Bruce Chatwin: A Biography

Bruce Chatwin: A Biography

by Nicholas Shakespeare, Alice Van Straalen

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Award-winning novelist Nicholas Shakespeare has written the definitive biography of one of the most influential literary figures of our time: Bruce Chatwin, whose works’ strangely compelling combination of research, first-hand experience, myth, and mystification may have been the real substance of his seemingly contradictory life.
Chatwin’s first


Award-winning novelist Nicholas Shakespeare has written the definitive biography of one of the most influential literary figures of our time: Bruce Chatwin, whose works’ strangely compelling combination of research, first-hand experience, myth, and mystification may have been the real substance of his seemingly contradictory life.
Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, became an international bestseller, revived the art of travel writing, and inspired a generation to set out in search of adventure. Chatwin became a celebrity, while remaining a conundrum. With little formal education, he had become a director of Sotheby’s. An avid collector, he eschewed material things and revered the nomadic life. Married for twenty-three years, he had male lovers throughout the world. And only at his death did his personal myth fail him. Nicholas Shakespeare, who was given unrestricted access to his papers, spent eight years retracing Chatwin’s steps and interviewing the people who knew him. The result is a biography that is at once sympathetic and revelatory.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Chatwin's fallen-angel looks had withered from HIV by his death at 47 in 1988, but he had achieved a cult reputation as a writer-adventurer that shows no signs of fading. Shakespeare's warts-and-all biography, thoroughly researched and unsparingly revealing of Chatwin's literary and personal failings, will be manna to cultists but ammunition to critics who see him as an overrated manufacturer of his own myth. Chatwin himself declares that the borderline between fiction and nonfiction "is to my mind extremely arbitrary, and invented by publishers." To Shakespeare the "camouflage of fiction did allow Bruce to do what he liked." A friend sees an unresolved tension in the bisexual Chatwin and his work; below the "smooth attractive surface, he was split, rather like his books, between fact and imagination." His small, genre-defying oeuvre, highlighted by In Patagonia and The Songlines, both travel narratives enhanced by artifice, and Utz, which Chatwin considered a "Middle European fairy-story" though it was largely factual, is as compelling as his ambiguous personality. Yet he is exposed by Shakespeare, an award-winning novelist, as an exploiter of people, especially his masochistically loyal wife, and as a writer who relished being in control but was obsessed self-destructively by his homosexuality. A charismatic parasite, he borrowed homes in which to write, borrowed lovers, borrowed ideas, borrowed other investigators' research. A critic he knew called him "a great intellectual thief." "I have seldom met a human being," an acquaintance wrote, "who exudes so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness. When the gilt has worn off his jeunesse how much substance will be left underneath?" Always fascinated by nomads of every description, Chatwin was a sophisticated nomad, restless and dissatisfied, even with his fame, and ever pulling up stakes to hide from himself. The biography, a graphic page-turner, leaves the reader wondering whether Chatwin, here simultaneously charming and unpleasant, will survive Shakespeare's relentless yet often empathic dissection. Illus. not seen by PW. Author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Chatwin (1940-89) referred to his legs as his "boys." His boys carried him to many exotic locals, long journeys that eventually led back to England, his home, his green tomb. Chatwin believed man was designed to be nomadic; he also loved to collect things, a love he turned to as he was dying from AIDS. Novelist Shakespeare (The Dancer Upstairs) effectively shows readers Chatwin's many sides: his rise to prominence at Sotheby's, where he met and married Elizabeth Chanler; his homosexual leanings, from which he fled; and his constant wandering--including a journey to Edinburgh to study archaeology and to South America as a journalist, which inspired the book In Patagonia (LJ 7/78). We see Chatwin's scabs and halos, his eroticism, his deep water, his angel (no doubt, Elizabeth), his rapid heart, his vivid kingdom: the road ahead. Highly recommended for all public libraries.--Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Paul Elie
The book is slow getting going; but once Chatwin, age 34, sets off for Patagonia to write "something I have always wanted to write up," it becomes a very good biography, because it really does make him seem as interesting as his books and his legend.
The Village Voice
Colin Phubron
In Nicholas Shakespeare, Chatwin has found the right biographer. This is a magnificent work of empathy and detection.
The Sunday TImes
Justin Wintle
Biographies don't come any better than this. Eight years in the writing, Bruce Chatwin is a glorious quilt-work of texts, voices, and places, join together with consummate judgement.
Financial Times
William Dalrymple
Quite simply, one of the most beautifully written, painstakingly researched, and cleverly constructed biographies written this decade. Shakespeare has a quite extraordinary empathy for his subject, whom he portrays with humor, warmth, and an eye for telling detail, creating a book almost as original, intelligent, and observant as those by Chatwin himself.
Literary Review

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
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5.22(w) x 8.03(h) x 1.38(d)

Read an Excerpt



"Was he a cold fish?" I asked.

"A fish?"

"A cold person."

"He was hot and cold. He was all things."

—BC, from "Among the Ruins"

On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria. He is six feet tall, with fair hair swept over a huge forehead and staring blue eyes. He is only a step ahead of the illness that will kill him. He is 43, but he has the animation of a schoolboy.

Bruce Chatwin had come to South Africa to see the palaeontologist Bob Brain after reading his book The Hunters or the Hunted?. It was, Bruce wrote, the book he had "needed" since his schooldays, and it had reawoken themes that had been with him a long time.

"This is a detective story, but rather an odd one," begins Brain's classic text on early human behaviour, based on 15 years' excavation at the Swartkrans cave near Johannesburg. Brain's analysis of fossilised bones raised the possibility that Early Man was not a savage cannibal, as had been generally held, but the preferred prey of one of the large cats with whom he shared the open grasslands of Africa. Around 1,200,000 BC the roles were reversed when homo erectus began to outwit his predator, the dinofelis or false sabre-tooth tiger.

What had given man the upper hand? "Everything," says Brain, "is linked to the management of fire." But 30 years of exploring and digging in caves over southern and SaharanAfrica had failed to produce evidence of fire prior to 70,000 BC, by which time dinofelis had been extinct a million years.

Bruce called Brain's book "the most compelling detective story I have ever read". As a schoolboy he had held that "everyone needs a quest as an excuse for living". Brain's findings promised a key.

For two days Bruce engaged Brain in conversations which he described as "the most stimulating discussions in my life". They spoke of Birmingham, where Bruce had grown up and from where Brain's father, finding England restrictive, had departed for the Cape. They spoke about Brain's son Ted, who died at 14 months when he choked on a piece of apple, teaching Brain—painfully—to live his life as though each day might be his last. And they spoke of the origin of evil. Bruce seized on Brain's discoveries to support his conviction that human beings were "not that bad" and that the predator instinct was not essential to our nature. If the leopard-like cat had preyed on our ancestors, then man in his origins was not necessarily aggressive. He lived his life in fear, dinofelis watching him from the shadows.

Bruce—who called the cat "the Prince of Darkness"—amused the older man. Brain says, "He understood 'the Prince of Darkness' as a psychological necessity. He thought we had lived so long with prowling nocturnal predators they had become part of our make-up. When we no longer had these animals in bodily form, we invented dragons and heroes who went off to fight them." Discussing, for instance, Uccello's painting of St. George in the act of lancing the dragon, Bruce seemed to think this was an illustration of what had actually happened. Brain had misgivings about this nostalgia for "the Beast we have lost". Nevertheless, it excited him to watch Bruce take his work and run with it. "Chatwin was like a nineteenth-century synthesiser," says Brain. "There is a place again for that kind of generalist, someone who can wander among specialised fields and pull things together. Otherwise it's very compartmentalised and syntheses don't really occur." The two men talked late into the night and on the following day they drove to the cave at Swartkrans.

From the cave entrance on a hill of pink dolomite it is possible to see, 40 kilometres to the south-west, the skyline of Johannesburg, and to the east, the dumps of chalky rock from the goldmines of Krugersdorp. Close as it is to one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Swartkrans is always tranquil. Black eagles looking for rock rabbit glide above slopes dotted with white stinkwood, and here and there are bright red flowers.

Brain completed his book in a hut nearby. Bruce, too, sensed a place of special significance. He wrote in his notebook: "Good feeling at Swartkrans."

He was familiar with the excavation procedure. With Brain and the site foreman, George Moenda, he took up a position close to the west wall. The three started to dig into a patch of calcified earth with plastic-handled screwdrivers. At 10 a.m. one of them found a bone tool. A second grey bone looked like a scraper. "Turned out to be gnawed by a porcupine," recorded Bruce. Over the course of 19 years, Brain told him, the cave had yielded more than 100,000 specimens like these. They had been digging in the west wall for half an hour after lunch when Moenda prised from the earth, alongside an arrangement of three stones, a cracked fragment of antelope bone. Beige white on the outside, blackened on the inside, the bone was speckled with dark patches, as if burned.

George handed it round. It had a soapy feel.

Brain was not a demonstrative man. He had so often set out to find confirmation of his thesis, suffered so many false alarms. But this time he was visibly moved. "This bone is remarkably suggestive!"

What they were looking at would eventually be validated, in 1988, as man's first known experimentation with fire. It would predate by 700,000 years the previously oldest find, at Choukoutien in China. "That was the first convincing evidence for the earliest use of fire in any human context anywhere," says Brain. "It was a very astonishing moment."

Brain was quick to speculate. This bone provided a partial explanation of how our ancestors escaped the continual threat of predation. He reconstructed the scene: a thunderstorm at the beginning of summer, the yellow grass, dried to a parchment in the winter sun, a lightning-struck bush, and homo erectus dragging back to his cave this elusive substance, which coming with flashes and thunder must have had a magical significance.

Man's use of the fire-struck bush represented for Brain the "crucial step in the progressive manipulation of nature . . . so characteristic of the subsequent course of human affairs". It would not, of course, guarantee permanent protection: another half million years would pass before man could make fire to order. But it offered intermittent respite.

Meet the Author

NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE is the author of The Vision of Elena Silves, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award; The High Flyer, for which he was nominated one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 1993; and The Dancer Upstairs, chosen by the American Library Association as the Best Novel of 1997. He grew up in the Far East and South America, and now lives in London.

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