Nomad in a vague terrain

Bruce Chatwin and the ambiguities of travel writing

Nomad in a vague terrain
By John Ryle  •  4 December 1997  •  New York Review of Books (“Nomad”)  •  Anatomy of Restlessness by Bruce Chatwin; With Chatwin by Susannah Clapp  •  Expanded  •  Posted 2016  •  3,391 words

If Bruce Chatwin had been portly, myopic and mouse-haired,” writes Susannah Clapp, “his life and reputation would have been quite different.”

Chatwin’s death would likely have been different too, had he not been so good-looking and mysterious, so alluring to both sexes. When he died in January 1989, his fatal illness—not yet acknowledged to be AIDS—was a matter of speculation. A memorial service, held the following month at St Sophia, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow Road in Central London, compounded the mystery further: the proceedings were conducted in a language none of his friends could understand, and under the aegis of a faith that few were aware he had espoused.

There was no encomium at St Sophia, no valedictory address, no account of Chatwin’s childhood, of his early career in the art world, of his reinvention of himself as a writer, of his marriage, his illness or his death. There was no evocation of his flirtatious charm, his inexhaustible conversation, or his literary originality—the gifts that brought hundreds of mourners together under the bare brick dome of the cathedral, in an atmosphere thick with incense and liturgical Greek. Those of us present there could only note, with bemusement, that the combination of austerity and exoticism in the Orthodox Church was in keeping with Chatwin’s own taste in such things.

The occasion was made more fateful by the news, a few hours before the service began, of the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie, who had become friends with Chatwin in Australia, when Chatwin was researching The Songlines. (This was the book—though not his best—that transformed him from a cult writer to a bestseller.) The service was to be Rushdie’s last public appearance for three years. It was St Valentine’s Day. In such strange convergences, the mourners at the Cathedral were able to discern something distinctly, if tangentially, Chatwinesque.

The workings of the heart

Not long after the St Valentine’s Day fatwa, Rushdie wrote a review of a posthumous collection of Chatwin’s work. Chatwin, said Rushdie, “was secretive about the workings of his heart”.

“I wish it were not so,” he wrote, “for he was a man of great heart and deep feeling.”

Other friends of Chatwin—one in particular—were not so generous. In a startlingly ungracious article Paul Theroux portrayed Chatwin as a braggart and a snob. (Even Rushdie had called him a “gilt-edged name-dropper”). Clearly irritated by Chatwin’s reticence, Theroux broached in print the topic others had only spoken of. “We had met his wife,” he wrote,

but the very fact of Bruce having a wife was so improbable that no one quite believed it….  That he was homosexual bothered no one; that he never spoke about it was rather disturbing.

Chatwin’s silence on sex bothered AIDS campaigners too. They thought he and other high-profile victims of the time, such as Michel Foucault, should have proclaimed the true nature and aetiology of their illness, countering its stigma with their fame. The gay thing still ensorcells Chatwin’s reputation, even as his six books—now joined by a seventh—consolidate his literary presence. It is clear from With Chatwin that, while he may not have confided in straight friends like Theroux, Chatwin was no wallflower. Susannah Clapp mentions two liaisons: an affair in his twenties with the wealthy British expatriate Edgar (“Teddy”) Millington-Drake, who also died of AIDS, and a later involvement with the fashion designer Jasper Conran. There were others as well.

More to the point, in terms of sensibility, Chatwin’s writing clearly reflects a play of desire across all sexual kinds: male, female and inanimate. In the opening pages of In Patagonia—his first book—he is detained by a painting of a gaucho, swathed in a blood-red poncho, described as “a male odalisque, cat-like and passively erotic”. In Senegal, he writes in one of his notebooks, “both sexes are irresistible”. In his account of the sexual career of Francisco da Silva, the slave-trading Viceroy of Ouidah, and in the description of the relationship of the farming twins in On The Black Hill, or in his study of the pathology of art-collecting in Utz—in each of these books Chatwin shows himself alive to a range of erotic possibility, both its expression and its denial.

Homosexual inclination may have influenced where he chose to travel: to the relaxed latitudes that Sir Richard Burton termed the sotadic zone, where Norman Douglas, Axel Munthe, T.E.Lawrence and Wilfrid Thesiger had preceded him.

Homosexual inclination may have influenced where he chose to travel: mainly southwards, to the relaxed latitudes that Sir Richard Burton termed the sotadic zone, where other writers that Chatwin admired—Norman Douglas, Axel Munthe, T.E.Lawrence, Wilfrid Thesiger—had preceded him. It may be, in fact, that a touch of polymorphous perversity is the sine qua non of travel narrative: those already propelled to the margins of their own society find it easier to step into another, the oblique becoming acute. But Chatwin was not one to be tied down by sexual categories, nor to accept the social straightjacket of a gay identity, especially when, with the advent of the viral cull, gay ceased to be chic.

As Susannah Clapp notes, posthumous gossip has amplified the Chatwin legend. He liked to tell stories; and his friends liked to tell stories about him. The stories stressed his good looks: bright blue-eyes, fair hair, a hybrid of blond beast and Peter Pan. They featured his unexpected arrivals and sudden absences. There was the story, for example, about his resignation from Sotheby’s: how one day he woke up blind, the result, it was said, of looking at too many pictures. The country’s leading eye surgeon was said to have advised him that the cure was a sojourn in Africa—so Chatwin went to Sudan, where he lived with nomads, found snakes in his sleeping-bag and learned to read footprints in the sand. Then there was his equally abrupt departure from the London Sunday Times: a telegram saying “Gone to Patagonia” followed by silence, till he reappeared many months later en route to literary fame.

Such elements of exaggeration and self-dramatization sharpen the questions raised by the work of all writers of travel narratives: where is the truth in these glittering anecdotes, and where does invention take over? Most travel writers are no friend to the fact checker; their lies are legion. Sometimes such untruths matter because they misrepresent the living, or traduce the dead; sometimes because they glamorize the author at the expense of modesty and accuracy, making him or her braver, wittier or quicker off the mark than in reality. But other authorial inventions, it may be argued, are benign, designed for the narrative convenience of the reader—eliding gaps of time, transposing places or conflating incidents. Do such elisions matter? Less so.

It is too easy a step from here, though, to the idea that invention may usefully enhance reality, transfiguring events from the banal to the sublime, eventually removing the author from any accountability to the facts at all. And Chatwin used all these tricks at one time or another. As he told Paul Theroux, “I don’t believe in coming clean.”

His sentences are Fabergé sentences, designed to be held up to the light, turned in the hand, their craftsmanship admired

In Chatwin’s case, the label “travel writer” is of limited application. He disliked the term, as most travel writers do, not so much because he disdained the constraint of fact, but because he saw it as a low-rent genre. All his books after In Patagonia he labelled as “stories” and “works of the imagination”. Yet, with the exception of Utz and On the Black Hill, these books still deal with events in the real world. They have characters that bear the names of real people, including the author himself. This gives them a quality that is both post-modern and archaic: they can be seen as a return to the conventions of the eighteenth century, when a book like Robinson Crusoe, now in the canon of the early English novel, could be announced unblushingly as a “history”. The protagonist of The Viceroy of Ouidah, a Brazilian slave-trader, is, like Crusoe, an embodiment of savage capital, a figure of modernity marooned among the primitives. In Daniel Defoe’s case the identity of his real-life castaway, Alexander Selkirk, was concealed; but Chatwin barely altered the name of the person he based his story on: the historical da Souza simply became da Silva. The book even reproduces a portrait of the real da Souza, still hanging in a house in Dahomey. 

Some readers, those who seek primarily the reenchantment of the world, may enjoy such ambiguities. Chatwin himself undoubtedly did. As in other areas of his life, it was an imprecision that he exploited. He liked to keep his terrain vague. The locations of his books, typically, are not countries, but places between and beyond countries, Patagonia, the backlands of Brazil, the Welsh Marches, the Australian Outback—remote places, where a writer’s subjects are hard put to answer back. And the books themselves occupy a zone between genres, the twilight of veracity.

A landscape of fact and invention

Such is the landscape of fact and invention traversed by Susannah Clapp in her in her elegant biographical essay. With Chatwin is not a full biography—the official version, by Nicholas Shakespeare, is due two years hence—but it is something more than a memoir. As Chatwin’s first editor, and one of his literary executors, Clapp is close both to the life and the work. She has spoken to many of Chatwin’s friends and adds some telling reminiscences of her own. Her book is nimble and affectionate, full of lively recollection and critical acuity. It tones down some of the famous Chatwin stories while knocking others on the head (there was no telegram saying “Gone to Patagonia”; and the eye infection cleared up before departure). But Clapp keeps a steady eye on the more important question: how these tales were transformed into writing of such striking originality, writing which still retains some of the shock of pleasure it gave when it was new.

Clapp is the subject of a certain legend herself: it was she, it is reported, who transformed the vast, unruly manuscript of In Patagonia into the sleek, quirky book that made Chatwin’s reputation. Her account of the editing process, the art that assists art, is thus of special interest. (And in her case the legend clearly has more than a kernel of truth.) She also draws out the abiding themes that underlie Chatwin’s diverse output. Thanks to her we now have a better understanding of his real character, of those workings of the heart that Salman Rushdie wished to know more about.

The son of a lawyer, Bruce Chatwin was raised in the rust belt, in Birmingham, Britain’s unloveliest city. Although it irritated him when the poet Peter Levi cast aspersions on his home town, there is no evidence that he ever wanted to go back there. A middle-class boy from middle England, with an undistinguished educational record, he entered the orchidaceous world of the London auction rooms—Clapp’s phrase—as a porter, in 1959, at the start of the boom in the art market.

It was the first of several pieces of good timing. Chatwin had just left Marlborough, one of Britain’s ranking public schools. Under the tutelage of Peter Wilson, the sinister director of Sotheby’s, he became a expert on Antiquities and Impressionist paintings. He had, as the phrase went, “the eye”—an eye for saleability as much as aesthetics—and for a time contemplated going into business as an independent art dealer. But he had also developed a passion for ideas, ideas of a kind that did not fit with the predatory suits and spotted handkerchiefs of New Bond Street. In an address at a charity art auction, reprinted in Anatomy of Restlessness, he declared:

…what on the face of it enhances life less than a work of art? One tires of it. One cannot eat it. It makes an uncomfortable bedfellow. One guards it and feels obliged to enjoy it long after it has ceased to amuse.

In 1966, accordingly, he decided to leave Sotheby’s and study archaeology at Edinburgh University. Two years later he abandoned his university course and returned to London, but the break in his career marked a shift from the cultivation of expertise in art to a study of the history of the societies that produced it, a study that continued for the rest of his life. Chatwin’s radical ambivalence about the commodity fetishism of the art world was the beginning of the quest that was to turn him into a writer.

A stranger to the semi-colon

Back in London, he found a job on the magazine section of the Sunday Times, which for a period in the 1970s provided a genial niche for highbrows and aesthetes, a world apart from the journalistic milieu of the main newspaper. Here, nurtured by the novelist Francis Wyndham, a senior editor at the magazine, he began to develop the ear to complement the eye he had developed at Sotheby’s. The short paragraphs, sharp sentences and nifty transitions of In Patagonia have their origin in journalistic discipline. Chatwin took the mould of brevity, where every sentence counts, and poured into it an unjournalistic distillation of detailed observation and research.

He was a stranger to the semi-colon; grammatical simplicity enabled him to embrace arcane knowledge and a recondite vocabulary without slowing the pace of his prose, generating what he later referred to, with ironic self-regard, as “my bleak, chiselled style”. At the same time his sentences are made for appreciation; they are Fabergé sentences, designed to be held up to the light, turned in the hand, their craftsmanship admired. Sometimes, it must be said, the writing seems to be too much about this exercise of taste, fetishizing words in place of objects. (As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, taste can be charming, but not gripping.)

Chatwin’s big idea was that nomadism is the true condition of man, that natural selection has fitted the human race for wandering, not for a sedentary life, and that the ills of civilization issue from the neglect of this nomadic imperative

By this time Chatwin was married, to Elizabeth Chanler, an American from an East Coast Catholic family, who had been one of Peter Wilson’s secretaries at Sotheby’s. Paul Theroux describes their relationship as a mariage blanc, but it was clearly more than this. They were married for twenty-four years, though they did not always live in the same place. (“For writers like myself,” wrote Chatwin,“ ‘home’ is synonymous with writer’s block”.) Chatwin often travelled with his wife, and his last major book, The Songlines, is dedicated to her. They had no children, but she nursed him through his final illness and was with him when he died. In the pages of With Chatwin Elizabeth Chatwin is a silent but benign presence, settled where he is peripatetic, constant where he is mercurial.

Chatwin’s most moving book, On the Black Hill, is set in the part of the country where they set up home, and much of it was written there. Clapp compares the book to Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple, and the analogy, one senses, is not only with the precise, lapidary quality of the prose. Flaubert wrote Un Coeur Simple avowedly to show George Sand that he had a heart. Similarly Chatwin, in On the Black Hill, seems to mute his hard style and dwell more on the play of feeling between individuals.

The nomadic imperative

Chatwin’s posthumous Anatomy of Restlessness is an uneven but illuminating collection of stories, reviews and memoirs. The pieces are drawn from all stages of Chatwin’s writing life. They reveal the diligence of his book research and his close engagement with authorities in the fields he wrote about. It seems that, despite his famous absences, he contrived to spend as much time in the bookstacks as in the bush. The Viceroy of Ouidah is the oustanding example of this. The two volumes of the French photographer-ethnographer Pierre Verger’s Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos (a title Chatwin unveils with a bilingual flourish) and a shelf-full of works by the Brazilian historian Gilberto Freyre are sifted for rarities to set into his accounts of Dahomey and the backlands of Brazil. Chatwin takes one of the classics of Brazilian historiography, Euclides da Cunha’s account of a nineteenth-century millenarian revolt in the North-Eastern backlands, and condenses it, with Borgesian brevity, into a few vivid sections of The Viceroy of Ouidah. (Mario Vargas Llosa, by contrast, took the same book and parlayed it into a full-length novel, The War of the End of the World.)

Chatwin’s life-long topic of research, however—his big idea—was something he never quite managed to write a book about. This was the notion that nomadism is the true condition of man, that natural selection has fitted the human race for wandering, not for a sedentary life, and that the ills of civilization issue from the neglect of this nomadic imperative. From his early days as a writer, before he wrote In Patagonia, Chatwin had wanted to produce a book on the nomadic theme. “Anatomy of Restlessness” was a working title for this project; three of the pieces in the collection now published under that name are concerned with various stages of its non-composition.

The Songlines, his exploration of Australian Aboriginal cosmology, is the closest he actually got to writing such a book. The failure of The Songlines, the most ambitious but least technically successful of his works, is explained to some extent by the weight of expectation behind it. The problem is not in the ethnography. Although Chatwin was criticised by anthropologists for relying on third-party informants, this is an aspect of the story that he makes a virtue of: his account of the cultural entrepreneurs who mediate between the aborigines and the wider world is one of the book’s diverting aspects. And its account of aboriginal cosmology, though selective, seems to be basically accurate. Even his reliance on a non-aboriginal informants, as the anthropologist Howard Morphy  has argued, may be closer to the reality of field work than most ethnographers care to admit.

But there is still a problem with The Songlines, a twofold problem: first, the implausible figure of the protagonist, a schoolteacher with the archly emblematic name of Arkady; and, second, the strange irruption of extracts from Chatwin’s notebooks in the heart of the narrative. The book is misshapen; there is no suspension of disbelief. The fusion of documentary with invention, the ambiguous genre that Chatwin worked in, comes unstitched in The Songlines. The book was written, we learn from With Chatwin, when he was first diagnosed with AIDS and thought he was dying; so its broken-backed quality could be explained by an anxiety to get his research into print. Meanwhile the real nomad book remained unwritten.

It may be that Chatwin could never have written the book he wanted to. For him, the nomadic imperative had come to explain almost everything. It explained human nature in general and his own life in particular. It explained the urge to travel; it explained why, in his phrase, “possessions exhaust us”. It made the centrifugal central; it gave roots to restlessness. The nomad book that he planned to write was to be, all at the same time, his Tristes Tropiques, The White Goddess and The Golden Bough. It is no wonder he could not finish it. The “Anatomy of Restlessness”, as represented in the fragments now published, is not really an anatomy; it is more like a pile of bones.

But the books Chatwin did finish should be enough for us. What this posthumous collection confirms is that his gift was for concision, for brevity: short sentences, short paragraphs and short books. In a world of information glut, of blockbusters and bloated reputations, that is no small thing. ★


  • The roll-call of Bruce Chatwin’s friends, as reflected in the list of attendees at his memorial service (The Times, London, February 15 1989)

    A memorial service for Mr Bruce Chatwin was held yesterday in the Greek Cathedral of St Sophia, Moscow Road, W2. Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia officiated. Among those present were:

    Mrs Chatwin (widow), Mrs Margharita Chatwin (mother), Mr Hugh Chatwin (brother), Mr Oliver Chanler and Mr John Chanler (brothers-in-law), Mr and Mrs Anthony Chatwin, Mr John Chatwin.

    Sally Duchess of Westminster, Viscountess Stuart of Findhorn, Lady Freyberg, Lady Dorothy Heber-Percy, Lady Victoria Waymouth, Lady Arabella Stuart, the Hon Valerian Freyberg, the Hon Annabel Freyberg, the Hon Mrs Brigid Westenra, the Hon Miranda Rothschild, the Hon Alan Gordon-Walker, the Hon Emma Tennant, Sir Patrick Lawrence, Mr Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser (English PEN).

    Mr Gillon Aitken and Mr Brian Stone (Aitken and Stone) with Miss Sally Riley and Miss Dale Miller; Mr Tom Maschler (Jonathan Cape) and Mrs Maschler, Miss Corinna Honan (Daily Mail), Mr R Knight Bruce (Evening Standard), Mr Bill Buford, Mr Peter Eyre, Mr Nicholas Shakespeare, Mr Redmond O’Hanlon, Mr and Mrs Martin Amis, Mr James Fox, Miss Deborah Rogers, Mr Paul Levy, Mr and Mrs Michael Ignatieff, Mr Alan Yentob, Mr J Kasmin, Mr Paul Theroux, Mrs Kathleen Tynan, Mrs Rupert Lycett-Green, Mr Kenneth Rose, Mr Tristram Powell, Mr Kranti Singh.

    Mr Roger Graef, Mr Giles Bartleet, Mr and Mrs Giles Swayne, Mr John Sandoe, Mr Sandy Martin, Mr and Mrs E Bedford, Mr Simon Laws, Mr Roberto Calasso, Mrs [sic] Susannah Clapp, Mrs Jane Kasmin, Mr Aaron Kasmin, Mr Robin Symes, Miss Felicity Nicholson, Mr John Stefanidis, Mr and Mrs T Klossowski, Mrs Glenda Collett, Miss Melissa Wyndham, Miss Min Hogg, Mrs Martha Mlinaric, Mr Christopher Gibbs, Mr and Mrs Charles Tomlinson, Mr Patrick Bashford, Mr Tim Martin, Mr Hercules Bellville, Miss Clare Peploe, Miss C Hopkin, Mr and Mrs Joss Graham, Miss Kristin Milward, Mr and Mrs Robert Erskine, Miss Valerie Wade, Mr I Haritakis, Mr Michael Hare, Mr John Galloway, Miss Rosemary Peach, Miss Helen Dukes, Mrs S Reid-Cook, Miss Jessica Gordon.

    Mr J L Goulandris, Mr John Harder, Mr W Forrest, Mr J Pawson, Miss H Van Royen, Mr John Ryle, Mr Chris Allen, Mr C Cotton, Mr B Ginsberg, Mr John Gassatt, Miss Nicola Howard, Mr Nigel Ryan, Miss Jenny Woldman, Mrs Jane Rainey, Mr Oliver Musker, Mr and Mrs Guy Wilkin, Mrs Keith Salvesen, Mr Gerald Hingley, Mr Sven Gahlin, Mrs Angela Ward, Mr Anderson Bakewell, Mr Blake Morrison, Mr David Sylvester, Mr Howard Hodgkin, Miss Elizabeth Simson, Miss Diana Swayne, Miss Jacqueline Graham, Mr Geoffrey Mulligan, Mr Simon Littlewood, Mr Luigi d’Erso, Mr and Mrs Anthony Aris, Miss Susanna Kelly, Mr James Cotter-Craig, Mrs Harriet Crowder, Miss Sarah Anderson, Mrs Mark Littman.

    Miss Hannah Rothschild, Professor and Mrs Nicholas Ghika, Mrs Bess Cuthbert, Mr and Mrs D Squire, Mr John Nankivell, Dr Rachel Miller, Mr David Nash, Mr George Lawson, Mr Stewart Grimshaw, Miss Louise Stiernsward, Mr Oliver Hall, Mr David Sulzberger, Mrs Juliet Hubbard, Miss Elizabeth Bache, Mr H D Lyon, Mr and Mrs G E Melly, Mr Tom Melly, Mr Francis Wyndham, Mrs Melinda Heathcote Amory, Miss Stella Astor, Mr David Ellis-Jones, Mrs John Wells, Mrs Shusha Guppy, Miss Susan McGowan, Mr Simon Carter, Mr Nicholas Claxton, Mr Miles Morris, Mr David King, Miss Imogen Lycett-Green, Mrs Alexander Ward, Mr T Stamp, Mrs Charlotte Rhodes.

    Mr and Mrs Brian Young, Mr Kevin Volans, Mr Roger Clarke, Mr David Godwin, Miss Polly Sampson, Miss Frances Coady, Miss Stevie Patterson-Dick, Mr Eric Buss, Mrs Ian Gillespie, Mr Adam Munthe, Miss Janet Green, Mrs Juliet Trahair, Miss Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Mr Jonathan Harris, Mr Hugh Latham, Mrs H M Temple Richards, the Rev M Nikolsky, the Rev David Reynish, Mrs Rowena Feilding, Mr and Mrs Michael Cuddigan, Mrs Robin Blackburn, Mrs S Fulford, Mr Michael Cannon, Mr Colin Thubron, Mr Jeremy Fry, Mrs Eileen Martin, Mrs Sinclair Hood, Mr Russell King, Mrs Moira Carson, Mr Derek Hill, Mrs Brian Parry, Mr Ronald Gurney and Mr Martin Wilkinson.

  • Chatwin’s Travels”, reprinted in Imaginary Homelands, Granta Books, 1991

  • “Chatwin Revisited”, Granta 44, 1993

  • “Proximity and Distance: Representations of Aboriginal Society in the writings of Bill Harney and Bruce Chatwin” in Popularizing Anthropology edited by Jeremy MacClancy and Chris McDonaugh, Routledge, 1996.