Monday, September 06, 2010

Bruce Chatwin: Could this be the last great man of letters?

A revealing collection of correspondence from legendary travel writer is set to be published
By Christian House, The independent, Sunday, 5 September 2010

During the winter of 1969, Bruce Chatwin wrote an exceptionally long letter to Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape. "You asked me to write you a letter about my proposed book on nomads," he wrote. "The question I will try to answer is, 'Why do men wander rather than sit still?'" It was a question that preoccupied the author for his entire life, from his prep-school days in the 1940s to his slow fade out to Aids-related illness on the Côte d'Azur four decades later, and one that peppers his collected letters, Under the Sun, like the catechism of a restless spirit.

In her preface to this fascinating volume, his widow Elizabeth asks whether, by dying at the dry-nib end of the time when writing letters was an everyday act, Chatwin represents the last great writer for whom such a collection will exist. Perhaps. What is clear is how they illuminate a life that, for most readers, seemed shaded in misdirection and embellishment. I had, until reading his correspondence, suspected Chatwin to be both emotionally cold and undermined by his wanderlust. This, these letters show, is far from the truth. They radiate kindness, generosity, insecurity and consistency. His marriage, far from the mercenary sham many have judged it, emerges like the "checkmate" of two like-minded, inquisitive minds. And no, it wasn't celibate.

It is often said that Bruce Chatwin self-mythologised. Well, these letters debunk much of the puff with which others shrouded his legacy. The image of the walker of Patagonia and the Australian outback, perpetuated by makers of backpacks and Moleskine diaries, is here shown doing the rounds of the great and good, staying for long stretches with the Betjemans, the Mellys and the Leigh Fermors. "Escorting Mrs Onassis to the opera next Thursday," Chatwin wrote to his wife from New York in 1979. "My god, she's fly." His networking flourishes lend him a Woosterish air that is as likeable as it is unexpected. He was, his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare admits, a bit of a "castle creeper".

I met Shakespeare in Oxford's Jericho Café and asked what he thinks the compendium of postcards, business notes and personal missives provides. "The letters," he claims, "are the closest thing we have to his voice."

Can a book of letters selected by a writer's widow and his biographer remain objective? For instance, there are no letters from Chatwin's gay lovers here. "You're chasing the wrong hare," says Shakespeare. "You've got his madness there, his unfaithfulness. There simply weren't letters to his lovers. Curiously, he's the most intimate with people he meets at the other end of the earth, people he didn't know very well."

One of the recipients closer to home was the publisher Christopher Maclehose, who, many years later, commissioned this collection. Asked how the writer may have adapted to these online times, he believes that, "Chatwin in the age of the internet would have been a blizzard of ideas and news and helpless prayers and hopes."

"What on earth will the archives of publishing houses look like five years from now?" asks Maclehose. "Very few writers that I know of write emails as they would have written letters. I knew PG Wodehouse as well as any child editor could know a great writer in his late eighties. He answered every single letter he ever had from a 'fan'. That was in part, it turned out, because the local Post Office was the only place where his wife allowed him to have an account, and he used it to generous effect. But it was also because he had impeccable manners."
The complete piece at The Independent on Sunday.

While at The Telegraph Paul Theroux has his say.

And Blake Morrison at The Guardian.

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