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Bruce Chatwin: A Biography Hardcover – February 15, 2000

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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.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st ed. in the U.S.A edition (February 15, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385498292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385498296
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #220,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By John Owen on March 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Before I started the book, I'd read a great deal about it, and heard Nicholas Shakespeare on the radio. I had great expectations, and they were fulfilled.
It is interesting how little one can learn of Bruce Chatwin from reading his books, but Shakespeare fleshes out his subject wonderfully well. You get the feeling, "So this is what Bruce Chatwin was really like.", and, "So this is what Bruce Chatwin really meant."
But what impressed me most was how occasionally I would be stopped cold and forced to think, not about Bruce Chatwin, but about my own (albeit far less spectacular) life. Shakespeare not only knows Bruce Chatwin well, he also knows something of the human condition.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By James Osborne on May 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Finally, a definitive Chatwin biography! I waited years for this -- and I wasn't disappointed. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating writer. The thing to remember about Chatwin is that he was a very English character and I think this may frustrate some non-English readers who -- forgive me for saying so -- may lack the taste or patience to appreciate him (as some of the petulant comments from previous reviewers suggest). He was such a difficult man to figure out even to his friends and I am not surprised that he ultimately comes across as unknowable in this otherwise thorough, valuable book.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I feel a certain ambivalence about this book. It is extremely well written, obviously painstaikingly researched and detailed, but I am still left a little outside the Chatwin myth. What I wanted from it was a feel for who Bruce Chatwin was - one hears so much about him, and if, like me, you have not read his books, this was my entree into his world. I was left feeling that BC needed a good smack and spent his life being indulged by all those closest to him. But then, we do tend to indulge people we love; it's obvious that he had great charisma and spent most of his life surrounded by adoring fans.
It also made me cross that he wouldn't admit to his sexuality - perhaps I should feel sad for him that he was unable to.
I was rather thrown by how much knowledge the reader is presumed to have (French without translation and many names I knew the sound of but could not place). Also the lack of substance in Elizabeth's portrayal was rather maddening.
However, it certainly is a brilliant book, and it did make me think - that surely is what it's about.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Thomwur on March 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Shakespeare clearly started off worshipping Chatwin and admiring his writings deeply. As he went on with his research the hero worship is tempered by the reality he uncovers, particularly Chatwin's fictionalisation of so much of his life and work. For all his supposed charms, Chatwin comes across as a rather horrible person, sad, desperate, lonely, unable to come to terms with his sexuality and perfectly willing to make people suffer for it. This book has something of the widow's revenge about it as his wife comes across as a saint who put up with a monster of a husband. Chatwin was a good novelist, a good writer of travel fiction and a great stylist but intellectually his work is mired in the 19th century. As a person he seemed unhappy and ultimately destroyed by that. Shakespeare uncovers all the facets of this complex life in a fascinating, well constructed biography and neither builds up or diminishes Chatwin.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By L. Alper on April 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
It's hard to know if my reaction to this biography is due to the subject himself or is the fault of the biographer. Nicholas Shakespeare's "Bruce Chatwin" is long, well-researched, & has the full cooperation of Chatwin's family. Yet, all throughout the book, I never really got a sense of who Chatwin was, & why his family & friends (even casual aquaintances) viewed him so adoringly despite his cavalier treatment of them.
Admittedly, this may be due to Chatwin himself. An ambiguous, intensely guarded man, it's hard to tell even from his writings such as "In Patagonia" exactly what he thinks about a place or person. Personally although "The Songlines" is one of my favorite books, I never have cared for the other Chatwin's I have read ("In Patagonia", "On the Black Hill", "What Am I Doing Here"). Reading "Bruce Chatwin" has even made me lose some of my admiration for "The Songlines" as it turns out to be fiction, not the well-researched ethnological treatise I had believed it to be! However, this review should be of the biography, not the subject's writings, so among faults I found in Nicholas Shakespeare's "Bruce Chatwin" are:
1)The author assumes knowledge the reader may not have; if a quote is in French he offers no translation. If discussing Malvert or Osip Mandelstam, no explanation of their work or significance is given.
2)Although we are told Chatwin's wife Elizabeth was the instigator of this book & cooperated fully, her presence in the book is that of a shadowy background figure. Her feelings, reactions, methods of dealing with Chatwin's neglect of her, all are ignored or glossed over.
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