Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, page 1
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - SCHOOLDAYS: 1948-58
CHAPTER TWO - SOTHEBY’S: 1959-66
CHAPTER THREE - EDINBURGH: 1966-8
CHAPTER FOUR - THE NOMADIC ALTERNATIVE: 1969-72
CHAPTER FIVE - SUNDAY TIMES: 1972-4
CHAPTER SIX - GONE TO PATAGONIA: 1974-6
CHAPTER SEVEN - THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH: 1976-80
CHAPTER EIGHT - ON THE BLACK HILL: 1980-83
CHAPTER NINE - THE SONGLINES: 1983-5
CHAPTER TEN - CHINA AND INDIA: 1985-6
CHAPTER ELEVEN - HOMER END: 1986-8
CHAPTER TWELVE - OXFORD AND FRANCE: 1988-9
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Letters by Bruce Chatwin copyright © The Estate of Bruce Chatwin, 2010. Preface and annotations by Elizabeth Chatwin copyright © Elizabeth Chatwin, 2010. Introduction and notes copyright © Nicholas Shakespeare, 2010. Compilation copyright © Nicholas Shakespeare and Elizabeth Chatwin, 2010 All rights reserved.
Extract from The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly. Copyright Cyril Connolly, 1945.
Extract from Ups and Downs by Frances Partridge. Copyright © Frances Partridge, 2001.
Additional acknowledgments for permission to reprint copyrighted works appear on pages 527-528.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Chatwin, Bruce, 1940-1989.
Under the sun : the letters of Bruce Chatwin /selected and edited by
Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare.
First published in Great Britain in 2010 by Jonathan Cape.
eISBN : 978-1-101-47568-3
1. Chatwin, Bruce, 1940 – 1989—Correspondence. 2. Authors, English—20th century—
Correspondence. I. Chatwin, Elizabeth. II. Shakespeare, Nicholas, 1957 – III. Title.
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I first met Bruce in late 1961 at Sotheby’s, where I came to work for a couple of years. I was the first American that the auction house had employed in London and was, of course, a curiosity. Not long afterwards, Bruce was sent on his first trip to New York, to look at collections of paintings for possible sale. He was enchanted by everything, especially the glamorous old wealthy Wasp milieu which made a fuss of him. After that trip – from which he returned wearing a large checked woollen jacket and hat to match, the sort worn by country people at work – I became more interesting.
During the next few years we spent weekends in the Black Mountains, walked the Malvern Hills with his father, and one summer we almost rendezvoused in Libya. We were married in 1965.
His letters and postcards from that time have disappeared. I managed to keep most of the subsequent ones. I am thrilled that a collection of his correspondence is to be published. Letters are the most vivid writing of all. His mother kept his weekly notes written from prep school and these are already full of different interests and enthusiasms. It is fascinating to see the child develop into an art historian at Sotheby’s. He was always good at stories, which became his eventual career.
Bruce was Sotheby’s expert for the Impressionist and Modern Art (excluding British) and the Antiquities Departments. The latter meant artefacts from India, the Ancient Near East and Europe and Amerindia, the Pacific and Africa – the World – and involved endless research at the British Museum and Musée de L’Homme in Paris. He became more and more disturbed by archaeological objects brought in to sell – some of which were stolen from unrecorded sites – and fakes. He began to regret that Sotheby’s had cajoled him into not going to Oxford when a place came up. They persuaded him that he would do very well without a degree.
By 1966 he was looking at universities with the idea of reading archaeology . . . Only Edinburgh and Cambridge offered a degree course for undergraduates, so to Edinburgh he went. It would mean a dramatic fall in income but we reckoned we could manage.
Edinburgh in those days was very grim in the winter. The Royal Mile on which we had rented a flat in a newly built block had 23 pubs and none with chairs to sit on. To get green vegetables and salad, I had to go to the New Town (across the bridge in the eighteenth-century part) where there was a proper greengrocer. The huge North British Hotel did not know what a salad was. The best things were the fish and the outside oyster bar. You took your white wine and they provided brown bread and butter with the oysters. Freezing but fun.
Bruce worked terribly hard and well into the night. He was very competitive and at 26 was a mature student up against teenagers just out of school. He studied Sanskrit as well as archaeology and came out top of his class, to his delight. Then, after two and a half years of a four-year course, he quit. He did not even tell me he was going to. He became disillusioned after going on digs in the summer and realising he didn’t like disturbing the dead.
By this time he had become fascinated by nomads and he began to write about them. Thanks to a fee to go and look at a collection in Egypt he had enough money to travel a bit. In 1969 he and Peter Levi went to Afghanistan on a grant Peter had from Oxford. This was Bruce’s third visit. I joined them after two months and was utterly beguiled by the country. Nine years later, the Russians upset the balance forever.
He worked on the nomad book for several years, but it was and remains unpublishable. Then he was persuaded to go and work for the Sunday Times magazine, quite a distinguished publication in those days. He made many lifelong friends there.
Bruce began as the art expert to replace David Sy
So again he made a dramatic move in his life, without telling anyone till he was nearly on his way. He wrote a letter to the Sunday Times on a little piece of yellow foolscap now lost or stolen. He usually telephoned me from some tiny bar on the road as he was moving south. He was full of praise for Moet & Chandon Argentine bubbly. To find champagne in an unlikely place was a great lift to his morale. He loved it.
He nearly always travelled alone: two people have a defence, but a single person is approachable. He could never have managed Patagonia with me tagging along, or The Viceroy of Ouidah or most of his books.
He slightly altered the people he met along the way – the brothers in On the Black Hill were not twins; a nurse in In Patagonia was a devotee of Agatha Christie, not Osip Mandelstam. It enraged the people thus altered, as Nicholas Shakespeare and I found when retracing his steps in 1992 in Patagonia – all part of his storytelling. The Songlines has completely invented characters.
People used to ask me how I felt about his endless absences from home. Sometimes it was annoying that I had to cope alone, but I knew he was working; he had to be free. At the very beginning of our marriage he said he hoped I didn’t mind, but he had to go off by himself – The Cat that Walks by Himself, a lovely picture by Kipling is on my kitchen dresser.
Bruce always kept in touch by letter or telephone from the ends of the earth and I simply wasn’t curious about what he was doing. He would entertain me with stories on his return.
In the early 1970s I was given my first Black Welsh Mountain ewes, and from then on my calendar was set to a sheep timetable. I still have their descendants and am just as fond of them.
Bruce attracted all sorts of people throughout his careers. He had a talent for making friends wherever he was: on buses, trains, ships. Somehow he discovered a stranger’s abiding interest within minutes, and they chattered away like old friends. It always amazed me. They thought it was friends for life. Exchanging addresses meant letters coming to him from all sorts of unlikely places. A Nigerian had a plan to start a shop and asked for a huge list of things like socks and shirts and pants and cotton thread to stock it with. More lists would arrive. I’m afraid we ignored them.
Once Bruce began to write books he became addicted to it and woke up in the morning thinking of the work. When we travelled together on the Continent he would become very restless if he had not been able to write for more than a couple of days. He would rearrange the room we were staying in so he could sit and work. I was sent out to sightsee for myself.
It is wonderful how many people kept his letters, even before he became a well-known writer. He never kept anything, including the first editions of his books.
I simply don’t know what he would have thought of computers and of using them to write books on. He might have felt it was more fun than anything to talk to any person anywhere in the world, or he might have hated it. When we were trekking in the Everest National Park in 1983 we were approached by a lone American who tried to attach himself to our camp (repulsed by evasion eventually). He said that within a few years Bruce would be using a word processor to write with. He got a mocking reply from us, and indeed Bruce never even looked at a computer as far as I know. But he observed that most books published after the advent of word processors were much bigger. Nothing wrong with them, but too long, as it was so easy to correct and adapt with the machine.
His system was to write by hand on yellow (American) legal foolscap and correct and delete and discard sheet after sheet. When he was fairly happy, he typed it out with large margins and then corrected and changed it some more. Then maybe another handwritten copy and definitely more typewritten ones. He threw away mountains of paper, so there are no working manuscripts to be seen.
He never showed his work to anyone till he was satisfied with it, but he read it aloud to me. Everything had to sound right and flow easily. The letters are the only unreworked writing of his. He felt that writing was a labour. A computer made it too easy.
And now that communication has become so fast and easy with mobile phones and e-mail, no one writes letters any more. No notes from the little darlings at prep school to treasure, maybe no love letters and no travellers’ accounts. Does anyone print the communications they get for keepsakes?
So Bruce’s letters, starting from a very young age and continuing through life, are a last example of a traditional form of communication which may now disappear.
I am most certainly in the mood for writing letters
A year before his death in January 1989 Bruce Chatwin opened a letter from his London publisher Tom Maschler and read the following:
‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there is simply no writer in England for whose work I have a greater passion than yours. This statement is made with all my heart.’
Twenty-one years on, Maschler finds no reason to alter his opinion. ‘Of what I call “my lot” – Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – Bruce was the one I was most anxious to know where he was going to go. I think had he lived he would have been ahead of all of them,’ he told me.
Chatwin’s compelling narrative voice was cut off just as he found it. In his last months, wrapped in a shawl beside the stove at Homer End near Oxford, he lamented to Elizabeth: ‘There are so many things I want to do.’ A work on healing to be called The Sons of Thunder; a triptych of stories after Flaubert’s Trois Contes, ‘one set in Ireland in the days of Irish kings’; an Asian novel about the Austro-American botanist Joseph Rock who lived in China; another novel, based in South Africa, which would explore the gossip and jealousies of a Karoo dorp. And, of course, his Russian epic Lydia Livingstone, a love story first and foremost which was to weave in three cities – Paris, Moscow, New York – and attempt to fictionalise his wife’s Jamesian family. ‘Bruce had just begun,’ says his friend Salman Rushdie. ‘We didn’t have his developed books, the books that might have come out of falling in love with his wife. We saw only the first act.’
One of the titles he liked, though he did not yet have a book for it, was Under the Sun.
It was a foreigner who asked the question: ‘Why should the disappearance of Bruce Chatwin make such a difference?’ Writing in June 1989 in the Times Literary Supplement, Hans Magnus Enzensberger answered his own question in this way: ‘it is surely as a storyteller that Chatwin will be remembered, and missed – a storyteller going far beyond the conventional limits of fiction, and assimilating in his tales elements of reportage, autobiography, ethnology, the Continental tradition of the essay, and gossip.’ For Enzensberger, with whom Chatwin had plotted a future walk along the Berlin Wall and down the East German border, it was not enough to say that he died young or was full of promise. ‘Chatwin never delivered the goods that critics or publishers or the reading public expected. Not fearing to disappoint, he surprised us at every turn of the page.’ Enzensberger concluded: ‘Underneath the brilliance of the text, there is a haunting presence, something sparse and solitary and moving, as in Turgenev. When we return to Bruce Chatwin we find much in him that has been left unsaid.’
While we shall never know the surprise of his unwritten works, Chatwin has left behind a body of writing that is striking for its freshness; an authentic conduit which allows us to return to him and even to be rewarded in the manner Enzensberger hints at: namely the letters and postcards that he wrote from his first week at boarding-school, two weeks shy of his eighth birthday, until shortly before his death at the age of 48.
Assigned in Nazi-occupied Paris to censoring civilian mail coming from
Whether typed on Sotheby’s notepaper, or written with a Mont Blanc pen on sheets of blue stationery from a shop in Mount Street (with a proper die for his address), or scribbled on the backs of postcards with a blunt hotel pencil, Chatwin’s correspondence reveals much more about himself than he was prepared to expose in his books.
Alone in his letters did he make known that he had been present on a February day near Johannesburg when a cracked fragment of antelope bone was prised from the floor of the Swartkrans cave, soapy-feeling and speckled with dark patches as if burned: evidence, it turned out, of man’s ‘earliest use of fire’. For all his brilliance, Chatwin could be disarmingly modest, hiding his light under the same bushel as his well-concealed darknesses. The Bruce Chatwin who appears in The Songlines, In Patagonia and What Am I Doing Here is his own best, most achieved character: observant, intelligent, sharp-witted, heterosexual, generous, intrepid. This persona was an essential part of the appeal of his writing. ‘In his books you were addressed not merely by a distinctive voice,’ observed Michael Ignatieff, ‘but by the fabulous character he had fashioned for himself.’ The Bruce Chatwin of the letters is less certain of who he is, more vulnerable but more human. Delicate about his health and finances; uneasy about his sexual orientation and his relationship with England; above all, restless almost to the point of neurosis.
In his passport, Chatwin put ‘farmer’ as his profession, but his life was spent on the hoof, a sizeable proportion of it in the study of nomads. An internal memo circulated at Cape in October 1982 gives a flavour of his travels, their tern-like spread. ‘Publicity have no idea when Bruce Chatwin will be in Australia – neither does his agent! As far as we know he is still in Siberia/Russia.’ He copied into one of his signature Moleskine notebooks this telling line from Montaigne: ‘I ordinarily reply to those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.’ About the motivations for Chatwin’s restlessness, I have not yet found a more convincing explanation than this, by the Vietnamese writer Nguyen Qui Duc. ‘Nomads in the old days travelled around looking for food, for shelter, for water; modern day nomads, we travel around looking for ourselves.’
Other author's books:
- Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings, 1969-1989Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce ChatwinOn the Black HillUtz
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