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