The Moleskine style
Obsessive attention to notebooks and writing implements is a way for writers to enter the trance of composition. Bruce Chatwin made it part of the story.By John Ryle • 24 October 1993 • Bruce Chatwin: Photographs and Notebooks, edited by David King and Francis Wyndham; Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Murray; Granta 44: "The Last Place on Earth" • Photographs © the estate of Bruce Chatwin • Revised and expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,735 words
In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s vagarious book about Australian aboriginal metaphysics and the origins of culture, the reader is introduced, midway through the narrative, to the author’s hoard of moleskin notebooks, carnets moleskines, a treasure trove that contains the record of his journeys and researches, raw material for the work in hand. “Moleskine”, Chatwin tells us, refers to the smooth black oilcloth used for the binding of these notebooks, which he habitually obtained from a certain papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in Paris. (Whoever called it moleskin can never have got very close to a mole.)
On his most recent visit Chatwin discovers that the supplier—in Tours—has gone out of business. “Le vrai moleskine,” the stationer informs the writer, “n’est plus.” The order Chatwin was planning to make for a hundred notebooks—enough to last him the rest of his writing life—can never now be filled. His existing collection, crammed with notes, becomes a limited edition, a one-off word-hoard.
Many writers are stationery fetishists like Chatwin: the pencil of a certain shape and hardness, the feint-ruled paper of a particular weight, the hallowed portable typewriter, and—with the advent of the personal computer, the customised keyboard and time-consuming deliberation over fonts and spacing. Such things may come to form a necessary part of the ritual of composition, a way of entering the writerly trance—or else postponing it. There’s something egregious, though, about Chatwin’s famous moleskin notebooks. They just couldn’t be ordinary notebooks, could they? Notebooks with covers of card or plastic, say, as obtained from a regular stationer or office supply store? No, they have to be unique, irreproducible, a sacred mountain of moleskin.
Why possessions exhaust us
This exclusivity is an analogue of Chatwin’s mannered prose style—self-conscious, precise to the point of preciosity, laconic but luxurious, a style where jewelled sentences gleam in ambiguous genres. His invocation of the notebooks, the foregrounding of the act of writing that they represent, serves a particular purpose in the structure of The Songlines, enabling him to segue from travel narrative into a still baggier genre, the commonplace book.
The notebooks, we learn, travelled with him for years, from Paris to Australia, via countries in every continent. In 20 years he lost two, one on an Afghan bus and the other in Brazil, where the secret police, he claims in The Songlines, imagined that the notes he had written about the wounds of a baroque sculpture of Christ were an account in code of their interrogation and torture of political prisoners. Researching The Songlines, he tells the reader, he has the notebooks stacked on a plywood desk in the caravan where he is marooned near Alice Springs in the heart of the Australian outback; they are ranged alongside his pencils and his Swiss Army knife in the spirit of “obsessive neatness that goes with the start of a project”.
In his travels, he writes, even losing a passport is less of a worry than losing a notebook. (Why on earth he didn’t photocopy them?) This is because the notebooks contain the documentation concerning the Nomad Question, the big idea that Chatwin worked on for years. It is the idea that natural selection has fitted the human race for wandering, not for a sedentary life. The nomadic bent, he remarks elsewhere—ironically in view of his travails with the notebooks—is the reason that “possessions exhaust us”.
In subsequent chapters of The Songlines the notebooks disgorge a series of fragmentary questions and quotations, proverbial riffs, anecdotes and etymologies. Besides Chatwin’s own observations, there are quotations from Baudelaire, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Wordsworth, Meister Eckhart and, above all, Rimbaud (whose not-so-novel question, “What am I doing here?”, became the title of a posthumous collection of Chatwin’s essays and journalism). The notebooks provide both the kernel of The Songlines and an umbrella term for Chatwin’s more ephemeral pieces; they were also quarried for the four other books he published during his lifetime.