Sunday, September 05, 2010

On Bruce Chatwin

I'm reading "Under the Sun" the letters of Bruce Chatwin. It's easy to forget that Chatwin, who died in 1989, was only first published in book form in 1977 with "In Patagonia". Before then he'd already been writing for magazines and newspapers, had studied archeology, and most significantly perhaps, had started his career at Sotheby's. The letters complement Nicholas Shakespeare's excellent biography of Chatwin, and do so, most of all, by re-telling the life in Chatwin's elegant prose. Whether or not he was a "born" writer, his observations, from an early trip to Afghanistan with Sotheby's onwards, are linked closely to his later work. I've read up to 1970, and have been gripped by the this loose re-telling of his life through his private correspondence. There is little that is "personal" in these letters, but there is much to recognise of Chatwin's later skills. He is a close observer of what he sees, but, and this perhaps explains why university never suited him, he is not attracted to dry details, or subjects studied in intimate depth. A synopsis of his proposed "nomads" book (which should have been finished nearly a decade before "In Patagonia" came out), shows him finding it difficult to fit all his enthusiasms into the "box" of a particular subject. In many ways he's the least biddable writer ever. Even journalism only suited him when he was able to redefine what that journalism meant.

I've always thought of Chatwin as a novelist rather than as a travel writer. He seems to owe more, for instance, to Fitzgerald than Hemingway - though he followed the latter's path in many ways. There may be more literal truth in Hemingway but there is more moral truth in Fitzgerald, and I think Chatwin combined the best (or some might say the worst) bits of both - looking on a Hemingwayesque landscape with a Fitzgeraldian eye. It is his prose that inspired me twenty years ago when I first read "On the Black Hill" and "The Songlines." Though a lifelong traveller, it is the static pleasures of the former book that stand out. If Chatwin's exotic travelogue - his own nomadic nature - was what appealed to early readers, it is something more permanent that remains in his prose, and which, I think, you'd find in his appreciation of cultures around the world.

In the introduction to the letters, Shakespeare wonders why his reputation has suffered recently (to which I'd ask, has it?), and Blake Morrison in his Guardian review asks if anyone still reads Chatwin? There's little enough of it to read of course, just five generally short "novels" (I use the word loosely) and two collections of other work. Now, there's the letters, and it is Chatwin's voice and his enthusiasms that comes out so strongly. I read writers lives not because I particularly want to know who they were sleeping with, but how, they ended up as the writer they became. There's a tendency to read Chatwin backwards, from his early death (he was 49), and its a different but entirely compatible journey to read him forwards.

As a writer published almost exclusively during the 80s he is often placed alongside Rushdie, McEwan and Amis, but he's an older generation than them. His personal life, including his homosexuality, are clearly important as to understanding him, but I think it's important to put him in his true historical context. He was already twenty years old at the start of the 60s. He seems the last of a particular kind, in some ways. I read one reference to the Beatles in his sixties letters - and, as someone who'd already done his own exploring in the east, he's dismissive (and it has to be said, snobbish) about the "hippy trail." Not for Chatwin the backpack, he's more the Victorian Gentleman Traveller, staying at chateaus, and, has high-powered friends almost everywhere he goes. Yet, unlike those Victorians, he is no apologist for Empire.

Because he died young, and, in the public view at least, looked youthful, we sometimes think of Chatwin as callow explorer, but its clear from this book that he's anything but. I've always felt that he's an experimental writer, and he's far closer to William Burroughs than Edgar Rice Burroughs, yet the clarity of his prose, it's very English "properness", have obscured this. He was still learning his craft, at least in terms of how to structure books, and in doing so created something of a new genre, that luckily, found a willing audience (and many lesser copyists.)These letters, on having read about half way through, don't give the whole life (though Shakespeare and Elizabeth Chatwin provide excellent notes throughout), but they do add something to our reading of Chatwin. Here is the sensibility, and some of the experiences, that would find there way into his exemplary books.

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