Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin


The definitive collection of the letters of the enigmatic writer, providing new perspectives on his extraordinary life. Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, with an introduction by Elizabeth Chatwin.

"I am most certainly in the mood for writing letters."

Bruce Chatwin is one of the most significant British novelists and travel writers of our time. His books have become modern-day classics which defy categorisation, assimilating elements of fiction, ...

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Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

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The definitive collection of the letters of the enigmatic writer, providing new perspectives on his extraordinary life. Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, with an introduction by Elizabeth Chatwin.

"I am most certainly in the mood for writing letters."

Bruce Chatwin is one of the most significant British novelists and travel writers of our time. His books have become modern-day classics which defy categorisation, assimilating elements of fiction, essay, reportage, history and gossip, inspired by and reflecting his incredible journeys. Tragically, Chatwin's compelling narrative voice was cut off just as he had found it. One month before his death he lamented, "There are so many things I want to do." "Bruce had just begun" said his friend, Salman Rushdie, "we saw only the first act". While we shall never know the surprise of his unwritten works, Chatwin left behind a body of writing that is striking for its freshness; an authentic conduit which allows us to return to him and to be rewarded: a wealth of letters and postcards that he wrote, from his first week at school until shortly before his death at the age of forty-eight. Whether typed on Sotheby's notepaper or hastily scribbled, Chatwin's correspondence reveals more about himself than he was prepared to expose in his books; his health and finances, his literary ambitions and tastes, his uneasiness about his sexual orientation; above all, his lifelong quest for where to live. Written with the verve and sharpness of expression that first marked him out as a writer, Chatwin's letters gives a vivid synopsis of his changing interests and concerns throughout his life.

Comprising material collected over two decades from hundreds of contacts across five continents, Under the Sun is a valuable and illuminating record of one of the greatest and most enigmatic writers of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Thomas Mallon
Under the Sun will be absorbing and essential to Chatwin's devotees. We never see the author finally coming to terms with himself, but we do see a man catching his own contradictions on the wing.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
…a bristling new collection…[that] contains letters written across four decades, from the time Chatwin was a boy in an English boarding school to letters dictated from his deathbed…One of the pleasures of a good book of letters is watching a voice develop and ripen over time, and Chatwin's does. It grows lovelier, grainier, more confident, more wicked.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Celebrated English travel writer and novelist Chatwin (In Patagonia) died of AIDS 20 years ago; he was only 48. His letters—from such far-flung locales as Sweden, Afghanistan, his beloved Greece, Turkey, Africa, and, of course, Patagonia—are lovingly compiled and thoroughly annotated, with indispensable narrative (explaining, for instance, Chatwin’s sudden conversion to Eastern Christianity) by Chatwin’s widow and his biographer. Given to impulsive life and career changes, Chatwin discusses the full range of life from the mundane to the spiritual, from his writing to his dislike of his own “pretty boy” looks. He charmed or intimately knew such cultural movers and shakers as Christopher Isherwood, Susan Sontag, Jasper Johns, Edmund White, and many others. There were at least two serious long-term relationships with men (one with filmmaker James Ivory). Yet the Chatwins remained married and always intellectual partners; toward the end of his life, Chatwin writes, despite marital difficulties, “neither of us have loved anyone else.” (Feb. 7)
From the Publisher
"It seems that Chatwin is narrating his own life, from the false starts, unsatisfying jobs, unfinished studies and unpublished writing to the precipitate moves, the eruptions of boredom and the infatuations with people, with places, with ideas. These letters burst with affectionate salutations, explosions of rage, sudden enthusiasm."
— Paul Theroux, Daily Telegraph

"A masterpiece of sympathetic and diligent editing, absolutely fascinating and larded with acerbic comments from Nicholas Shakespeare's joint editor, Elizabeth Chatwin."
— Spectator

"As Under the Sun poignantly reveals, when he died Chatwin's extravagant writing gifts were gelling into a wider and deeper understanding of the human condition and the world we inhabit."
— Sunday Express

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Library Journal
Bruce Chatwin (1940–89), famous primarily for his travel writing, was a romantic, an art expert, and a storyteller. As this book's coeditor, novelist and Chatwin biographer Shakespeare writes, "He tells not only the half truth, but a truth and a half." This book reveals Chatwin's widely varied pursuits, the ever-expanding interests of a man who worked his way up at Sotheby's from teenage porter to resident expert on impressionist art, and company director. Disillusioned with the world of commercial fine art, he entered the University of Edinburgh to study archaeology but left without a degree to begin in earnest his peripatetic travels that led to his most widely read books, such as In Patagonia. Later, Chatwin was accused of inserting fictionalized characters and situations into his travel writing. Now his letters—to his parents; his wife, Elizabeth, coeditor of this collection; his mother-in-law; or other writers—may offer his truest voice, from terse and emphatic postcard messages to letters that sparkle with description and anticipation. VERDICT Chatwin's verve and imagination are clear here. As in his life, there is scant reference to his sexuality or contraction of AIDS. What is included provides a memorable profile of a compelling writer. For all readers of Chatwin's writing.—Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN
Kirkus Reviews

Bruce Chatwin's (1940–1989) wife Elizabeth and his authorized biographer Shakespeare compile the literary vagabond's correspondence.

Chatwin, acclaimed for artistic conflations of fact and fiction and reportage and reflection—e.g., In Patagonia(1977) and On the Black Hill (1982)—was the archetype of the travelling Briton with the temperament of an esthete culture snob—at least that's the tone of this copious collection. The few long, carefully composed letters are nearly choked by the vagrant postcards and instructions to his spouse from an absent husband. With so much ephemeral, quotidian chaff, starting at age eight until his death of AIDS four decades later, the late author's considered pieces—which display his celebrated acute ear and antic eye—are too rare. Chatwin's correspondence proceeds apace from schooldays, when things were sometimes "absolutely wizard" and continued education as a porter at Sotheby's, where things were less exciting. Then came marriage and study at the University of Edinburgh where, as at the auction house, the author experienced disillusion. Always, there were friends and acquaintances to whom to write; some were famous (Jacqueline Onassis, Susan Sontag, Paul Theroux), others less so—all are identified here in largely bothersome footnotes. Chatwin covered many topics in his letters, including upcoming plans, frequent complaints, money, weather, gossip and, most often, wandering. (Interestingly, a recurring theme was the author's feckless attempt at a major text on a history of the nomadic life). As his career flourished, the author wrote of his travels to Abidjan, Sikkim, Málaga, Warsaw, Vienna, Florence, Sydney, New Delhi, New York, Dahomey (now Benin), Yaddo et al., with the occasional dateline from home at Wotton-under-Edge. In a sad, moving coda, the wandering ended, with Chatwin deluded and bedridden in Nice. Unfortunately, there's little here to enhance the writer's reputation.

A talented author's peripatetic self-regard.

The Barnes & Noble Review

From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989 before the Internet swept away all other forms of written communication, was probably one of the last great letter-writers. And being, also, one of the most peripatetic human beings in history, he had no choice but to write a lot of letters. Read in its entirety, his correspondence proves something that even Nicholas Shakespeare's wonderful 1999 biography didn't quite get across: that while Chatwin may have been egocentric, a self-mythologizer, and a professional seducer, the high excitement he manifested for the world around him was absolutely genuine. Nearly every missive in Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (edited by Shakespeare with Elizabeth Chatwin, the author'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 grating neediness. What I sensed from Bruce was more akin to uncontainable enthusiasm."

It was an enthusiasm that was manifest even in early childhood. Not everyone recognized it; one contemporary has stated flatly that "If you were to say, 'This is the boy who 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 evident even in the first pages of the collection, in letters written home from boarding school when the author was eight years old. The books he asked his parents to send him at that time were Swallows and Amazons, The Open Road, and a book about gypsies "called Out with Romany by Medow [sic] and Stream." "Please don't send me any comics when I am ill," he instructed them, "they bore me. A boy's magazine such as Boy's Own would be much more appreciated."

The theme of Chatwin's entire life, as he was the first to admit, was movement. "The question of questions: the nature of human restlessness," he commented, and copied into his notebook a pertinent aphorism of Montaigne: "I ordinarily reply to those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for." What was Chatwin fleeing? The easy answer, one that a number of commentators on his life and work have opted for, is standard pop-psychology: himself. He must have been a self-hating homosexual. His refusal, in the last years of his life, to acknowledge that he had AIDS reinforced this standard analysis. But thousands of people in the same position did not compulsively take to the road, and in the end it is probably futile to attempt to analyze what must have been a congenital restlessness. "Change," he wrote, "is the only thing worth living for."

That hunger for change, and an enormous aesthetic and intellectual avidity, led Chatwin away from the more conventional career paths. His first ambition was to go on the stage but his father, a lawyer, wouldn't allow him to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He soon developed a passionate interest in French furniture. A position at Sotheby's was an option acceptable to both father and son, 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. He rose 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 youngest directors. But the art business had come to disgust him. Later he would remember with a shudder, ". . . the nervous anxiety of the bidder's face as he or she waits to see if she can afford to take some desirable thing home to play with. Like old men in nightclubs deciding whether they can really afford to pay that much for a whore." In any case, Chatwin's deep distaste for institutional rules and regulations was already evident. It is probably what put an end, too, to his next professional venture, the attempt to qualify as an archaeologist. He quit the four-year course at the University of Edinburgh halfway through because, as he claimed, he didn't like disturbing the dead -- an unlikely rationale, considering the interest he took in the subject throughout his life. The truth is probably that academic protocol was simply too constraining.

But what he took away with him from Sotheby's and Edinburgh inspired and enriched his travels, and by the time he was thirty he had attained a level of erudition almost impossible to credit. His letters are full of this sort of commentary:

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

Chatwin had not originally considered putting his restless intelligence and numberless interests at the service of a literary career, but a gig curating a show of nomadic art of the Asian steppes brought him in touch with what was to be his great subject, and he began a long struggle -- Sisyphean, according to Elizabeth Chatwin -- with a book on nomads and the nomadic instinct. In the end he was defeated by the vastness of the subject and his own inexperience, and after three years he was stuck with an unpublishable manuscript. (He did complete an article for Vogue, which the editors, to his humiliation, entitled "It's a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World.") The project would unexpectedly reach fruition twenty years later when Chatwin returned to the theme with The Songlines, a wildly successful book that turned the author from cult favorite to bestseller. But his early letters to his publisher and others give us fascinating insights into his thinking on the subject.

One of the most exciting things this collection offers is the chance to glimpse the raw materials that went into favorites like The Songlines, In Patagonia, On the Black Hill, and The Viceroy of Ouidah. The baroque aspect of Chatwin's personality did not spill into his economical prose, and his ability to set a scene with a few well-chosen words is as evident in his casual letters as it is in finished works. Here he is in Patagonia, writing a letter to his wife:

       Writing this in the archetypal Patagonia scene, a boliche or roadman's hotel at a cross-roads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere. A long mint green bar with blue green walls and a picture of a glacier, the view from the window a line of Lombardy poplars tilted about 20 degrees from the wind and beyond the rolling gray 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:

       This morning it was blowing a gale, pouring with rain and the sun was shining strongly as well . . . . The sheep were the same golden color as the dying grass. A rainbow stretched from one corner to the other, and under it, a flock of rooks was blown this way and that, like black diamonds, glittering.

Chatwin was always on the lookout for "this mythical beast 'the place to write in,'" and he fell on his feet more often than one would have thought possible. After arriving at disappointing digs in India, for instance, he happened to meet "an extremely pukkah gentleman, ex-zamindar type" who offered the Chatwins his country fort.

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

Chatwin expected to be taken care of, and it is surprising how often people did take care of him. One of the more pleasing aspects of these letters is Elizabeth Chatwin's dry but affectionate commentary on her husband's grandiose statements and unreasonable demands.  He was always giving her very precise instructions on what to do in his absence: procure, deliver, or collect various objects (for instance, a sack containing "a number of highly precious possessions, including a dried chameleon and the eardrum 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 drawing room -- and I'd whitewash inside the fireplace," he wrote once. "If you get the chance in Bristol why not have the Mahdi's flag and the Moroccan (it is 16th cent) textile put behind glass -- they fit exactly." A not untypical telegram from him was this one, sent to Elizabeth from North Africa:


One can only speculate on the nature of the Chatwins' marriage -- mysteriously, except for a three-year separation 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 they never stopped loving each other, on one level or another. When Chatwin developed full-blown AIDS after 1986, and experienced severe hypomania as the disease began to affect his brain, Elizabeth did everything she could to make what remained of his life tolerable. Her work on this collection is also a labor of love, as indeed is Shakespeare's meticulous scholarship. Readers of the biography will be familiar with much of it, but addicts will want it all.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143120384
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/31/2012
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 828,434
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

BRUCE CHATWIN reinvented British travel writing with his first book, In Patagonia, and followed it with four other books, each unique and extraordinary. He died in 1989.

ElLIZABETH CHATWIN was born in the U.S.A. She came to London in 1961 to work at Sotheby's, where she met Bruce Chatwin. They married in 1965. She now keeps Black Welsh Mountain Sheep.

NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE was born in Worcester in 1957 and grew up in the Far East and Latin America. He is the author of The Vision of the Elena Silves, winner of the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask awards, The High Flyer, for which he was nominated as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, The Dancer Upstairs, and most recently,
Inheritance. His non-fiction includes In Tasmania, winner of the 2007 Tasmania Book Prize, and an acclaimed biography of Bruce Chatwin.

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Table of Contents

Preface Elizabeth Chatwin 1

Introduction Nicholas Shakespeare 7

Chapter 1 Schooldays: 1948-58 21

Chapter 2 Sotheby's: 1959-66 44

Chapter 3 Edinburgh: 1966-8 86

Chapter 4 The Nomadic Alternative: 1969-72 129

Chapter 5 Sunday Times: 1972-4 225

Chapter 6 Gone to Patagonia: 1974-6 234

Chapter 7 The Viceroy of Ouidah: 1976-80 258

Chapter 8 On the Black Hill: 1980-83 325

Chapter 9 The Songlines: 1983-5 353

Chapter 10 China and India: 1985-6 425

Chapter 11 Homer End: 1986-8 462

Chapter 12 Oxford and France: 1988-9 507

Acknowledgements and permissions 526

Index 529

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 28, 2011

    Recommend this thought-provoking book.

    When I finished reading, I wanted to write Mrs. Chatwin a letter thanking her for sharing her husband's life in such an intimate way. It is obviously a work of love. Mr.Chatwin's letters from his childhood to his death are touching (he would not appreciate the description, my guess) and his genius is obvious.

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    Posted April 14, 2011

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    Posted August 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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