Bruce Chatwin’s (1940–1989) wife Elizabeth and his authorized biographer Shakespeare compile the literary vagabond’s correspondence.
Chatwin, acclaimed for artistic conflations of fact and fiction and reportage and reflection—e.g., In Patagonia (1977) and On the Black Hill (1982)—was the archetype of the travelling Briton with the temperament of an esthete culture snob—at least that’s the tone of this copious collection. The few long, carefully composed letters are nearly choked by the vagrant postcards and instructions to his spouse from an absent husband. With so much ephemeral, quotidian chaff, starting at age eight until his death of AIDS four decades later, the late author’s considered pieces—which display his celebrated acute ear and antic eye—are too rare. Chatwin’s correspondence proceeds apace from schooldays, when things were sometimes “absolutely wizard” and continued education as a porter at Sotheby’s, where things were less exciting. Then came marriage and study at the University of Edinburgh where, as at the auction house, the author experienced disillusion. Always, there were friends and acquaintances to whom to write; some were famous (Jacqueline Onassis, Susan Sontag, Paul Theroux), others less so—all are identified here in largely bothersome footnotes. Chatwin covered many topics in his letters, including upcoming plans, frequent complaints, money, weather, gossip and, most often, wandering. (Interestingly, a recurring theme was the author’s feckless attempt at a major text on a history of the nomadic life). As his career flourished, the author wrote of his travels to Abidjan, Sikkim, Málaga, Warsaw, Vienna, Florence, Sydney, New Delhi, New York, Dahomey (now Benin), Yaddo et al., with the occasional dateline from home at Wotton-under-Edge. In a sad, moving coda, the wandering ended, with Chatwin deluded and bedridden in Nice. Unfortunately, there’s little here to enhance the writer’s reputation.
A talented author’s peripatetic self-regard.