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An Introduction to the Life and Books of Bruce Chatwin

4 Conversations

An Aborigine

Bruce Chatwin combined fact and fiction in his books in an unprecedented way. His death in 1988, at the age of 48 and having published only five books, robbed the literary world of a talent of great potential.

Early Life

Bruce Chatwin was born in Sheffield, England, in 1940. After leaving school, and choosing not to go to university, he gained employment at the auction house, Sotheby's in 1958. He quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the company's youngest ever directors. In 1966 he married Elizabeth Chanler who worked with him at Sotheby's.

Growing disillusioned with the art world, he resigned unexpectedly in 1966. He started a degree in Archaeology at Edinburgh University but never completed it; although intelligent, he was not a scholar.

On leaving university he decided to become a writer. The book he proceeded to write, yet never published, was called The Nomadic Alternative. The ideas contained in it were to haunt him for many years. Briefly, his theory was that man's natural state was that of a nomad and that 'settling down' in towns and cities caused the troubles of the world. The ideas were to resurface in his penultimate book The Songlines.

Following the difficult writing process and lack of interest from the publishers, Chatwin had to change track again. He took a job with the British Newspaper The Sunday Times as Arts Correspondent for their magazine. Chatwin had travelled widely in Central Asia, Africa and North America prior to taking this job. But his new role allowed him even greater travel opportunities to research articles.

In Patagonia - 1977

In December 1974, Chatwin resigned from the Sunday Times Magazine and travelled to South America to research 'Something I've always wanted to write up'. Legend has it that he sent a telegraph to his editor saying 'Gone to Patagonia for 6 months' and never returned. The time he spent there resulted in his first published book, In Patagonia. Written in 97 very short chapters, it documents his travels in search of the cave in which his grandmother's cousin had found the remains of a giant sloth in the 19th Century.

The Viceroy of Ouidah - 1980

This short book, running to 101 pages, is an account of a Brazilian slave trader in Ouidah, part of modern-day Benin in West Africa. Fransico Manoel da Silva travelled to Ouidah in the early 1880s and became one of the richest men in Africa, friend of kings and the Viceroy of Ouidah. The lack of solid historical evidence resulted in this semi-fictional book. It proved confusing to his readers and critics alike by being nothing like his previous work. This habit of writing stories as different from one another as possible became a Chatwin trademark.

On the Black Hill - 1982

Next Chatwin chose to write a book contrary to what was expected of him as a chronicler of travels and exotic places: a story of two brothers who rarely leave the farm where they were born. On the Black Hill concerns Lewis and Benjamin Jones born and raised in the hills of Wales bordering England. He had known this area well as a child and many of the characters in the novel are based on figures from his childhood and those he met while researching the book. Despite being his third book, and second novel, it won the Whitbread Best First Book Award.

The Songlines - 1988

Trying to make sense of his notes for The Nomadic Alternative, he discovered a vehicle for these ideas following a trip to Australia.

This is perhaps his best known book but it is a controversial one. Once again using real people as models for 'fictional' characters, he upset many people he had met during his travels in Australia. Anthropologists object to his theories on nomadic lifestyles. The accuracy of his account of aboriginal song lines and culture is suspect. But despite this, the book remains a superb piece of literature.

Utz - 1988

Utz is perhaps his most perfect book. In faultless prose he tells the story of a Czech collector of Meissen porcelain. In writing it, while dying from AIDS, he returned to his experiences at Sotheby's. Part detective story and part essay on the psychology of the collector it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1988 shortly before his death.

Fact or Fiction?

With the publication of most of his books, Chatwin annoyed those he had used as models. Chatwin himself disliked being described as a novelist and his books as fiction saying: 'Look at the greatest novel of the 19th Century, Madame Bovary. Every incident is a compilation of various things. Flaubert researched and researched. Very little is invented1.'

The borderline between fiction and non-fiction is to my mind extremely arbitrary, and invented by publishers.

This is illuminating in another way. Chatwin created his own life by researching and researching, then dismissing the uninteresting parts of his life. What he said and what he had done were often completely different. But to him a good story was a good story, and all good stories were fair game to him no matter what the source. He incorporated these stories into his life and into his books. This aspect of his personality could often infuriate those who knew him.

.. and Finally

Chatwin embodied wanderlust both in his life and in the books he chose to write. As he chose to wander the world, so his writing flitted from country to country and from style to style.

His fame came with his first book, but he had many lives before this: art expert, journalist, failed student, photographer, traveller. Primarily, though, he was a storyteller and he used this gift to fascinate and irritate those around him and his readers in equal measure.

Despite his promiscuous nature and frequent affairs, both homosexual and heterosexual, he remained married to Elizabeth. For many years she had to live on her own as he travelled the world. There were times they didn't see one another for years. She nursed him as he died in France. Their friends are convinced that she was the only person he ever truly loved. One said to her: 'I think you know what you meant to him, which is everything.' This was perhaps the only fact that friends and acquaintances could agree about him.

Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Chatwin, is an excellent guide to his life and work and the controversies surrounding both. Also available is Nicholas Murray's study of his books.

1He is referring to Flaubert's The Dictionary of Received Ideas, a notebook kept by the French author and filled with snatches of peoples' lives, conversations and observations of provincial French life. Many of these notes made their way into his books.

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