With Chatwin is a title meant to allude to that of Bruce Chatwin’s breakthrough book, In Patagonia(1977), and also, as biographer Susannah Clapp states, “to the helping hand that friends of the Victorian explorers used to claim they had provided.” As his biographer chronicles, Chatwin did travel to places that others longed to go. Many of these others in fact went with him, but none of them came away with the original insights Chatwin managed to marshal into some of the most unique travel-oriented prose written this century. Even before his early death in 1989 of AIDS, Chatwin was the stuff of legend, a figure who gave off much heat and light in which others longed to bask. He did have a gift for friendship, and like the Victorian explorers, he did not get where he got on his own.
Chatwin clearly was one of a kind, blessed with great beauty and even greater charisma. Born in the dark days of World War II in Sheffield, England, he was the son of a solicitor and a housewife. He had a seemingly unremarkable British upbringing that, typically, he would later embroider. Failing to win a scholarship to Oxford, in 1958 Chatwin joined the Sotheby auction house in London as a porter. He had always had an eye for the rare and beautiful, but as was ever the case, he landed in this situation through connections and impeccable timing. Sotheby’s experienced a period of explosive growth during the late 1950’s and 1960’s, and Chatwin rose rapidly through the ranks. By the time he left the auction house in 1966, he had been made a director of the firm and headed two departments, Antiquities and an entirely new one devoted to art of the Impressionists.
While working at Sotheby’s, Chatwin began his travels and began to make important connections in the world of the monied elite. In 1961, for example, he was sent to the French Riviera to inveigle writer Somerset Maugham out of his collection of Impressionist paintings. As Clapp reports, for a time the “blond boy” did not mind being used by his superiors at Sotheby’s as bait as well as an art expert. He went to New York, Switzerland, and Paris, then to more exotic locales: Afghanistan, Persia, and Egypt. He became famous for the prodigious feats of his discerning eye. Then, mysteriously, he became afflicted with an eye disease.
In his 1987 book The Songlines, Chatwin gave the following account of his reasons for leaving Sotheby’s:
One morning, I woke up blind.
During the course of the day, the sight returned to the left eye, but the right one stayed sluggish and clouded. The eye specialist who examined me said there was nothing wrong organically, and diagnosed the nature of the trouble.
“You’ve been looking too closely at pictures,” he said. “Why don’t you swap them for some long horizons?”
This version of events is characteristic of Chatwin’s manipulation of facts: They were in his renditions usually embellished and rendered poetic, but grounded in a fundamental truth. He was indeed troubled with eye problems—usually brought on by stress—all his life. By 1966, he had grown weary of the sharp practice and toadying associated with art dealership. He was burdened by an overabundance of ornament. After returning from a leave of absence spent in the arid Sudan, he told his wife, Elizabeth—whom he had met at Sotheby’s and married in the summer of 1965—that he wanted to study archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.
Although initially she approved of her husband’s desire to study in Edinburgh, Elizabeth found the city less than agreeable. After a short while, her husband felt the same way about the university and about archaeology. “I started liking people who had no garbage to leave. I wanted to find the other side of the coin,” he said. He wanted to study nomads. He wanted to become a nomad—and he did.
About this time, Chatwin also became a writer. Before he left on the journey that would produceIn Patagonia, he spent three years in the early 1970’s working off and on for the London Sunday Times magazine. Before he took the job, he had no regular source of income and was bogged down in a book on nomads that seemed to be going nowhere. At the Times, he received lavish travel budgets and was given a free rein—for a time. Then the editor who was his champion was replaced with another who thought Chatwin’s writing “all purple prose and self-indulgence.” Harold Evans, then editor of the Times proper, handed down a budget-cutting directive that made specific mention of Chatwin. It was time to move on.
Later in life, when he described his departure from the newspaper, Chatwin declared that he had...
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