Bruce Chatwin

By Nicholas Shakespeare

Published by The Harvill Press

591 pages, 1999

Buy it online





The Golden Dilettante

Reviewed by Jay Currie


Dilettantes have a bad reputation. The idea that there is value in knowing a little about a lot has fallen on hard times. Instead of general knowledge, people are increasingly committed to niches and expertise. For those of us who dislike specialization, Bruce Chatwin was a beacon.

Chatwin stands in a long line of eccentrics ranging from Richard Burton and Gertrude Bell on through T.E. Lawrence. Our current crop includes Redmond O'Hanlon, Robert Hughes and, in a very odd way, Gore Vidal. People who combine exploration, scholarship, intelligence and a sense of just how powerful prose can be.

Chatwin, Nicholas Shakespeare's wonderfully written new biography, describes a life which had no limits at all. The son of a Birmingham solicitor, Chatwin barely managed to finish at a British private school. He got a job as a "porter" at Sotheby's. That was 1958 and the great boom in Impressionists and antiquities was just about to begin. Chatwin quickly became Sotheby's Impressionist expert and began to hone his prose writing catalog descriptions of the most unlikely objects. Chatwin etched the bones of his writing style describing the loot of Empire.

Sotheby's created more than a spare, descriptive prose style; it gave Chatwin deep exposure to art and the people who collect art. The-none-too-brilliant school boy had a nearly perfect memory for paintings and objects. Better still, Chatwin was utterly charming. The combination was fatal.

"Think of the word seduction," said Miranda Rothchild, a one-encounter lover. "He's out to seduce everybody, it doesn't matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy." Chatwin's seductions were partially sexual; but there was an element of wanting and needing the entire world to love him which made him work so hard with new acquaintances. No small talent when you are trying to get the rich to auction their surplus Monets.

Sexually, Chatwin was gay to the point of festive but would sleep with women if the opportunity presented itself. He was also married for 23 years to a woman he genuinely loved in his fashion. Shakespeare explains the contradiction -- Chatwin compartmentalized -- his marriage was his vital anchor, his sexual life was lived in a completely different realm.

Appointed a director of Sotheby's, Chatwin decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to quit and take a degree in archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. He stuck it out for two years but had not one ounce of the academic temperament. He supported himself by buying and selling bits of art. With his "eye" he haunted secondhand stores picking up rarities for a couple of quid which latter sold for a few hundred or a few thousand pounds.

Chucking Edinburgh, Chatwin got freelance work with the legendary Sunday Times Magazine which was casting about for an art consultant. Chatwin parlayed what was a relatively insignificant, if well paid, part time job into a series of dream freelance assignments. He interviewed Indira Ghandi, wrote about obscure collectors of Russian Constructivist art, and interviewed Andre Malraux. As he picked up the tricks of the journalist's trade he also filled in the giant gap in his literary education: he didn't have one. The dilettante was undeterred. Hemmingway, Madame Bovary, Russian writers like Chekov and Turgenev found their way onto his reading list. With his marvelous memory and capacity for concentrated effort, Chatwin set about becoming well read.

The Sunday Times Magazine faded just as Chatwin was tiring of the short form of journalism. He had always been fascinated by nomads and he proposed to write a book about these wanderers. He managed a small advance and then, for nearly 20 years, published nothing at all about nomads. He did, however, become one.

What he did instead is write Journey to Patagonia. Chatwin differs from other travel writers in the tradition of Jan Morris or Paul Theroux. Instead, Chatwin was a writer who was obsessed with traveling. Journey to Patagonia is a collection of loosely connected stories set at the very end of the earth and about people who have been cut off from their European roots for several generations. Chatwin describes the staggering landscapes he encounters as he pushes ever southward toward Tierra Del Feugo. However, what makes Journey to Patagonia such a compelling read are his tales of murder, rape, exile, divided loyalties and lost dreams.

Chatwin differs from other travel writers in that he makes no claims as to the strict truth of his tales. Travel writing is generally seen as non-fiction: Chatwin simply could not be that literal. If a story would be a bit better with one ending rather than another... well, Chatwin was not on oath. As Shakespeare put it, "He tells not a half truth, but a truth-and-a-half."

Journey to Patagonia made Chatwin's reputation as a writer. While it was not necessarily all true, it was infinitely readable. Paul Theroux in The Times picked it as his book of the year. Chatwin became a success in the United States with Patagonia and to this day there are backpackers walking towards the Antarctic with that Penguin paperback as their only guide.

Charm and memory were a beginning for Chatwin: fame and success pushed him to create and to live at ever more fantastic levels. The strange mid 1980s New York world of socialite dinner parties and "walking" Jackie O until eleven and then off to S&M fisting clubs like the Anvil or the Mineshaft until dawn became a part of Chatwin's life. Robert Maplethorpe photographed him.

Chatwin did not stay too long in New York, or anywhere else for that matter. As one intimate would say, "He loved and always left." Chatwin traveled to Ouidah, an old slave town in Africa and then to Bahia in Brazil where the slaves were sold, to research his next book, The Viceroy of Ouidah. He was trying to understand the nature of an unimaginably cruel trade which was based on the willingness of its participants to sell their own people into slavery. As he traveled he casually picked up African and Brazilian boys. Chatwin was becoming an experienced sexual tourist.

The nomad story floated in the background. After finishing The Viceroy Chatwin went to Australia. He bumped about the Outback talking to people who knew Aboriginals. On one trip he brought his friend Salman Rushdie along for the ride. Along the way, Chatwin, who loved the sound of his own voice, talked nonstop to Rushdie dawn till dusk about the Aga Khan and high society. Rushdie finally cracked, "Bruce, is there anyone you know who is not famous?"

The result was Chatwin's most famous book, The Songlines. Chatwin puts forward a thesis, not actually his own, that the songs of the Aboriginals are a cross between a creation myth, an atlas and an Aboriginal man's personal story, all etched onto the trackless red heart of Australia. Chatwin also takes the whole of the research he had completed for his nomad book and works it into the story. In Songlines, Chatwin takes leave of the facts about the people he met and the places he went. Had Songlines been fiction this would have been forgivable; but Chatwin refused to have his theory regarding the nomadic nature of man reduced to fiction. Shakespeare took the time to interview the many people Chatwin spoke with while researching The Songlines. It is very clear they felt completely betrayed by Chatwin. More damningly, they point out Chatwin did not, in fact, spend much time with actual Aboriginals.

Utz , his last book, was a fictional take on the obsession which leads people to collect. Set in Vienna, it describes a man with an outstanding passion for porcelain. A short, elegiac book, it is Chatwin writing from maturity about a mania which was to consume the later days of his life.

The Songlines and Utz were published as Chatwin realized he was dying of AIDS. Not admitting he had AIDS, he passed off his symptoms as fungal infections or the effects of the bite of a Chinese bat. Chatwin's AIDS did not respond well to AZT. Mad with AIDS dementia Chatwin was wheelchaired through some of the best art and antique dealers in London so he could assemble a collection of very fine objects for his long-suffering wife. Objects he could not pay for. Then, hoping a change of climate would help, he was taken to Shirley Conran's house in the south of France. She was the mother of the Princess of Wales's courtier, Jasper Conran. A man who had his heart broken by Chatwin. Surrounded by his wife and a some very close friends, Chatwin died.

Shirley Conran wrote in her diary upon Chatwin's death, "That golden child of fortune, whose christening was attended by all the good fairies, now felt the bad fairies come true. The darting dragonfly has been trampled. And the world is truly a sadder place because BC is no longer in it."

At the end of Shakespeare's nearly perfect biography, the balance of Chatwin's charm against his selfishness seems a standoff. He did not, as my mother would say, have a very nice character. But his breadth of knowledge and his sheer interest in everything in the world around him let Chatwin live, travel and write as few other men can ever hope to. Chatwin's extraordinary life was his legacy. | September 1999