The International Writers Magazine: Literary Travel
The Amazing Comeback of the late Bruce Chatwin:
The Great Pretender
John M Edwards
For the late great Bruce Chatwin life was a journey to be taken on two legs. Obsessed with nomads, he periodically became one himself, ditching two successful careers, as Sotheby’s art expert and Sunday Times columnist, to roam the exotic edges of the literary wilderness.
Whether it was stumbling across the Sudanese desert with Kipling’s migratory tribes of “Fuzzy-Wuzzies,” following in the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid across the Patagonian pampas, or tracing mythic Aboriginal songlines in the Australian outback, the enigmatic wanderer was always in search of the marvelous, extraordinary, and unexpected, even if he didn’t exactly rough it. (His silk jammies were usually within snatching distance.)
So what if he was also notorious for bending the truth a little?
Chatwin’s alchemical fusion of fact and fiction is brought to the fore, for example, in Susannah Clapp’s entertaining biography, With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer. Chatwin’s former editor paints a vivid portrait of the multifaceted, irrepressible, “dervish-like” walker and talker she knew. Clapp says, “Chatwin liked clear outlines, plain surfaces and unexpected bursts of color.” He also was intrigued by “paradox and inconsistency.” Though the book is clear on what Chatwin liked, it leaves what he was like somewhat uncertain. There is a disputed border between biography and biographer, since Clapp’s blue pencil pared down the lapidary Impressionistic prose—with its honed Hemingwayesque phrases and profound Proustian details—that made Chatwin’s literary reputation.
Examining the editing process itself, Clapp explains how they reduced the once-massive manuscript of In Patagonia, a classic that paradoxically broadened the field of travel writing, down into a slim volume of “cubist” pen-portraits. Dangling between fact and fiction, mixing myth, history, and autobiography, Bruce pops up all over Patagonia, but dispenses with important (“boring” to Chatwin) links like how he got from A to B or his secret thoughts while on the road, as his friend and energetic rival Paul Theroux frequently complained. Intricately linked to Chatwin personally and professionally, Clapp is well suited to connect the dots while separating the man from the books, the art from the life, the legend from the reality.
By eyeballing his oeuvre, we can further deconstruct some of the myths surrounding a man who eventually became “famous for being famous.” As Michael Ignatieff famously quipped, Chatwin’s own character “was one of his greatest inventions.”
Before departing Planet Earth in 1989 (at age 48) of what he claimed was a “rare bone disease” caused by Chinese eggs (close sources say it really was AIDS), Chatwin had become a living literary cult figure, comparable with such figures as Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and T. E. Lawrence. Still, Chatwin known to his friends as “Chatterbox,” was “feted for his looks as well as his books”—indeed, he was celebrated for his abnormal physical beauty as well as his gifts as a conversationalist and writer. With his Midas locks, patrician profile, and extraterrestrial blue eyes, he would, according to Howard Hodgkin, “flirt with man, woman, or dog.”
One acquaintance said memorably that he had the MAD MAD eyes of a nineteenth-century explorer”; others, the “glittering eyes of the Ancient Mariner.” Since I’m sure I met him years ago in New Orleans, without knowing who he was (some blond guy named Bruce with a live python around his neck), I would imagine that he paid close attention to his appearance, constantly grooming himself and checking his reflection. On the trail, in Afghanistan, Wales, or India, he could be found in his signature khaki shorts (“Bruce’s little shorts,” joked his good-time Charlie friends)--which I imagine he might have modeled after Tintin—with ankle-length walking boots and neatly turned-down fawn socks, delighting observers with its whiff of the Raj.
Salman Rushdie said the Chatwin in the books was not “the whole person he was when you met him.” Aesthete, archaeologist, art expert, journalist, gourmand, photographer, writer, the polymath Chatwin even as a child seemed to have “a sense of his own importance,” according to Clapp. Maybe, a kind of ESP of the Bruces he’d later be. Born on May 13, 1940, in Sheffield, England, Chatwin’s early years were marked by movement. “I lived in NAAFI canteens and was passed around like a tea urn,” he remarked on his semi-nomadic childhood. Even at Marlborough “college” (transatlantic translation: high school), Bruce was unlike other students. Nicknamed “Lord Chatwin,” he was “an Edith Sitwell reader among a lot of Nevil Shute fans,” began collecting expensive antique furniture, and was singled out for his abilities as an actor, as well as his “insouciance.” One teacher wrote of him, “His gift may be slender perhaps, but it is genuine.” But not genuine enough to get him into Oxford or Cambridge.
It wasn’t until Bruce began working at Sotheby’s that he came into his own.
Much is made about Chatwin having “The Eye,” the quasi-mystical ability to recognize at a glance an original or a fake. For example, as a teen star at Sotheby’s “the blond boy” correctly identified a Picasso harlequin as a forgery. Similarly, when he began his writing career at the late age of 37, he could distinguish between a fine or foul sentence. Or between interesting and boring. “Bruce made people look at things differently and made them look at different things,” Clapp quips. In one of my favorite “miniatures” from What Am I Doing Here (which famously doesn’t explain what he was doing there, nor does it evidence good punctuation, since the question mark in the title is inexplicably missing), Chatwin describes a memorable (but iffy) Art World meeting with “The Bey”:
One morning there appeared an elderly and anachronistic gentleman in a black Astrakhan-collared coat, carrying a black silver-tipped cane. His syrupy eyes and brushed-up moustache announced him as a relic of the Ottoman Empire.
“Can you show me something beautiful?” he asked. “Greek, not Roman!”
“I think I can," I said.
I showed him a fragment of an Attic white-ground lekythos by the Achilles Painter which had the most refined drawing, in golden-sepia, of a naked boy. It had come from the collection of Lord Elgin.
“Ha!” said the gentleman. “I see you have The Eye. I too have The Eye. We shall be friends.”
He handed me his card. I watched the black coat recede into the gallery:
Paul A_____ F_____ Bey
Grand Chamberlain du Cour du Roi des Albanis
Fact or fiction? Fact. Bruce really did own Hawaiian King Kamehameha’s bedsheet. Fiction? Was Bruce really approached, as he claimed, by British Intelligence while traveling in communist Eastern Europe? Fact. Bruce sort of “smuggled” a Cezanne out of France. Fiction? He tricked Customs inspectors by posing as the picture’s painter. Fact. Bruce really was caught in a coup in Benin, while researching The Viceroy of Ouidah. Fiction? What happened to him in the story “The Coup” (atrocities are spoken of in the accents of Noel Coward) is apocryphal.
Stories simply changed as they were recalled, becoming in translation akin to tales both tall and twice-told. He often talked—sometimes as if it were fantasy, sometimes fact—of a day spent at Carnaval in Rio, making love first to a girl, then to a boy. To Chatwin, the word “story” was meant to “alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.” This was taken to the extreme in The Songlines, when Chatwin appears as a fictional character named “Bruce” knocking about the dreaming tracks of the Aussie outback with a guy called Arkady (who might have really been Salman Rushdie).
Over the causes of wanderlust, Chatwin puzzled. In much of his work, he attempts to explain why men wander rather than sit still. (Even his surname, derived from the Anglo-Saxon “chette-wynde,” meaning “winding path,” fortuitously prefigures his major obsession.) He agreed with Pascal that man’s unhappiness stems from a single cause: “his inability to remain quietly in a room.”
Hence, in Bruce’s anti-travel novel On the Black Hill, two identical octogenarian twins never leave their house of birth in the Welsh countryside. In The Viceroy of Ouidah, a crammed and claustrophobic book, the main character, a Brazilian slave trader from Dahomey, considers “any set of four walls to be a tomb or a trap,” yet is involved with confining others. Conversely, The Songlines is airy and open, examining mankind’s migratory drive to walk long distances. Chatwin, like Baudelaire, had a “horreur du domicile,” and was often away from his immaculately planned London pied a terre (“a cross between a cell and a ship’s cabin”), constantly looking for the ideal space in which to write, seemingly always elusively elsewhere.
But ah, the opposite of the nomad is the collector, and Chatwin even talked about his travels as collecting places. In his later years, Chatwin, once an expert on the Impressionists and an avid art collector himself, developed an almost Bedouin sensibility. Sharing the nomad’s horror of the graven image, he believed, “Man should own no possessions but those he can conveniently carry.”
Which strikes home to me, since I labored under a heavy backpack for one entire year in the Antipodes (Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific) and two full years in Europe.
What Chatwin was getting at in so many words: Smash the idols! While collecting art and freely giving it away, Chatwin developed very pronounced theories about the cult of fetishism and the decadence of possession—a subject he would explore in essays like “The Morality of Things” and return to in his last book, Utz, about an obsessive-compulsive collector of Meissen porcelain in Prague. In one passage the nameless narrator (Bruce?) tells Utz of a man he met who was a dealer in dwarfs:
“And what did they do with those dwarfs?” Utz tapped me on the knee.
He had paled with excitement and was mopping the sweat from his brow.
“Kept them,” I said. “The sheik, if I remember right, liked to sit his favorite dwarf on his forearm and his favorite falcon on the dwarf’s forearm.”
“How can one know?”
“You are right,” said Utz. “There are things one cannot know.”
One thing nobody can know for sure is what Chatwin, with his museum-like mind and ultra-ambiguous persona, was really like below the surface. It was one of his charms, Clapp claims, to be “several apparently contradictory things and to reconcile them in his books.” A literary chameleon, Chatwin, who’d purportedly “never heard of the Muppets,” was famous for his evasiveness. (“I don’t believe in coming clean,” he once said—no: creeched—to Paul Theroux.) Yes indeedy, he was full of contradictions: he was a lover of the austere who had a flamboyant manner; he was gay, yet happily married; he worked in the art world, but railed against objects and possessions; he proposed the “Nomadic Alternative” for mankind (his unfinished magnum opus), while staying and writing abroad comfortably ensconced in the homes of famous friends. (“For a nomad,” commented one host after an extended Bruce visit, “he spends an awful lot of time in one place.”) Even his most commercially successful book, The Songlines, is an anomaly—its publishers called it “nonfiction” in Britain but “fiction” in America.
Yet after reading every single last one of his essays in the posthumously released Anatomy of Restlessness, I decided that Bruce, so difficult to pin down and pigeonhole, simply wanted to be a writer, on the strength of one line: “I thought that telling stories was the only conceivable occupation for a superfluous person such as myself.”
Going back to Clapp, rather than to Nicholas Shakespeare and his amazing definitive biography (which you will have to judge for yourself), she quite elegantly suggests in a roundabout way that Bruce might have wanted to be an actor on the world stage. She calls him “a skillful manager of remarkable entrances and surprise appearances,” and one does wonder if Chatwin did in fact live life as if he were in a very weird version of “The Truman Show”—awaiting the mixed reviews of his audience. Tales of the unexpected attached themselves like ticks to Chatwin wherever he wandered. One story circulated, which I’ve previously alluded to, that Bruce in New Orleans went dancing with a live python around his neck—a story which I can, believe it or not, personally corroborate since I might have in fact been there!
His absences were as dramatic as his presences. After a hysterical bout of blindness (entirely psychosomatic), he exited Sotheby’s by setting off for the Sudan, under doctor’s orders to gaze at “long horizons”; the symptoms mysteriously disappeared at the airport. His restless nature outed again when the wily wanderer resigned from the Sunday Times with a theatrical telegram, simply saying, “Gone to Patagonia.”
Toward the end of his life, intermittently feverish and high on painkillers, Bruce reappeared in public as “hyper-Bruce, an exaggerated, speeded-up version of his already emphatic self.” Basically, he would just show up like an unexpected surprise party favor at shindigs, lavishly entertain guests at the Ritz, or wheelchair around on manic buying-and-selling expeditions, announcing to store owners, “I’m going to be one of your best customers”—while his wife, Elizabeth, and a loyal cadre of friends and fans busily canceled his checks and returned objects to dealers. Even during his grim finale, groomed in bed “like an old baboon” by his wife (and nurse), he did what he did best: Chatwin chatted.
In one final Chatwinesque twist, life imitated art. Chatwin’s commemoration service was a baffling, even “camp,” Greek Orthodox ceremony, complete with black-robed and bearded priests swinging censers and chanting “Bruce” (his last joke, according to friend Martin Amis). Which occurred the same day as the Ayatollah’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie, who appeared to pay his respects before being whisked away into hiding. Clapp, whose own prose style at times weirdly mirrors Chatwin’s sparse, exotic signatory script) says it was as if Bruce had “manipulated” the scene from beyond the grave.
Though Chatwin “hardly wrote a confessional line in his life” (he never publicized his homosexuality, or, better, “bisexuality,” for example), only time will tell what other surprises await inside his eighty-five private moleskin notebooks, scheduled to be released to the public around 2010 here in the New Millenium. But meanwhile we have Chatwin’s published work to puzzle over, urging even the most sedentary armchair readers into the unknown and awakening the nomad in all of us.
And I’m not joking when I say that I believe Chatwin is still alive somewhere. Or, as I’m wont to aphorize: “Some of us will live forever. . . .” In a vainglorious attempt to retrace Chatwin’s past and path, I made a special request to stay a few nights in his atmospheric “room” at the Ritz Hotel in “Londinium,” which was homely enough, like a flowery combo of your batty aunt’s and Van Gogh’s bedroom. Dealing with the staff, I felt like a defensive cultish member of “The Psychic Friends Network”: “No, I’m not John Edward, the televangelist psychic; I’m John Edwards (with an s), the traveling journalist!” I even named my daughter “Elizabeth Chatwin Edwards”), whose favorite drink is a made-up deal we call an “Elizabethan” (cranberry juice and seltzer), in honor of my favorite travel writer and our shared profession. I have to admit, my goddess prodigy child (nicknamed “QE3”) is already rather handy not only with the piano keys (she recorded an original CD called “Chocolate, la la la la la”) but also with the pen--and next Christmastime, I’m going to gift her with Bruce’s favorite brand of byro: a Mont Blanc!
© John M. Edwards March 2010
John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favorite travel writer, without telling anybody why, until now. Bruce Chatwin’s personal notebooks will be released circa 2010, and nobody knows yet if it will be his perpetual-motion “magnum opus.”
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with serendipity ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Thailand to being stuck in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in Amazon.com, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Poetry Motel, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Trips, Big World, Vagabondish, Glimpse, BootsnAll, Hack Writers, Richmond Review, Borderlines, ForeWord, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Travel Writing Award, and a Solas Award (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He lives in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” His future bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders, remain unpublished. His new work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux, is about a time traveler. He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming Rotten Vacations.
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