BRUCE CHATWIN (1940 - 1989)

One of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century.  A controversial figure who romanticises the lands he wrote about.  Every tourist I met in Patagonia had a copy of his book.  Despite miscellaneous inaccuracies, the Patagonian tourism industry has a lot to thank him.  In 1999, the first every full biography of this great writer was written.  Here are reviews of this book.

By Clay, Rebecca A.
By Nicholas Shakespeare. Doubleday. 618 pp. $35
As he neared death at age 48, British novelist Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) blamed his illness on, variously, a visit to a bat cave, a rotten thousand-year-old egg he had eaten in China, and a fungus previously reported only in a handful of Asian peasants and "a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia." Chatwin was really dying of AIDS, but mythologizing
lay at the heart of his life as well as his five novels. Now Shakespeare, a novelist, reveals the man behind the myths. Although
Chatwin burned piles of papers during his illness, the biographer still had plenty to work with. Chatwin's widow offered access to family papers and to restricted material at Oxford University. Shakespeare also gathered interview tapes, letters and diaries, and recollections from nearly everyone who crossed paths with Chatwin. The result is a comprehensive portrait of a man so multifaceted that art critic Robert Hughes called him not a person but a scrum. By the time Chatwin published his first novel, In Patagonia (1977), he was only in his thirties and had already been a renowned art expert at Sotheby's, a journalist, and an archaeologist whose pet theory was that settling down engenders human aggression.

His literary output was equally unclassifiable. Noting that Chatwin "made life difficult for booksellers, but vastly more interesting to readers," Shakespeare calls his work "the most glamorous example of a genre in which socalled 'travel writing' began to embrace a wider range: autobiography, philosophy, history, belles lettres, romantic fiction." The Songlines (1987), the bestseller about a journey across the Australian outback, was even up for a prestigious travel-writing award until the author reminded the
judges it was a novel.

As Shakespeare explains, Chatwin's life was full of paradoxes. He carried on a not-so-secret life as a gay man even as he shared a deep bond with a wife of almost unearthly patience. He was a middle-class boy from Birmingham who grew up to have an address book in which Jackie Onassis's phone number appeared just before an oryx herder's. While idealizing nomads' ability to travel light, he spent a lifetime collecting beautiful objects. He traveled the world despite a bad case of hypochondria, toting a rucksack filled with pills. He was an impossibly handsome charmer but a difficult-and frequent-houseguest who never offered to do the dishes. Unlike With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (1997), editor Susannah Clapp's slim memoir, this
first-rate biography shows Chatwin in all his complexity.

Wilson Quarterly, Vol.24, No.2

In his life, work, and sexuality, writer Bruce Chatwin continually reinvented himself. Facts were presented as fiction, as in his short novel set in Prague, Utz; fiction as facts, as in sections of In Patagonia and The Songlines. He was married to the same woman for all his adult life, and he also had numerous affairs with men. He went from working in Sotheby's to being an archaeology student, then a Sunday Times journalist, then essayist, travel writer - In Patagonia redefined the travel book genre - and novelist, travelling around the globe all the while. Even the AIDS which killed him in 1989 was presented to the public as a rare fungal bone disease picked up on his travels in China. His extraordinary life was short, but it was crammed with ideas, lovers, books, projects, friends, and places. As Robert Hughes commented, Chatwin "wasn't a person, he was a scrum". Nicholas Shakespeare was eight years researching and writing this superb biography, which took him to those places to which Chatwin had travelled, and for which he has extensively interviewed family and friends. Like all truly great biographies, it is as much a meditation on the bigger life picture as the person it profiles. Chatwin emerges as a deeply selfish and self-serving man
with a monstrous ego, yet as a person who was loved by many, and a fabulous storyteller who had a mind like a box of treasure. This biography is hugely exciting to read, guaranteed to draw the reader back to reread Chatwin's books, and is infused throughout with unforgettable vignettes.

By Nicholas Shakespeare.
Features - The truth is out there The trouble is, there are so many versions, as Nicholas Shakespeare discovered when writing his biography of Bruce Chatwin.

HOW is it possible to reconstruct the past? The painter Balthus tells a story of Francis Bacon, who gave up writing a history of mankind after he learnt that his account of a murder he had observed from his window deviated from the accounts of every other witness. There are those who argue that biography is itself a kind of murder, in which Philip Larkin is disclosed to
be a fascist misogynist, Arthur Koestler a rapist and Scott of the Antarctic a bad explorer. In each case, say the critics, the attempt to piece back together an extraordinary life has sounded a death knell. They agree with the American novelist Bernard Malamud: "There's no life that can be captured as it was." So why try? Last year, I published a biography of Bruce Chatwin. One of my aims was to be as objective as possible about someone I had counted as a friend and admired as a writer. It wasn't a matter of being brave enough to reveal what I unearthed, but of feeling that if his story was not told head on, it would
deny Chatwin his humanity.

I didn't think of it as a decent or indecent exercise, but simply as something I wanted to do - a labour, as it were, of love. The very same impulse had ignited each of my novels. In both projects, you're after the rounded "truth" of a character. You create this truth in fiction, whereas, in biography, you're under an obligation to be faithful to the literal event.

In a novel, I just have to report what is taking place in my imagination. If I tell you that the guerrilla leader Ezequiel is feeling glum, you don't doubt me. And yet, in biography, the question of how people think or feel is always elusive.  The fact is we can never know for certain what is going on in someone else's mind. All we can do is absorb the available evidence and responsibly patch together the shards. These shards, I discovered, frequently mislead.

Documentary evidence is not necessarily an accurate representation of what occurred. Eyewitnesses also lead the biographer into treacherous waters. THE memory of Chatwin was often fraught with distortion. It led to a cacophony of voices that rose out of 500 interviews in 22 countries. Nothing illustrates the pitfalls better than the story of his dog, a shaggy little creature called Solly. In March 1996, I interviewed James Fox, who told me how he witnessed Bruce Chatwin tell his wife Elizabeth outside a London restaurant to go away. I quote from our interview. "I have a vivid image of him going to lunch," said Fox. "He goes along to the front door of L'Etoile, Elizabeth is walking with him, dog on lead, and Bruce turns round and tells her to go away, which shocks everyone. They can't understand the relationship." I next interviewed Meriel McCooey, who also had witnessed the event and she remembered it like this: "We were going up to the Old Chop House for lunch, and Bruce decided to join us and Elizabeth turned up. But there was only a table for five and she would have made a sixth. I was standing on the corner by the hairdresser when he said: `You'll have to go home.' I didn't say anything, but I thought: `That's horrible.' Elizabeth went without a word. I couldn't understand why she didn't thump him."  I condensed the two versions, leaving out the dog and the name of the restaurant. They did not seem relevant. The story, as it had been expressed to me, was an example of Chatwin behaving badly - as he could. Elizabeth Chatwin, the most important person present, read the manuscript. She did not make any corrections. After the biography came out, a fourth witness, Francis Wyndham, raised his hand. Questioning the published
account, Wyndham "clearly" remembered that Elizabeth was accompanied by a dog and that the first restaurant they approached refused to admit animals. "Instead of trying to find somewhere that did, she insisted on Bruce staying with us here (it was vaguely a `working lunch'), while she happily took the dog home." For Wyndham, the dog was the crux of the story, not Chatwin's behaviour towards his wife. Or was Wyndham concentrating on the dog to deflect attention away from Chatwin's behaviour? Elizabeth, asked to revisit what some consider the most unsettling incident in the biography, remembered that there had been a dog. "Solly wasn't allowed in the pub. We went in. Someone said: `You can't bring the dog in.' It was very sad. I said `I'll go.' "

I'm no better off. I now have four witnesses, a pub, L'Etoile, the Old Chop House, a forbidden dog, a full table, Elizabeth happy, Elizabeth sad, Bruce saying nothing, Bruce shockingly rude. The more the evidence mounts, the more congested becomes the recollection of the 27-year-old event. The biographer as a witness to these eyewitnesses has to absorb their competing and conflicting subjectivities. Even if Chatwin is given the benefit of the doubt (ie he did not tell Elizabeth to go
away), the fact is on that afternoon he somehow failed his wife. The only discovery is a confirmation: everyone has an investment in remembering the past a certain way. There is always a reason someone tells you a story, a reason often quite invisible to them. It is the biographer's task to question the motives and sort through the evidence until a plausible
narrative emerges. It cannot be in his interest to invent what did not happen, but, in trying to find out what did, he has to prostrate himself before the options. In other words, he is compelled to recognise Nietzsche's maxim that "truth" really is a mobile army of metaphors - perhaps the only fixed truth to which a novelist should commit.

`Bruce Chatwin' (Vintage) by Nicholas Shakespeare is available in paperback
for £7.99 post-free in the UK from Telegraph Books Direct, 24 Seward St,
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(c) Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2000.