In this vivid and fascinating portrait of Bruce Chatwin, Susannah Clapp has brilliantly captured the intense energy and chameleon-like complexity of this supremely original and contradictory figure. A bi-sexual of arresting beauty, Chatwin loved to perform for an audience, to dazzle and seduce with talk, tales and outlandish facts. As Craig Raine has written, "He always knew more than you. He was a fine-art expert who could spot a fake as well as a great original, and his eye earned him the reputation of an aesthete." But Chatwinobsessed with the theme of nomadismwas always pleased to rough it, travelling to the most far-flung and exotic landscapes, whether it was Tibet, Mali, Gabon, Sudan, China or South America. He has been compared to T. E. Lawrence, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Rimbaud.
Susannah Clapp was Chatwin's first editor, and she describes in detail her work with him on In Patagonia, a book that changed the idea of what travel writing could be. Her poised, impressionistic account skillfully describes his life from a series of oblique angles. We move from his childhood through the years at Sotheby's in Londonyears rich in the machinations of the art marketto his studying archaeology at the University of Edinburgh and the beginnings of his writing at the London Sunday Times Magazine, to his travels and the six strikingly different books that he wrote before he died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of forty-eight. She gives us unique insight into how Chatwin thought and wrote and where he did it, whether in forts or towers, in Wales or Rajasthan, always with a Mont Blanc pen on American yellow legal pads, taking the material from hiseighty-five moleskin notebooks (now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford), bought in a shop on the Left Bank in Paris. Clapp subtly brings to life the writer behind the work.
This is a highly distilled and absorbing look at one of the most enthralling writers of our time.
Susannah Clapp worked as an editor and reader at Jonathan Cape. She helped found the London Review of Books, where she was assistant editor for several years, and is currently theatre critic for BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves. She lives in London.