Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, Jonathan Cape, 554pp. £25
THE WRITER Bruce Chatwin was born on May 13th, 1940. His people were English and middle class, though there were some raffish 19th-century ancestors – Charles Amherst Milward, a “spectacular adventurer” who circumnavigated the globe nearly 50 times, and Robert Harding Milward, who died in jail while serving six years for embezzlement.
Chatwin went to prep school, then Marlborough. The letters he wrote in this period show that from beginning all the traits were there: the facility with language, the infectious enthusiasm, the love of performance (Chatwin was an accomplished schoolboy actor) and the talent for projecting an alternative, “improved” version of himself that was irresistible to all who encountered it.
After Marlborough Chatwin joined Sotheby’s impressionist and modern-art department. Here he learned “how to look at and handle a work of art, describe it concisely and . . . judge its market worth”. The fantastic specificity of his writing owes much to his training at the auction house – which was also where Chatwin met his future wife, Elizabeth.
Initially, Chatwin loved Sotheby’s because it afforded him the chance to travel and to meet people. Once he perceived the sharp and sometimes fraudulent practices that characterised the fine-art world, however, he came to loathe it.
In 1966, even though by now he was a partner (though with no voting rights), he abandoned Sotheby’s, enrolled at Edinburgh University and embarked on a four-year anthropology degree. He did two years and then quit to start his first book, a study of the nomad, past and present.
Chatwin spent three years trying to write this book, and he learned a great deal from that struggle even though the result was, in the words of his publisher Tom Maschler, “a chore to read and I imagine a chore to write”.
At this point, having abandoned a career, aborted a degree and written an unpublishable book, one would understand if Chatwin had given up literature. But now the gods smiled – a recurring feature of his life, this: he was always lucky – or, to be precise, Francis Wyndham, senior editor at the Sunday Timesmagazine, smiled: in 1972 Wyndham brought Chatwin on to his staff, and for the next two years he wrote a quantity of quality journalism.
Then the best-known part of Chatwin's life began: he bolted from the Sunday Times, first to Patagonia, where he foraged for the material from which he would make his first masterpiece, In Patagonia, and then to the Marxist Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey), in west Africa, to research the life of the Brazilian slave millionaire Dom Francisco de Souza, whose story he published under the title The Viceroy of Ouidah.
In 1980 Chatwin's marriage broke down, but he plunged on and, at various addresses around England and the world, wrote his masterpiece On the Black Hill, "a story about Welsh hill farmers, identical twins who have slept in their mother's bed for the past 43 years". The last, which cemented Chatwin's reputation, was followed by two more
books: firstly, the best-seller The Songlines, a unique study of Australian aboriginal life that did what he'd failed to do in his book on nomads (and during the course of writing which relations with Elizabeth were repaired); and, secondly, Utz, his strange, compressed account of the life and times of a Czech collector of fine porcelain.
Utzwas shortlisted for the Booker in 1988 but didn't win. The prize went to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda.Chatwin was by now HIV positive and died of an Aids-related illness in Shirley Conran's chateau in the south of France in 1989.
The material in Under the Sunis arranged chronologically, which allows the reader to follow the threads of life and friendship exactly as Chatwin lived them, an experience never less than interesting.
The letters are augmented by brilliant linking text plus really excellent footnotes, all provided by the editors, Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, and his biographer, the novelist Nicholas Shakespeare.
The editor’s interventions are always tactful, wry and amusing, plus they offer context, background and everything you need to know as a reader in order to navigate your way through a life that was crammed with incident and teemed with characters.
What makes Under the Sunsuch a singular book, however, is neither the quality of the letters (interesting though they are) nor its editorial apparatus (excellent though it is too) but the way, by a mysterious act of literary alchemy, the two strands have combined to make something that reads like a biography, albeit one mostly constructed out of the words of the subject rather than the words of the biographer.
Chatwin wrote some of the most interesting books produced in England in the late 20th century. Under the Sunshould stimulate new interest; more importantly, it offers a corrective to the lazy view that Chatwin's achievement owed less to talent and effort than to class and privilege.
Yes, as the letters show, Chatwin had a little money, and rich and helpful friends, plus, in Elizabeth, he’d a wife who deserves to be beatified for services to him and literature, but the single biggest contributor to
Chatwin’s achievement was Chatwin. The secret of his success – and this shines out from letter after letter – was the same as it always was and always will be for any writer: graft. He worked ferociously, he read omnivorously and, like Sisyphus, he kept going, he endured.
Carlo Gébler teaches at Maghaberry Prison. He has just finished a play for BBC Radio 3 about Charles and Mary Lamb and the writing of their Tales from Shakespeare