Ostensibly a kind of travel book, with quaffs of philosophy, memoir and anthropology, and positioned as nonfiction, The Songlines was eventually revealed to have been a carefully constructed work of fiction—not a hoax, exactly, but not quite as represented. In the aftermath, Chatwin went from being considered an important writer to being considered an overrated one. By that time he was dead—of AIDS, as it turns out, although, characteristically, he and his friends spun tales of bacilli breathed in while exploring Himalayan caves, of an exotic culinary experiment gone terribly wrong.
And now, suggests his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, it seems that Chatwin “has slipped back into the obscurity in which he labored while he wrote and published his first three books.”
If nothing else, the recently published collection of Chatwin’s letters, Under the Sun (Viking, $35), may help restore some of his reputation as a masterful storyteller, if one who was not shy of dispensing with facts that got in the way of a good yarn. They are also tantalizing glimpses into what might have been, given the slimness of Chatwin’s body of published work—just six books in his lifetime—as against all the projects he planned, all the things he wanted to do.
The perfect was surely the enemy of the good in his case, for Chatwin worked and reworked his manuscripts, seemingly reluctant to let them go. As his wife, Elizabeth, recounts, Chatwin would begin by hand on a legal pad, writing and rewriting, throwing away sheet after sheet until assembling a draft that he would then type out, correct and retype—and then write again by hand and retype still again, throwing all the discarded pages away as he labored.
He was, in short, an archivist’s nightmare. Indeed, Chatwin happily confesses, in a letter of 1986, that he “turned arsonist and destroyed heaps of old notebooks, card indexes, correspondence.”
“The letters are the only unreworked writing of his,” Elizabeth adds. And what do they tell of us Chatwin? For one thing, that he was endlessly busy, always on the go, always productive, even if some of his work involved cajoling friends out of money, house keys, airplane tickets.
For another thing, the letters reveal confounding, contradictory sides of Chatwin. Some of his correspondents, for instance, found him utterly humorless. Salman Rushdie, though, said that Chatwin “was so colossally funny, you’d be on the floor with pain.” Shirley Hazzard and W.G. Sebald thought him a pioneering writer, some of his former colleagues at Sotheby’s a bit of a poseur.
A student of nomadism, Chatwin was a nomad himself. To one of those colleagues, he wrote, “Change is the only thing worth living for. Never sit out your life at a desk. Ulcers and heart condition follow.” The letters pour out from New York, Istanbul, rural Argentina, Paris, St. Maarten, Greece, and, yes, the Australian outback, capturing vignettes that sometimes found their way into his notebooks and, from there, his books. In Alice Springs he is “dumbstruck with horror” over the fetidness of white missionary society. In Italy he picks up odd wartime jokes about Hitler. In Brazil he witnesses candomblé dances and despairs of “intellectuals in search of Atlantis.”
Under the Sun makes a fat and endlessly intriguing collection, with letters to the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux and, often revealingly, to Elizabeth. But it could have been bigger still: missing, as Shakespeare notes, are letters to Werner Herzog, Redmond O’Hanlon, Gita Mehta and many others. Missing, too, are the replies, so that we hear from only Chatwin directly.
But no matter. Even with the posthumously published collections of photographs and essays, even with Shakespeare’s admirable biography, we still have too little of Chatwin’s work, at least too little to suit his admirers. Under the Sun makes a welcome addition, and it will surely make readers hope that there’s more to come from the vaults.