Bruce Chatwin was the golden child of contemporary English letters. Paradoxically, however, his books appeared relatively late in his life: until 1977, when the 37-year-old author published In Patagonia
, this precocious, intense figure had occupied himself as an art specialist at Sotheby's, a journalist with the Sunday Times
, an archaeologist, and a restless, perennial traveler. Once he got started, of course, Chatwin made up for lost time. By 1989, when he died of an AIDS-related illness, he had produced seven books--including two superb novels and his sui generis masterpiece, The Songlines
--and won himself a worldwide audience.
As Nicholas Shakespeare makes clear in Bruce Chatwin, his subject remained an obsessive art collector long after he left Sotheby's. He was no less assiduous when it came to the acquisition of human trophies, taking both male and female lovers throughout the course of his marriage. Many a wife might have resented these magpie impulses--and indeed, Elizabeth Chatwin and her errant spouse endured some rocky times. Yet she remained touchingly loyal to him, and it was her cooperation and tenacity that enabled this biography to come about. Shakespeare captures the author's peculiar charisma and his tendency to transform everything--friendships, landscapes, meals, journeys--into aesthetic artifacts. Even when Chatwin experiences a writer's block while working on The Viceroy of Ouidah, he does it with style:
To try to finish the book, Bruce rented a house in Ronda for five months: "an exquisite neo-Classical pavilion restored by an Argentinean architect who has run out of money." He wrote in longhand on 20 yellow legal pads, refilling his Mont Blanc from two bottles of Asprey's brown ink.
There is excellent, evocative writing throughout Shakespeare's biography. The passages describing Chatwin's miserable death are both harrowing and deeply moving, but Shakespeare is no less adept at conveying, say, his subject's disappointment at failing to win the Booker Prize for Utz
. (Chatwin cheered up considerably when a friend told him that Alberto Moravia had given the book a glowing thumbs-up in an Italian newspaper.) What comes across most, perhaps, in this immense and excellent life, is the complete aloneness of the man, an almost impenetrable solitude. Australian poet Les Murray may have had the last word when he noted: "He was lonely and he wanted to be. He had those blue, implacable eyes that said: 'I will reject you, I will forget you, because neither you nor any other human being can give me what I want.'" --Catherine Taylor
From Publishers Weekly
Chatwin's fallen-angel looks had withered from HIV by his death at 47 in 1988, but he had achieved a cult reputation as a writer-adventurer that shows no signs of fading. Shakespeare's warts-and-all biography, thoroughly researched and unsparingly revealing of Chatwin's literary and personal failings, will be manna to cultists but ammunition to critics who see him as an overrated manufacturer of his own myth. Chatwin himself declares that the borderline between fiction and nonfiction "is to my mind extremely arbitrary, and invented by publishers." To Shakespeare the "camouflage of fiction did allow Bruce to do what he liked." A friend sees an unresolved tension in the bisexual Chatwin and his work; below the "smooth attractive surface, he was split, rather like his books, between fact and imagination." His small, genre-defying oeuvre, highlighted by In Patagonia and The Songlines, both travel narratives enhanced by artifice, and Utz, which Chatwin considered a "Middle European fairy-story" though it was largely factual, is as compelling as his ambiguous personality. Yet he is exposed by Shakespeare, an award-winning novelist, as an exploiter of people, especially his masochistically loyal wife, and as a writer who relished being in control but was obsessed self-destructively by his homosexuality. A charismatic parasite, he borrowed homes in which to write, borrowed lovers, borrowed ideas, borrowed other investigators' research. A critic he knew called him "a great intellectual thief." "I have seldom met a human being," an acquaintance wrote, "who exudes so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness. When the gilt has worn off his jeunesse how much substance will be left underneath?" Always fascinated by nomads of every description, Chatwin was a sophisticated nomad, restless and dissatisfied, even with his fame, and ever pulling up stakes to hide from himself. The biography, a graphic page-turner, leaves the reader wondering whether Chatwin, here simultaneously charming and unpleasant, will survive Shakespeare's relentless yet often empathic dissection. Illus. not seen by PW. Author tour. (Feb.)
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