Forty years ago, Chatwin’s debut book transformed travel writing. But just 12 years later, its author was dead. The Observer theatre critic, Chatwin’s editor for that book, reflects on a brief, brilliant career
24 September 2017 |Susannah Clapp | The Observer
“Does anyone read Bruce Chatwin these days?” asked Blake Morrison, reviewing his letters seven years ago. Well, someone must: nearly 30 years after his death, all six of Chatwin’s books are still in print. But it is true that when the dominant writers of the 1970s and 1980s are discussed, Chatwin’s name is rarely among them.
The penalty of once being fashionable is that you may come to be thought of as merely fashionable. Almost violently successful at first, his books are now less likely to be mentioned than the Moleskine notebooks in which he sketched and jotted.
Vintage’s 40th anniversary edition of In Patagonia is an invitation to look again at one of the most vivid but elusive writers of the late 20th century. Chatwin’s first book, it helped to change the idea of what travel writing could be.
It appeared at a rich literary moment, when both reportage and the novel were beginning to fly high in new directions. I remember the time well – I edited In Patagonia and in doing so became friends with the author. Angela Carter and Ryszard Kapuściński, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie were already publishing; Julian Barnes was preparing to take off. In Patagonia was in a category of its own.
It was clearly not a novel, but it flirted with fiction. A collage of histories, sketches, myths and memories, with short scenes glinting towards each other, without judgment, conclusion or, often, links. Chatwin said he was trying to make a cubist portrait. It is paradoxical, in content and in style. The syntax is snappy but the vocabulary is orchidaceous. It holds back from intimate revelation – “I don’t believe in becoming clean,” Chatwin announced – but is fuelled by autobiography, lit up by personal obsessions.
In Patagonia begins with the infant Chatwin in Birmingham looking at a piece of “brontosaurus skin” and ends with the grown-up adventurer embarking on a ship at Punta Arenas.
It examines the lives of the giant sloth and His Royal Highness Prince Philippe of Araucanía and Patagonia – a short chap in a brown tweed suit. It investigates new clues about Butch Cassidy, “who rode into a new life of wide horizons and the scent of horse leather”, and gives a lyrical account of the Welsh in Patagonia: hollyhocks, whitewashed rooms, ripe plums, pottery dogs and a harmonium.
One of its final pictures is of “a boy from the Falklands with a sealskin hat and strange sharp teeth”. He declares: “’Bout time the Argentines took us over. We’re so bloody inbred.” That was five years before the Falklands war. Chatwin was often accused of being a fantasist. He was certainly not through-and-through rational, but he was often shrewd, often prescient.
Chatwin was a traveller, an art expert, a connoisseur of the extraordinary. He had not set out to be an author. At school – Marlborough – he had been considered “very much alive… he has a smooth and elegant style but is still too fond of the byways of historical accident”. At Sotheby’s, where he went to work at 18, he was a star: he had a quick eye for a fake, a sure eye for what was good, and rose to dizzy prominence in the impressionist and modern art (excluding British) and antiquities departments. He was also set to charm clients into buying and selling.
At Somerset Maugham’s house on the French Riviera, Maugham’s secretary pleaded: “Bruce, do let Willy play with your hair.” He bolted from the auction house to Edinburgh University, to study archaeology. He bolted from Edinburgh after two years without taking his degree. In his 30s, he was taken on at the Sunday Times Magazine and, encouraged by Francis Wyndham, wrote sharp-edged, vivid, ingenious pieces: about the designer Eileen Gray, about George Costakis, an art collector in the Soviet Union, about Madeleine Vionnet, inventor of the bias cut. He bolted from the Sunday Times to Patagonia.
By the time I came across Chatwin, he was 36 and had done all these things. He had also accrued a reputation that, had I known about it, would have made me quail. He was celebrated for his looks: wide-browed, blond, strong blue eyes; his friend Howard Hodgkin thought he “looked like the captain of the first XI” – though he painted him, Chatwin noted, as “an acid green smear”.
He was known for being particular about his outfits: his emerald jacket, his khaki safari shirt and shorts, his soft, toffee-coloured boots, and for the haversack in dark brown calfskin custom made by a saddler in Cirencester with each pocket carefully devised to house a particular item. He was famous for his sudden disappearances, his unexpected arrivals and for the whirling discourses that magnetised his audiences but which no one could quite summarise.
His riff on red asked if the colour of revolution was inspired by blood or by fire, and took in the bonnet rougeof the French Revolution, Garibaldi, Uruguayan butchers, bullfighters and Buddhism. All too much, you might think, too exquisite. Yet he could capture convinced sceptics with his talk. Martin Amis had developed a rugged resistance to Chatwin before meeting him.
When he saw “a very dinky little sleeping-bag with a club-class sticker” that the traveller had left behind him, he decided: “That just about sums him up.” But when he met him he melted. Six years after Chatwin’s death he keenly recalled an evening with him, talking about Romantic poetry. “He did,” Amis said, “remind you how intense the pleasures of conversation can be.”