In the twelve years before his death, Charles Bruce Chatwin produced five books of superlative quality and in the process invented a new form of the novel somewhere between travel literature, pure fiction, and the novel of ideas. He was born to a middle-class family, Margharita Turnell Chatwin and her husband, Charles Leslie Chatwin, a lawyer who served in the navy during the war. Chatwin was sent to an excellent boys’ school, Marlborough, and by the age of eighteen he was working as a porter for the international art dealer Sotheby’s. By chance, despite the fact that he had no formal training in art, he identified a Pablo Picasso gouache as a counterfeit; on the strength of his talent for assessing paintings, he became a working member of the staff, specializing in the Impressionists as well as with art from the South Seas and Africa. By his early twenties he was a senior official at Sotheby’s, and it was there that he met his wife, Elizabeth Chandler.
He left Sotheby’s after an illness, advised by his physician to do some traveling. He went to Africa and studied archaeology at Edinburgh University for a short time. As a result of photographs he had taken in the desert, he was offered a job as an art consultant with the London Sunday Times. He often traveled to develop material for the paper, but in 1975 he decided that he wanted to go to Patagonia to write a book about that remote section of southern South America. In Patagonia was an enormous success, in part because it was quite unlike the usual kind of travel literature. This was a kind of antitravel book. Most critics praised the author for his refusal to stick to the facts and for the curious collection of local tall tales and eccentric history. Chatwin himself called the mix of history, myth, autobiography, anthropology, and occasional fiction a “search.”
In his next work, The Viceroy of Ouidah, Chatwin took the idea of fusing fiction and fact a step further. While working on a book about the slave trade in Dahomey, he began to imagine the life of a slave trader who was so important to the local chiefs that he became a figure of political power in the old port of Ouidah and ultimately founded a dynasty that lasted into the twentieth century. The resulting work is partly based on historical fact, but those facts are hardly important to the grand, grotesque world of extravagant eccentricity Chatwin conjured up. The work proved Chatwin to be an authentic and very original talent who could not be classified as a mere travel writer.
Chatwin’s next book, On the Black Hill, could be seen as a drawing back from eccentric distances; set in the hills on the Welsh-English border, it not only confirmed (as the first two books had suggested) that Chatwin had a daring imagination but also that he could write with considerable feeling. The tale of two Welsh twins living out their interdependent lives in the natural richness, and sometime social and physical squalor, of farm life had all the energy of the earlier books. Moreover, Chatwin’s preternatural gift for telling seemingly unconnected stories and the fecundity of his descriptive talent came together here to create something that is tonally reminiscent of Thomas Hardy.
Chatwin did not stay home for long, however; in On the Black Hill he had included the suggestion that human beings were meant to be wanderers, and Chatwin himself continued to wander through the world. His next work was The Songlines , a peculiar...
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study of aboriginal life in Australia told from an unnerving point of view that is partly autobiographical (the narrator is called Bruce) but also an amalgamation of anthropology, anecdote, history, and fiction, held together by the philosophic quest for the answer to the question of whether, in settling down, human beings have offended God, who had intended that they always wander.
Interestingly perverse in all of his work, Chatwin chose in his last novel, Utz, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, to explore the life of Utz, a rich man settled, almost to the point of claustral retreat, with his priceless collection of Meissen porcelain. Utz, the last of a line of Czech aristocrats, is surrounded by the collectivist state in Prague, jealously determined to take the figurines into nationalist ownership upon his death. Fastidiously detailed in its handling of the porcelain as art, the novel reminds the reader of Chatwin’s early career at Sotheby’s, but it goes further in ways that link it with his earlier novels in its exploration of the obsessive search for value, for what makes life worth living.
“What might have been” is a legitimate speculation; Chatwin seems to have been on his way to making an important place for himself as one of the twentieth century’s improvisational manipulators of the novel. Shortly after the publication of Utz, and following a long illness that had confined him to a wheelchair, Chatwin died at the age of forty-eight. He left five elegant, minor masterpieces.
Clapp, Susannah. “The Life and Early Death of Bruce Chatwin.” The New Yorker, December 23-30, 1996. Comprehensive memoir written by one of Chatwin’s editors. Clapp knew him personally and professionally, and she brings to this piece great familiarity with the art and publishing worlds of England and the United States.
Clapp, Susannah. With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. The closest thing to a biography of Chatwin that had been published up to the time it appeared. Much of the content deals with Clapp’s difficulties with, and appreciations of, Chatwin the writer; Clapp edited two of his books while working at the publishing house of Jonathan Cape.
Cowley, Julian. “Pataphysical Patagonia: Bruce Chatwin’s Distantly Interrogative Somewhere.” Critique 37, no. 4 (1996): 301-313. Discusses Chatwin’s construction of authorial identity in In Patagonia.
Meanor, Patrick. “Bruce Chatwin.” In Magill’s Survey of World Literature, edited by Steven G. Kellman. Rev. ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2009. Essay provides a brief biography, discussion of all of Chatwin’s works, and more detailed analysis of In Patagonia and The Songlines, which are discussed within the context of Chatwin’s novels On the Black Hill, The Viceroy of Ouidah, and Utz.
Meanor, Patrick. Bruce Chatwin. New York: Twayne, 1997. The second full-length critical book to be written on Chatwin covers virtually everything written on and by Chatwin up to 1997, except for Clapp’s 1997 memoir (cited above).
Murray, Nicholas. Bruce Chatwin. Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren Books, 1993. The first full-length analysis of all of Chatwin’s books up to Anatomy of Restlessness and Far Journeys, including examination of his four novels. Stylishly written, informative work offers intelligent criticism and has served as the basis for subsequent evaluations of Chatwin’s work.
Shakespeare, Nicholas. Bruce Chatwin: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2000. Gossipy, wide-ranging biography is based on numerous interviews and complete access to Chatwin’s personal papers. Describes Chatwin’s flaws as well as his strengths and provides information about how Chatwin wrote his books.
Stewart, Iain A. D. “The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Note on Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Estate of Maximilian Tod’ as an Imitation of Borges.” Modern Language Review 96, no. 3 (2001): 723-731. Notes the similarities between stories by Chatwin and Borges, interpreting Chatwin’s story as a deliberate homage.
Ure, John. In Search of Nomads: An Anglo-American Obsession from Hester Stanhope to Bruce Chatwin. London: Constable, 2003. Ure, who has himself traveled with nomads in the Arabian Peninsula, Sahara Desert, Iran, and Central Asia, describes other Britons and Americans who have sought out and journeyed with nomadic peoples. Includes information about Chatwin’s travels with the Qashqai people in southern Iran and with Mongol horsemen in Afghanistan.
Williams, Marie. “Escaping a Dystopian Present: Compensatory and Anticipatory Utopias in Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah and The Songlines.” Utopian Studies 14, no. 2 (2003): 99-117. Examines two of Chatwin’s novels, focusing on their representation of and interest in different forms of utopian thinking.
Charles Bruce Chatwin was born in Sheffield, England, on May 13, 1940. His mother was Margharita Turnell and his father was Charles Leslie Chatwin, a lawyer in Birmingham. The family lineage descended from a Birmingham button manufacturer, but a number of Chatwin’s ancestors had been lawyers and architects. Although the family moved around England during World War II, Chatwin attended one of England’s more prestigious public schools, Marlborough College. He did not excel academically, but he did fall in love with Edith Sitwell’s anthology Planet and Glow Worm (1944), along with the poems of Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, and especially Arthur Rimbaud. These works engendered Chatwin’s interest in French literature and culture. His favorite English poets were William Blake and Christopher Smart, and the prose works of Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne helped him sharpen his own style.
After graduating from Marlborough, Chatwin began working for the well-known art auction house of Sotheby and Company as a uniformed porter. He became famous at Sotheby’s when he casually pointed out that a newly acquired Picasso gouache was actually a fake. After his supervisor called in experts who verified Chatwin’s claim, the young man quickly rose to one of the top positions in the company; he soon became the youngest partner in the firm’s history.
Chatwin married an American woman, Elizabeth Chanler, who was the secretary of the chairman of Sotheby’s. Eventually he left the company, but not before experiencing severe eye problems; he awoke blind one morning, regaining his sight the following day. His doctor suggested that he take a trip to places where the horizons were long to relieve the strain of his severely overworked eyes. He traveled to Sudan, where he lived with nomadic tribes for months at a time. After his return to England, he resigned from Sotheby’s and became a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh in archaeology, but he became disillusioned with academic life. He began traveling in earnest and writing essays for English newspapers about his journeys to western and northern Africa, China, the Middle East, and Australia. His trip to Patagonia became the subject of his first critically acclaimed book, In Patagonia. His next book, the novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, arose from his experiences in Benin, formerly known as the ancient kingdom of Dahomey.
Chatwin’s next novel, On the Black Hill, was an examination of twins living in great isolation in one of Chatwin’s favorite vacation locations, eastern Wales. His most popular and best-selling novel, The Songlines, grew from a journey throughout the Outback and desert regions of northern Australia. Finally, his highly praised short novel, Utz, is a fictionalized account of his visit to Prague during the Soviet occupation of 1968.
On the Black Hill, published in 1982, won two literary awards, the Whitbread Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best novel. The Viceroy of Ouidah was made into a film titled Cobra Verde, directed by Werner Herzog, and a film version of On the Black Hill was directed by Andrew Grieve; both films were released in 1987. Utz, which had been short-listed for the Booker Prize, was also made into a film, by Swiss director George Sluizer, two years after Chatwin’s death. It was during his Australian trip that Chatwin came down with the first symptoms of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the disease that eventually killed him. Chatwin never publicly acknowledged that he had AIDS, and he was severely criticized by some journalists and activists for keeping it a secret. He died in Nice, France, on January 18, 1989.