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Bruce Chatwin
Nicholas Shakespeare

Bruce Chatwin
Nicholas Shakespeare
Harvill Press
London 1999

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Among the mass of papers that Chatwin bequeathed to the Bodelian Library just before he died from AIDS in 1989, was a four inch porcelain Toby jug figure, wearing a Homburg hat and green coat and carrying a Gladstone bag. Along the base of the object in brown lettering were the words: I am starting for a long journey.

The long journey that encompassed Chatwin’s short life receives its first full exposition in this remarkable book. Not only has Shakespeare retraced the maze of Chatwin’s globetrotting, he has succeeded in producing a coherent portrait of a man whose history was only available hitherto through his own inventions and embellishments (the efforts of Nicholas Murray and Susannah Clapp notwithstanding). And although this book is pitched as an authorised biography, Shakespeare refuses to pull any punches. If this book proves to be the definitive work on Chatwin (and it is difficult to see from where the competition may emerge), it will also be the book that disposes of much of the nonsense that crystallized into the posthumous Chatwin mystique. For example, the legend of Chatwin’s decision to quit Sotheby’s at the height of his powers is explained in What Am I Doing Here by a temporary blindness caused by looking too long and hard at works of art. Taking his doctor’s advice to ‘view some long horizons’, Chatwin promptly disappears to the Sudan, discovers himself to be a natural nomad and never looks back. However, Shakespeare offers a more prosaic version of events. Chatwin, it turns out, had always experienced problems with his eyes and, in fact, with his health in general. In addition, he was a notorious hypochondriac who was always accompanied by a regiment of medicines whilst travelling. ‘If he described to you a minor epileptic fit and a discharge from the nose,’ his doctor relates, ‘it took time to realise he was, in fact, only describing a sneeze.’ More significantly, Chatwin’s departure from Sotheby’s coincided with his shock at not being appointed a full member of the Board. At the same time, he seems to have lost out financially in a lucrative but underhand deal involving the disposal of the Pitt-Rivers Collection of African art.

Examples such as this could be multiplied, but this book is no mere debunker of myths. One of Shakespeare’s great strengths is in exploring the creative impetus behind Chatwin’s art, particularly his extravagant notions surrounding the significance of nomadism. Chatwin was no respecter of intellectual authority and those who contradicted his notions suffered the fate of caricature in his books. Some idea of Chatwin’s high-brow impatience can be gleaned from the fact that his theory of Aboriginal culture in The Songlines was based upon just nine weeks of research in central Australia.

But Chatwin’s success as a writer was not based upon his tendentious theories, but the medium in which he chose to present them. Ignoring the strictures of English literary conventions, Chatwin artfully melded fact, fiction and autobiography into an irresistible blend that produced some of the most remarkable post-war English prose. Influenced by the detached amoralism of writers such as Flaubert, Hemingway and Junger, much of the Chatwin style (‘those Fabergé eggs of sentences’ in Rushdie’s words) emulated the so-called ‘magic realism’ of Latin American novelists and reached its apogee in the extraordinary achievement of The Viceroy of Ouidah.

The final 100 pages of Shakespeare’s book make uncomfortable reading. He doesn’t spare the reader in detailing Chatwin’s physical and mental disintegration with the onset of AIDS and his simultaneous contraction of a bone fungus disease from western China. As a prelude, Shakespeare details for the first time the extent of Chatwin’s homosexual vigour quoting Peter Adam’s opinion that Chatwin ‘liked tarty men and justified them if they could read Rilke and know that Kafka wasn’t a deodorant.’ In ironic contrast, there is the sick and dying Chatwin being excoriated publicly by gay activists for refusing to acknowledge his sexuality when all he wished to do was to spare his parents the knowledge of his illness. But the most poignant passage in this mesmerizing book is of Chatwin, that scourge of the acquisitiveness and pretensions of the art world, being wheeled round the Mayfair antique dealers shortly before he died by the composer Keith Volans. Euphoric in his delirium, Chatwin bought vast numbers of articles that his wife returned as soon as he got them home: ‘He would not sit waiting for the objects to be wrapped,’ remembers Volans. ‘They were shoved into plastic bags and attached to the back of his wheelchair. “Tomorrow musical instruments, women’s clothes and incunables!”‘

Reviewed by Robert Whitehouse


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