into the mosque [of Shei Luft’ullah in Isfahan] and sat, cross-legged, marvelling both at the tilework and Byron’s description of it.” “It’s the ‘cross-legged’ I dislike,” Bennett wrote, “partly because five minutes of it and I’d be crippled. But why tell us?” He recoiled from what he perceived as Chatwin’s “snobbishness” towards travellers who had come after him, “the droves of young people who took to the road in the sixties and seventies.” Nor was Bennett engaged by a description of how Wali Jahn helped Chatwin to safety when he got blood-poisoning, which struck him as “sheer Buchan” in “the permitted degree of male camaraderie, men caring and crying for each other, both nobly”.

Barry Humphries was typical of several former friends who pretended they were no longer beguiled, writing in the Spectator in May 2006: “Starbucks, incidentally, is on my list of the grossly overrated, along with Bruce Chatwin, Cézanne’s ‘Bathers’, French onion soup, Bob Dylan, Niagara Falls, Citizen Kane, the Caribbean, the novels of Patrick O’Brian, Pilates, lobster, The Lord of the Rings, and most sculpture.” And yet to a generation which has grown up grazing on the Internet, it can seem as though Chatwin, far from being overrated, has slipped back into the obscurity in which he laboured while he wrote and published his first three books. Interviewed in Australia twelve years after his death, I was asked by a puzzled young journalist: “Who was Bruce Chatwin?”

My answer, roughly, was that Chatwin was a precursor of the Internet: a connective super-highway without boundaries, with instant access to different cultures. He was a story-teller of bracing prose, at once glass-clear and dense, who offered a brand new way of representing travelling; further, he held out in his six books the possibility of something wonderful and unifying, inundating us with information but also the promise that we will one day get to the root of it. And I quoted his friend Robyn Davidson: “He posed questions that we all want answered and perhaps gave the illusion they were answerable.”

If his questions have not gone away, nor have queries over Chatwin’s reputation. The interrogation mark omitted deliberately from the title of his last book continues to hover over the character of its author who, on scant evidence, has been accused of making things up, of not telling the truth. He may be guilty of other sins – for example, not telling Anatoly Sawenko that he was modelling the principal character in The Songlines on him, or failing to send him a copy of the published book. But Chatwin was not a “whopper merchant”. In following his trail, I found errors, but strikingly few examples of mere invention, fewer than in the case of one or two of his disciples; or, say, Norman Lewis, who, imperishable travel-writer though he is, enjoys a reputation as a “truth-speaker” that would have amused him enormously, and probably did.

“I absolutely deny to the end of my days that Bruce was a fraud, a poseur and a sham,” says Robin Lane Fox. “I don’t think he was any of these things. He had sharp beams of knowledge and a range of fragmented, intimately observed allusions that he could piece together in the most extraordinary original whole, beyond the frontiers of normal publication. There was no object I could allude to that he didn’t know – a Spartan bronze, the Vix Crater in Burgundy, a silver plate on a Greek Bactrian elephant and a drawing of a similar object known in the Channel Islands in the nineteenth-century and since lost. He would have a wild card on the uses of it, and off we’d be on a vast horizon expanding all the way from Russia to Siberia – a phenomenal imaginative display, entirely spontaneous, but based on genuine knowledge. It wasn’t fraudulent balls. He understood. I learned so much from Bruce. Boy, he knew.”

For Elisabeth Sifton, Chatwin’s American editor: “Bruce was an artist not a liar.” Paradoxically, he did not have a fictional gift. He had the imagination to tell stories, to connect them, to enlarge, colour and improve them, but not to invent. Whether this reflects the terror of the autodidact, Chatwin more than most writers felt compelled to meet the people he wrote about, go to the places, read the books – where possible in the original language. “His art of arranging, composing and enspiriting the material was, though, more like a novelist’s than a journalist’s,” says Sifton.

Perhaps the way to understand his stories is to treat them as Graham Speake advises us to view the stories of monks on Mount Athos, the place which in important respects marked the end of Chatwin’s quest – i.e. as “embroideries of a fundamental truth”. At his worst, he can irritate like any writer can; he can be cold, peremptory, relentlessly exotic. At his best, though, he is less economical with the truth than spendthrift. He tells not a half-truth but a truth and a half.

Nowhere does Chatwin arouse more suspicion than in the manner he is perceived to have dealt with his final illness: he died of Aids, but denied in public that he had it. His denial bred a sense that if he lied about his life, he must have lied about his work. Some readers have taken this as a cue to pass judgment on his books – or else not to bother with them. It deserves repeating that Chatwin’s medical reports confirm that he said nothing he was not given leave to believe by his doctors at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. At the time he fell ill – the mid-1980s – all sufferers of Aids had HIV, but it was not known for certain whether every person infected with HIV automatically contracted Aids. The disease, which had appeared in New York in 1981, was relatively new to England and still “mysterious and shameful” in the words of the gay writer Edmund White, one of a number of men who had sex with Chatwin.

Whatever Chatwin’s private fears during this period of profound public anxiety, he clung to the shred of hope offered by the presence of a then-rare fungus that he might not, after all, necessarily develop Aids (the fungus is now known to be an Aids-defining illness). It is unfair to judge him for any pronouncements that he made once his brain had been poisoned. By the time his HIV had developed into full-blown Aids, he was much like his description of Rimbaud, who died in a Marseilles hospital in 1891 “mumbling in his delirium a stream of poetic images which his sister Isabelle, though she had paper and pencil to hand, did not think to write down.”

Typical of Chatwin’s Protean nature was that after he died friends should disagree about him almost to the extent of his readers and critics. In Australia, Murray Bail, one of his closest correspondents, reacted to news of his death with a single paragraph, a notebook entry Chatwinesque in its deadpan concision. “18.1.89 All head and bulging blue eyes. No sense of humour, yet could recognise and tell well a story – always based on a person, an experience, usually slightly extreme. Travelled – geographically, intellectually, aesthetically and, apparently, sexually. These strange confused feelings when a friend, or even an acquaintance, dies at a faraway distance.”

If Bail recollected Chatwin’s lack of humour as a chief characteristic, for Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing from Greece, his child-like humour was the quality he cherished. “…though very mature in experience, discernment and learning and enormously travelled and worldly wise, he had the utterly convincing aura of an infant prodigy shot up like a bean-stalk into a sort of open-air Radiguet. Everything – the striking looks, the fluency and verve of his talk, the extraordinary adventures, the urgency, the enjoyment and humour, the nearly fiendish laughter that ended some of his sentences – increased the impression of youth and made his vast conversational range seem more surprising still.” What Leigh Fermor missed most about his “amazingly gifted and suddenly absent companion” was “the energy, the originality and the laughter.”

To Rushdie, Chatwin was one of the two funniest people he had known. “He was so colossally funny, you’d be on the floor with pain.”

Trying to corner Chatwin’s elusive quality, the novelist Shirley Hazzard cast him as an illuminator, shedding light rather in the way of a lightning-struck bush dragged back to the Swartkrans cave. She wrote to me when I was struggling to bring shape to his life: “What is difficult to convey is how much he gave, above all by the enchantment of his presence and his crystal renderings of what had seemed ordinary things.”

Not one of those Chatwin worked with at Sotheby’s predicted that he would throw up a lucrative partnership to become a student archaeologist, still less a writer. “No one would have thought this belated youth capable of writing anything more than his own name,” believed Von Rezzori in Anecdotage. If the character he presented in the flesh was an ever-altering scrum – “I think I hardly knew him, there were so many of him,” says his sister-in-law – so also his books, each of them set in a different continent, resisted categorisation. Few understood his enterprise and significance better than a German author whose only experience of meeting him was on the page. W.G. Sebald was foremost of those writers set free by Chatwin. In the last essay that Sebald published before his own untimely death, he touched on Chatwin’s achievement in trampling down the fence-posts imposed by publishers, booksellers and critics. Taught by his example not to be tamed by conventional boundaries, Sebald went on to suggest that Chatwin’s invigorating legacy lay in pointing a way forward as well as back:

”Just as Chatwin himself ultimately remains an enigma, one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Lévy-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial and personal confession – they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mould of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those traveller’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.”

The process of hunting down Chatwin’s correspondence began in 1991, when I was commissioned to write his authorised biography. I spent seven years working on his life as a matter of choice and made liberal use of letters gathered in the course of interviewing people in 27 countries. Almost everyone – there was one exception – gave me permission to make full transcriptions. Some of his correspondents I talked to for long periods; others, I never bumped into. A notice placed in the Times Literary Supplement, following the biography’s publication in 1999, attracted five replies, plus copies of Chatwin’s letters to Michael Davie, David Mason, Charles Way and J. Howard Woolmer. This book represents about ninety per cent of material collected over nearly two decades. Our hope is that it might result in the discovery of more. A day after the manuscript was delivered to the publisher, a cache of four letters and a postcard written to Susan Sontag was traced to an archive in Los Angeles; we have been able to include these.

Chatwin’s principal correspondents were his parents Charles and Margharita, who in the early 1960s moved from Brown’s Green Farm outside Birmingham, to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they remained for the rest of their lives; Elizabeth Chanler, to whom he was married for 23 years, despite a brief separation in the early 1980s; Elizabeth’s mother Gertrude Chanler, who lived in Geneseo, New York State; Cary Welch, an American collector who was married to Elizabeth’s cousin Edith; Ivry Freyberg, the sister of his best friend at Marlborough, Raulin Guild; John Kasmin, a London art dealer with whom he travelled to Africa, Kathmandu and Haiti; Tom Maschler, his publisher at Jonathan Cape; Diana Melly, his hostess in Wales; Francis Wyndham, the writer, who worked with him at the Sunday Times magazine and was the first to be allowed to see his finished manuscripts; the Australian writers Murray Bail, Ninette Dutton and Shirley Hazzard; James Ivory, the American film director, who stayed with him in France in the summer of 1971; Sunil Sethi, an Indian journalist whom he met in 1978 while on the trail of Mrs Gandhi.

The business of love affairs is not prominent. Chatwin is often at his most intimate with those encountered fleetingly in far away places. “You do not find pining lovers among the Gipsies,” he wrote in a notebook. “Romantic love is played down as to be almost non-existent.” Any letters he may have written to Donald Richards or Jasper Conran have not come to light; those to Andrew Batey were destroyed in a flood in the Napa Valley.

Missing as well are letters to Penelope Betjeman, Werner Herzhog, David Nash, Robin Lane Fox, Gita Mehta, Redmond O’Hanlon, David Sulzberger; and from the archives of Sotheby’s and the Sunday Times magazine during the years of Chatwin’s employment there.

Incorporated in the footnotes are Elizabeth Chatwin’s comments on the text. These are intended to have the effect of an ongoing conversation. The poet Matthew Prior put it well in “A Better Answer to Chloe Jealous”:

No matter what beauties I saw in my way;

They were but my visits; but thou art my home.

In order to include as many letters as possible and to avoid repetition, we have pruned, sometimes heavily; all cuts are marked by ellipses. On the occasions when he wrote the same version of events to several people, we have chosen the fullest or most interesting. At other times – notably in descriptions of Penelope Betjeman’s death, the house that Chatwin rented in India while finishing The Songlines and his illness – we have included different versions in order to show that these are not duplications so much as demonstrations of the way his elaborating mind worked. In one case a single word was deleted to avoid causing distress to someone still alive. Casting Chatwin in a good or bad light has not swayed us. We have attempted to follow the advice of Isaiah Berlin, who wrote in a letter: “… we have all far more to gain than to lose by the publication of even indiscreet documents, which always emerge one day and then do more harm than if they were published openly, candidly and quickly.” Our choice has been determined by whether the material is interesting or illuminating. Obvious errors have been corrected; punctuation, addresses and spelling regularized – although we have retained his school misspellings. Dating the letters, even when they bear a date, has not always been easy. Chatwin was uncertain even of his wife’s birthday; several letters are marked not only with the wrong month, but the wrong year.

If Bruce Chatwin were to have written an autobiography to what extent would it be this? Had he yet been alive, how much of this volume would he have left out, or re-written? These questions have been ever-present during our preparation of Under the Sun. The answers lie, inevitably, in the same realm as his unwritten books. But a fascinating version of his life is here, from the first Sunday at Old Hall School in Shropshire when he sat down after Chapel to write to his parents.




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