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With Chatwin
Susannah Clapp

With Chatwin
Susannah Clapp
Jonathan Cape
London 1997

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With Chatwin is a book of, and about, good taste. Bruce Chatwin "liked clear outlines, plain surfaces and unexpected bursts of colour". The physical appearance of the book, with its restrained design and planes of Howard-Hodgkin-esque colour – lime green, indigo and orange – would have pleased him. He is pictured on the cover looking oddly diminutive and wooden, like a little votive figure he might himself have collected. This absorbing biography is by Chatwin’s editor Susannah Clapp, written in an elegant and unforced style that draws no attention to itself. Clapp’s good taste as an editor informed Chatwin’s success; she and Chatwin edited In Patagonia together, transforming the baggy manuscript into a finished book. The line between the biography and the life it described is blurred – the prose which made Chatwin famous was pared and pruned by his biographer.

Chatwin’s celebrity, as Clapp acknowledges and celebrates, was intimately connected with his physical beauty and presence. Clapp brings Chatwin before the reader’s eyes, evokes his physicality: his mop of blond hair, his Boy’s Own travelling garb of khaki shorts and rucksack, blue sparkling eyes, awkward gait, his dislike of being hugged, his irrepressible speech, wit and wickedness. Clapp gives a vague shape to the intangible, the whiff of sulphur about Chatwin. She describes a scene in Gloucestershire when two friends of Chatwin’s were walking with him, struggling to keep up. He walked ahead of them, striding in his shorts, and disappeared. A little later they heard a noise:

Looking up they saw Chatwin staring down at them from the top of a hill; he was dressed in jodhpurs, hacking-jacket, riding boots and helmet.

Clapp describes Chatwin’s mercurial nature and restless travelling (emphatically not exploring – his silk pyjamas were never far away) with pleasing economy and moderation. There are inevitably, in describing such a life, rather too many inconsequential anecdotes involving ravishing young men with double-barrelled names. But when these and other excesses begin to grate, Clapp slips in a little nugget of Chatwin’s prose. He writes of catching crayfish in Sweden, and cooking them in the evening, "a scarlet mountain, covered in dill":

The northern sunlight bounced off the lake into the bright white room. We drank akvavit from thimble-sized glassed and we ended the meal with a tart made of cloudberries.

His writing is pared down, impressionistic, full of light and colour. It distils Chatwin’s painterly sensibility, is all surface and mood. The preoccupation with surface makes Chatwin an unsatisfying writer of fiction – On the Black Hill has no real depth or substance. But the travel writing is glancing and bright. A thoughtful teacher wrote of the schoolboy Chatwin’s tendency to veer into the "byways of accident", of his insouciance. Another that "his gift may be slender, perhaps, but it is genuine". Talent, charm and the admiration of famous friends assured Chatwin of celebrity in his lifetime. Whether his slender body of work will assure him lasting fame remains to be seen.

Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith


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