Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989 before the Internet swept away all other forms ofwritten communication, was probably one of the last great letter-writers. Andbeing, also, one of the most peripatetic human beings in history, he had nochoice but to write a lot of letters. Read in its entirety, his correspondenceproves something that even Nicholas Shakespeare’s wonderful 1999 biography didn’tquite get across: that while Chatwin may have been egocentric, aself-mythologizer, and a professional seducer, the high excitement hemanifested for the world around him was absolutely genuine. Nearly everymissive in Under the Sun: The Letters ofBruce Chatwin (edited by Shakespeare with Elizabeth Chatwin, theauthor’s widow) buzzes with it. One of his correspondents, the American author David Mason,put it well: “Some writers become self-advertisers out of a gratingneediness. What I sensed from Bruce was more akin to uncontainable enthusiasm.”

It was an enthusiasm thatwas manifest even in early childhood. Not everyone recognized it; onecontemporary has stated flatly that “If you were to say, ‘This is the boywho is going to be Bruce Chatwin,’ I would have said: ‘No, I don’t think so.'”Perhaps not; but Chatwin’s fascination with travel and adventure are evidenteven in the first pages of the collection, in letters written home fromboarding school when the author was eight years old. The books he asked hisparents to send him at that time were Swallowsand Amazons, The OpenRoad, and a book about gypsies “called Out with Romany by Medow [sic] and Stream.” “Please don’tsend me any comics when I am ill,” he instructed them, “they bore me.A boy’s magazine such as Boy’s Ownwould be much more appreciated.”

The theme of Chatwin’sentire life, as he was the first to admit, was movement. “The question ofquestions: the nature of human restlessness,” he commented, and copiedinto his notebook a pertinent aphorism of Montaigne: “I ordinarily replyto those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I amfleeing from, but not what I am looking for.” What was Chatwin fleeing? Theeasy answer, one that a number of commentators on his life and work have optedfor, is standard pop-psychology: himself. He must have been a self-hatinghomosexual. His refusal, in the last years of his life, to acknowledge that hehad AIDS reinforced this standard analysis. But thousands of people in the sameposition did not compulsively take to the road, and in the end it is probablyfutile to attempt to analyze what must have been a congenital restlessness.”Change,” he wrote, “is the only thing worth living for.”

Thathunger for change, and an enormous aesthetic and intellectual avidity, ledChatwin away from the more conventional career paths. His first ambition was togo on the stage but his father, a lawyer, wouldn’t allow him to go to the RoyalAcademy of Dramatic Art. He soon developed a passionate interest in Frenchfurniture. A position at Sotheby’s was an option acceptable to both father andson, and Bruce went to work for the auction house while still in his teens,starting as a numbering porter in the Works of Art Department at £6 a week. Herose very rapidly in the firm: by the time he left, at the age of twenty-six,he was head of Impressionist and Modern Art and one of the company’s youngestdirectors. But the art business had come to disgust him. Later he wouldremember with a shudder, “. . . the nervous anxiety of the bidder’s faceas he or she waits to see if she can afford to take some desirable thing hometo play with. Like old men in nightclubs deciding whether they can reallyafford to pay that much for a whore.” In any case, Chatwin’s deep distastefor institutional rules and regulations was already evident. It is probablywhat put an end, too, to his next professional venture, the attempt to qualifyas an archaeologist. He quit the four-year course at the University ofEdinburgh halfway through because, as he claimed, he didn’t like disturbing thedead—an unlikely rationale, considering the interest he took in the subjectthroughout his life. The truth is probably that academic protocol was simplytoo constraining.

But what he took away withhim from Sotheby’s and Edinburgh inspired and enriched his travels, and by thetime he was thirty he had attained a level of erudition almost impossible tocredit. His letters are full of this sort of commentary:

       Some ofthat later Seljuk architecture can be appalling. Never cared one bit for thatelaborate portal at Sivas, but have never been to Divrigi or Malatya. I don’tquite agree with you over Hittite art. I think that Yazilikiya is mostremarkable. It’s very tough and solid, and requires a bouleversement of all one’sideas as to what is beautiful. I like it all the same in the time of the Oldand early New Kingdoms. You’re not, I suppose, going to Nimrud Dagh.

Chatwin had not originallyconsidered putting his restless intelligence and numberless interests at theservice of a literary career, but a gig curating a show of nomadic art of theAsian steppes brought him in touch with what was to be his great subject, andhe began a long struggle—Sisyphean, according to Elizabeth Chatwin—with a bookon nomads and the nomadic instinct. In the end he was defeated by the vastnessof the subject and his own inexperience, and after three years he was stuckwith an unpublishable manuscript. (He did complete an article for Vogue, which the editors, to hishumiliation, entitled “It’s a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World.”) Theproject would unexpectedly reach fruition twenty years later when Chatwinreturned to the theme with The Songlines, a wildly successful book that turned the authorfrom cult favorite to bestseller. But his early letters to his publisher andothers give us fascinating insights into his thinking on the subject.

One of the most excitingthings this collection offers is the chance to glimpse the raw materials thatwent into favorites like The Songlines,In Patagonia, On theBlack Hill, and TheViceroy of Ouidah. The baroque aspect of Chatwin’s personality didnot spill into his economical prose, and his ability to set a scene with a fewwell-chosen words is as evident in his casual letters as it is in finishedworks. Here he is in Patagonia, writing a letter to his wife:

       Writingthis in the archetypal Patagonia scene, a bolicheor roadman’s hotel at a cross-roads of insignificant importance with roadsleading all directions apparently to nowhere. A long mint green bar with bluegreen walls and a picture of a glacier, the view from the window a line ofLombardy poplars tilted about 20 degrees from the wind and beyond the rollinggray pampas (the grass is bleached yellow but it has black roots, like a dyed blonde)with clouds rushing across it and a howling wind.

And here he is in Wales:

       Thismorning it was blowing a gale, pouring with rain and the sun was shiningstrongly as well . . . . The sheep were the same golden color as the dyinggrass. A rainbow stretched from one corner to the other, and under it, a flockof rooks was blown this way and that, like black diamonds, glittering.

Chatwin was always on thelookout for “this mythical beast ‘the place to write in,'” and hefell on his feet more often than one would have thought possible. Afterarriving at disappointing digs in India, for instance, he happened to meet “anextremely pukkah gentleman, ex-zamindar type” who offered the Chatwins hiscountry fort.

Absolutelysecluded, on a lake, with an ageing mother in the zennana, a kitchen full ofcooks with traditions going back to the 17th century—and I mightsay, fabulous miniatures . . . . On the lake, spoonbills, cormorants, pochards,storks, three species of kingfisher . . . . A cool blue study overlooking thegarden. A saloon with ancestral portraits. Bedroom giving out onto the terrace.Unbelievably beautiful girls who come with hot water, with real coffee, withpapayas, with a mango milk-shake. In short, I’m really feeling quite contented.

Chatwinexpected to be taken care of, and it is surprising how often people did takecare of him. One of the more pleasing aspects of these letters is ElizabethChatwin’s dry but affectionate commentary on her husband’s grandiose statementsand unreasonable demands. He wasalways giving her very precise instructions on what to do in his absence:procure, deliver, or collect various objects (for instance, a sack containing “anumber of highly precious possessions, including a dried chameleon and theeardrum of a lion”); redecorate or make repairs on house and garden.”I’d bring down that old reed mat from the bedroom again for the drawingroom—and I’d whitewash inside the fireplace,” he wrote once. “If youget the chance in Bristol why not have the Mahdi’s flag and the Moroccan (it is16th cent) textile put behind glass—they fit exactly.” A notuntypical telegram from him was this one, sent to Elizabeth from North Africa:


One can only speculate onthe nature of the Chatwins’ marriage—mysteriously, except for a three-yearseparation from 1980 to 1983, they stuck it out together for over twenty years.One thing that comes through clearly in these letters, though, is that theynever stopped loving each other, on one level or another. When Chatwindeveloped full-blown AIDS after 1986, and experienced severe hypomania as thedisease began to affect his brain, Elizabeth did everything she could to makewhat remained of his life tolerable. Her work on this collection is also alabor of love, as indeed is Shakespeare’s meticulous scholarship. Readers ofthe biography will be familiar with much of it, but addicts will want it all.