Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin
Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare
(Viking, 554 pp., $35)
The expression “to embroider the truth” was already current when Sir Walter Raleigh—no mean embroiderer himself—complained about the exaggerations of Greek travelers such as Herodotus. But it could have been invented for the English writer and self-styled nomad Bruce Chatwin instead. Much of Chatwin’s enormous prestige during the decade from 1977, when his tightly conceived masterwork, In Patagonia, was published, to 1987, when the more ragged production The Songlines appeared, depended on the widespread assumption that these distinctive books—two of the five that Chatwin published before his death from AIDS, at the age of forty-eight, in 1989—were reliable records of Chatwin’s actual travels in South America and Australia (which he preferred, with appropriate innuendo, to call “Oz”). If these unclassifiable works recorded travels, as Chatwin’s most important imaginative heir, W.G. Sebald, noted, they were “a late flowering of those early traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous.”
Chatwin himself insisted, against his editors’ wishes, that The Songlines in particular should be marketed as a work of fiction, despite the sustained anthropological attention accorded in the book to the narrative songs that give meaning to the wanderings of aboriginal people, and Chatwin’s accompanying reflections on “the nature of human restlessness,” which he called “the question of questions.” When The Songlines was nominated for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, Chatwin declined on the reasonable grounds that, as he put it, “the journey it describes is an invented journey; it is not a travel book in the generally accepted sense.” More recently, Nicholas Shakespeare’s otherwise sympathetic biography of Chatwin revealed that much of the vivid detail of In Patagonia, with its memorable encounters with local poets and gauchos in the Argentine outback, was Chatwin’s own invention. (Chatwin came to regret the stark photographs, with their air of documentation, that were included in the British edition of the book, and he omitted them from the American version.) And yet both books are still most likely to be found in the travel section of a bookstore or online inventory.
Chatwin added to the confusion by comporting himself, in dress and demeanor, according to the conventions of travel writers of the old school, such as his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked from Holland to Istanbul in the 1930s, carrying a few clothes, a volume of Horace, and little else. Chatwin pretended to travel light, but he was actually a dandy, on the road and off. His leather rucksack, modeled on one belonging to the French actor Jean-Louis Barrault, was commissioned from an English saddler. His diminutive Moleskine notebooks, purchased in Paris, are now marketed in Chatwin’s name. He traveled heavily, as Shakespeare noted—with ninety pounds of books, a typewriter, champagne, gray suits, boots, and muesli for breakfast. According to his Australian friend Murray Bail, traveling with Chatwin in India was “like traveling with Garbo.”
If the true travel writer trusts in serendipity, Chatwin left little up to chance. He was disarmingly candid about why he traveled. “I always try and decide what I want,” he told an interviewer, “and then I will try and find it.” China was a wash until he discovered, “in the remoter parts of, say, Yunnan, the world of Taoist gentleman-scholars, plant-hunters, poets, calligraphers,” as though nothing had changed since the thirteenth century. India crystallized for Chatwin only when a suite of “cool blue” rooms in an ancient fort, with full staff, was offered to him and his wife for a refuge, with peacocks on the lawn and kingfishers and monkeys in the trees.
In the interest of finding what he wanted, Chatwin was not averse to making slight adjustments in the record of what he found. He met a Russian doctor with prosthetic legs in Patagonia. “She spent every spare peso ordering books from the Y.M.C.A. Press in Paris,” Chatwin reported in In Patagonia. “Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak, Gumilev, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn—the names rolled off her tongue with the reverberation of a litany.” It turns out, however, that the names that actually rolled off her tongue were Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Such embroidery spread to Chatwin’s letters, as we find in the generous new collection selected and edited by Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, and the faithful Nicholas Shakespeare. “I have discussed the poetics of Mandelstam with a Ukrainian doctor missing both legs,” Chatwin wrote to Elizabeth in January 1975. At least the false legs were real.
Amid the narrow conventions of English travel writing, Chatwin’s embellishments might seem mildly scandalous, the literary equivalent of documentary photographers accused of “moving things.” After Chatwin’s death, it was mainly English critics who complained of his dodginess, as though his adjustments constituted literary fraud—“Chatwin accused of hit and myth,” The Daily Telegraph announced. American readers, accustomed to the approximate truth-telling of Walden or Life on the Mississippi, were less alarmed. As his editor and sometime collaborator Elisabeth Sifton put it, “He was an artist, not a liar.”
What Chatwin learned from conventional travel writing was superficial at best. His real inspiration came from older writers in the more imaginative (and embellishing) mold of T.E. Lawrence, Kipling, and D.H. Lawrence. Kipling in particular was a far greater influence on Chatwin than one might think. In The Songlines, he quotes Kipling’s observation (it was Chatwin’s own overarching theme) that “there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.” Kipling’s great story “The Man Who Would Be King,” with its nightmare vision of travelers in trouble, fraud on a grand scale, and the perils of colonial hubris, lurks beneath several of Chatwin’s narratives, most conspicuously The Viceroy of Ouidah, his gaudy historical novel of the regal dreams of a Brazilian slave trader, but also In Patagonia, where the story is explicitly invoked. One is not surprised to find Chatwin, in the letters, planning a trek across Nuristan, where Kipling’s ill-fated pair, Dravot and Carnehan, met their grisly end.
To harp on the distortions and the embellishments in Chatwin’s books is, in any case, to miss the main fact about them. These books helped to inaugurate, or at least to recover and reinvigorate, a genre of their own: the meandering voyage, packed with philosophical reflections and arcane erudition, that the critic Northrop Frye long ago called the “anatomy.” Such otherwise unclassifiable shaggy monsters as Gulliver’s Travels, Moby-Dick, and the works of Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton (and, in our own time, Sebald) all bear a family resemblance to Chatwin’s books. And yet the specific conventions that these books share remain elusive. How exactly might one go about writing a book indebted to the structure, the sheer narrative oddity, of Moby-Dick? Chatwin’s letters reveal that his search for an appropriate form for his books was arduous and, in his view, widely misunderstood.
He was dismayed that reviewers so consistently missed what he was up to in his books. Couldn’t they see that In Patagonia was about a quest? Didn’t they notice that it began with a small piece of animal skin with strands of red hair, which Chatwin remembered from his grandmother’s glass-fronted cabinet, and ended when he had traced the skin to its source: a cave in Patagonia where a prehistoric giant sloth had lived? Didn’t they see that In Patagonia “isn’t meant to be a travel book” at all, as he told one correspondent, but was instead “an allegorical journey on the classic pattern (narrator goes in search of beast etc.)”? Sebald brilliantly linked Chatwin’s narrative with Balzac’s magical peau de chagrin, the wild ass’s skin that shrinks with each wish granted to its owner, and which is also, Sebald adds, “the skin of grief and suffering.”
For seventeen years, Chatwin wrestled with an appropriate frame for the nonfictional material in The Songlines, meanwhile pumping Australian friends for useful details: “I need to know what in the way of fanged beasts a boy of 3 in 1954 would have seen in the Adelaide zoo. Would there have been a leopard? Or a tiger? Or lion? A dingo is a bit mild for my purpose.” He considered packaging his Australian researches as a very long letter to the writer Roberto Calasso, his Italian publisher, or as a philosophical dialogue under the trees—he reread Plato, he said, “to see how you express ideas in dialogue (The answer is, ‘I don’t’).” He finally settled, amid the time constraints of his escalating illness, on the rollicking road narrative of the final draft, with its colorful characters in bars and farms along the way, like so much applesauce concealing the theoretical spinach. With Sifton’s decisive advice, he made the final section a commonplace book of fragmentary reflections and quotations from various writers, culled from his Moleskines, on nomadism.
Chatwin claimed that much of The Songlines was written “in semi-hallucination.” The fictional frame now feels cumbersome and artificial, with its central character and informant, Arkady, like some latter-day Neal Cassady, who will guide Chatwin to the secrets of the aboriginals. But the core of the book is still exciting. In a brilliant passage, Chatwin compared the aboriginal narratives, with their topographical references, to the myths and metamorphoses recorded in Ovid and other classical writers:
And it struck me, from what I now knew of The Songlines, that the whole of Classical mythology might represent the relics of a gigantic “song-map”: that all the to-ing and fro-ing of gods and goddesses, the caves and sacred springs, the sphinxes and chimaeras, and all the men and women who became nightingales or ravens, echoes or narcissi, stones or stars—could all be interpreted in terms of totemic geography.
The Songlines has a great deal to say about human restlessness, but one cannot help wondering about the origins of Chatwin’s own footloose temperament. His letters show that the wandering gene kicked in early, though perhaps not quite as early as he himself liked to think, when he claimed that his last name was derived from “Chettewynde,” meaning “the winding path.” Industrial Birmingham, where his father practiced law, was a target of German bombing campaigns. Chatwin was shuttled from aunt to aunt by his nervous mother, while his father served in the Royal Navy.
Chatwin’s books record childhood memories of blackouts and blitzes. After the war he was placed in private schools where, with his slight build, he was conspicuous for theatrical talent and academic waywardness. “Thoroughness and consistent concentration do not come easily to him,” a teacher reported when Chatwin was seventeen. “Too often in school and, it seems, in preparation, he is led astray and his mind goes off at a tangent, usually interesting but usually irrelevant.” His father was horrified to learn that Chatwin wanted to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; his mother thought a job at Sotheby’s might be more reliable. The flighty boy was packed off to London to learn to sell art.
Some commentators have surmised that Chatwin suffered from war trauma, and that this helps explain his restlessness, but it seems more likely that what he suffered from was ordinariness: the bitter fate of being born into a middle-class family with middle-class expectations, where success was defined as holding down a respectable job and supporting a household. Even as a child, Chatwin had pretended—to others and perhaps to himself—that he wasn’t quite as he appeared. He told classmates he was an orphan, abandoned by gypsies. Later he claimed to be a Russian orphan, presumably of aristocratic origins. “I’ve shot stags since I was a boy,” he assured a friend.
Others were drawn into this web of new identities. Elizabeth Chanler, the American woman of impressive ancestry (Astors, Stuyvesants) whom he met at Sotheby’s and later married, was, he decided—on the basis of her curly hair, perhaps—an octoroon from New Orleans. Her father, accorded the rank of rear admiral when he retired from his job of fixing ships in the American Navy, was—Chatwin told a fellow traveler in Patagonia—in charge of naval intelligence at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ordinary objects that caught his eye underwent a similar transformation into something rich and strange. He assured friends that a shawl in his room had belonged to Freud—it was actually a bedspread woven in Africa—and that a simple cot dated from Napoleonic campaigns and had belonged to Marshal Ney.
The upwardly mobile auction house of Sotheby’s, unlike its more aristocratic competitor Christie’s, was ripe for showmanship and exaggeration of all kinds. Chatwin’s job was to catalog the antiquities and the Impressionist paintings in preparation for auction. A little stylishness in the description and provenance was not unwelcome. Among his co-workers at the firm, a bit of embroidery in the service of higher prices was referred to as “doing a Bruce.” He quit Sotheby’s, he said, when he got tired of being “perched on the podium having sham orgasms as I knock down another lot.”
Disgusted with Sotheby’s, Chatwin rashly decided to become an academic archaeologist instead. Despite the warnings of friends—the collector and scholar of Indian art Cary Welch assured him that he was “too alive for the academic world”—he enrolled in a four-year program at Edinburgh University, lasted two and a half, and dismissed the experiment as his “saison en enfer.” Doing a Bruce in the academic world required a different kind of showmanship than Sotheby’s. Like many minimalists, Chatwin dreamed of being a maximalist, a tendency exacerbated by academic theorizing. Hired on Welch’s recommendation to curate an exhibition on the art of nomads at the Asia Society in New York, Chatwin persuaded himself that nomadism was the key to the human condition, and that he was the man to reveal this deep truth to the world.
Steeped in Lévi-Strauss and Mauss, Chatwin returned to London determined to be a writer, but his proposal for a book to be called The Nomadic Alternative was a turgid mess. He wrote features and art criticism for The Sunday Times until, bored with that, too, he ditched the whole thing and announced to his bewildered bosses, in late 1974, that he had run away to South America. The famous telegram that he later claimed to have sent, “GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR FOUR MONTHS,” has never turned up—it, too, was presumably a fabrication. The letters that he actually sent home are frequently gorgeous, with a sharp and seemingly offhand lyricism that recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s poems from Brazil:
Animal life is not extraordinary, except for the guanaco which I love. The young are called chulengos and have the finest fur, a sort of mangy brown and white. There is a very rare deer called a Huemeul and the Puma (which is commoner than you would think but difficult to see). Otherwise pinchi the small armadillo, hares everywhere, and a most beguiling skunk, very small, black with white stripes; far from spraying me one came and took a crust from my hand.
The abrupt departure to Patagonia, and the many departures that followed, touch on the enigma of Chatwin’s reasons for travel. For someone so bookish and finicky and incurious about the modern world, Chatwin remains an unlikely traveler. He seems, in retrospect, less an avid explorer of the wide world than a dissatisfied sojourner in temporary quarters, perpetually in flight from something. In this regard, he resembles Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” who, when asked on his deathbed why fasting was so easy for him, replied, “Because I couldn’t find the food I liked.” Chatwin was the “Travel Artist,” and he never found the place he liked.
Chatwin’s homelessness runs like a thread through his letters: the fantasies of orphanhood, the inability to hold a job, the obsessive travel, and even the endless search for a suitable form, a fitting house, for his own ideas. There is, once again, the usual disjunction between reality and fantasy. Chatwin’s parents were supportive and welcoming, and his life abounded in attractive houses. His generous and understanding wife provided a series of them, including a lovely estate in the English countryside, a flat in London, and various sunlit cottages around the Mediterranean. Chatwin’s lovers, such as the precocious young couturier Jasper Conran, offered additional domestic arrangements to choose from.
To our reductionist reflexes, Chatwin’s homosexuality, which he hid from his parents until the end, offers the easiest explanation for his pervasive alienation. And yet it was his marriage that Chatwin kept in the closet even more than his homosexuality. “He never told people he was married,” Elizabeth complained. “I was the guilty secret off in the countryside.” Friends to whom the secret was disclosed remained skeptical. “Is this a marriage?” Susan Sontag asked him. “Really?” To which he replied, “Oh, yes. Absolutely. You bet.”
All marriages are mysterious, but Chatwin’s was more enigmatic than most. Elizabeth seems to have tolerated, however reluctantly, his infidelities with men; had he fallen in love with another woman, she once remarked, things would have been different. Her footnotes to the letters betray an undercurrent of annoyance with his selfishness and lack of manners. At one point she had had enough and “chucked him out.” But many other marriages involving heterosexual writers would yield similar moments; and if being gay helps to explain Chatwin’s alienation, his sexual ambivalence finally seems as much a symptom as a cause. His uneasy shuttling between so many categories—straight and gay, fact and fiction, home and abroad, tabloid journalism and high literature—seems, finally, the basic fact about him.
The more interesting question, in any case, is not what psychological type or family or cultural conditions produce a man like Chatwin but why our appetite for the blurring of truth and reality, especially in the matter of travel, remains so high. For one thing, our relation to travel seems to be undergoing a fundamental change. We can now go pretty much anywhere, which seems, somehow, to cheapen the notion of “elsewhere.” Distrustful of exoticism, we embrace, instead, an imagination-dampening notion of reassuring sameness within diversity. Virtual travel, websites with twenty-four-hour surveillance of our favorite intersections in Paris, reduces the need to be there. Current travel arrangements on jet planes, even without the threat of terrorism, are torture enough. And as Pico Iyer, another follower of Chatwin, has pointed out, our inner cities increasingly resemble homogeneous airports while our airports have grown to the dimensions of cities.
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the kind of travel that intrigues us involves travel in both space and time, in both imagination and reality. For this kind of travel, Chatwin found little support in England. Throughout his life he had an uneasy relation with English literature, and none at all with, say, the Victorian novel; he referred to his “inability to come to terms with English literature in general.” His touchstones were Flaubert, Turgenev, the early stories of Hemingway, and, interestingly, the travel writing of Edmund Wilson. Toward the end, he was especially drawn to German writers. Wrestling with the materials for Songlines, he remarked that “the Germanic suits Australia very well.” It was in Kleist, Canetti, and Thomas Bernhard that he found the glimmerings of the imaginative world, the blurring of truth and fiction, that he was looking for. His last book, the moving novella Utz, is about a collector of Meissen porcelain figurines who maintains a civilized relation with the world of art as a joyless totalitarian world closes in around him.
I once heard Werner Herzog, another great fabulist whose documentary productions are not easily distinguished from his feature films, lecture to an academic audience. The audience was mildly scandalized by Herzog’s candid admissions about his techniques in his documentary films—how he would take an image of pure kitsch (a rainbow or crystal dewdrop) from some unrelated context, and splice it into an otherwise austere narrative sequence—in order to achieve what he called “an ecstatic truth.” This, he said, was what he tried to present in his films, not some knee-jerk fidelity to reality.
“How do you defend yourself,” someone asked during the tense question period, “from the claim that you’re not really a documentary filmmaker?” Herzog’s anger flashed. “There’s a book for people like you,” he sputtered. “It’s called the telephone book. Everything in it is true.” When he died, Bruce Chatwin left his leather rucksack to Werner Herzog.
Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.