Thursday, June 9, 2016

Pride Month Profiles: Bruce Chatwin

''The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D. Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwill, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild - five names taken at random from among the R's - told a story of exile, desolation, disillusion, and anxiety behind lace curtains.''

Charles Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)
Travel writer, novelist, journalist

Bruce Chatwin was a beautiful man. So much so, in fact, that Robert Mapplethorpe photographed him clothed. Cultured, despite a slipshod education; married, though mainly attracted to men; at home in the salons of the wealthy and famous before disappearing into the wilderness again, he was aloof and gregarious, a meticulous reporter of things he made up.

He grew up during World War II and the straightened years that followed. He wanted to read classics at Oxford, but when national military service ended the colleges were flooded with applications exceeding capacity. As alternatives, he suggested to his parents acting or moving to Kenya. They countered with a job at Sotheby’s, the auction house, as a porter. He got things out of storage for the sales, and dusted them.

Promoted to a cataloguing job, he impressed the management with his ability to combine exact descriptiveness with a touch of J. Peterman fantasy: just what brought in the well-heeled. Absorbing information with remarkable ease, he moved up, becoming a buyer, and using his trips to trade on the side to improve his finances.

He became head of the Antiquities and Impressionist Art departments; by 25 he was Sotheby’s youngest director. He was also bored, seeing his life stretching out across an endless vista of beating Christie’s to the apartments of recently-dead rich people. Sotheby’s head, Peter Wilson, also liked dangling Chatwin before collectors who might find his epicene charms a lure into the sale rooms. Chatwin preferred making his own choices.

In 1965, Chatwin quit and went on a long trip to the Sudan. He returned and spent two years reading archaeology at Edinburgh, but left without a degree. The science of the thing was dull. It lacked the glint of gold uncovered in a dusty dig.

He drifted into journalism, then to a Sunday Times retainer as an art adviser- he came up with story ideas and helped round up the interviewees. He began publishing his own pieces, and, in 1974, abruptly quit his job and went to Patagonia on a dare from an aging architect he interviewed.

Chatwin walked the vast land on foot for months, filling Moleskins- a type of notebook he favored- with observations and scraps of dialogue. A book, In Patagonia, was published in 1977, and became a bestseller that, singlehandedly, revived the art of travel writing. The book included black-and-white photos by Chatwin so well-composed, the novelist Rebecca West told him they made the text superfluous.

Travel writers, of course, must travel, and celebrity travel writers must travel first cabin. His circle expanded into the New York literary orbit, and to Hollywood, where he had an affair was James Ivory, soon to be of Merchant-Ivory Films fame. He tried out various movie and documentary projects with little success. His next book, On The Black Hill, was the story of two Welsh brother who’d rarely been outside the borders of their farm: an anti-travel book. It won the James Black Tait and Whitbread Prizes.

He published three novels, the last- Utz- a tale of one man’s mania for collecting art. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. HIs art catalogue magic stood him in good stead: John Updike said Chatwin wrote in a “clipped, lapidary prose that compressed words in pages.”

Back on the road, Chatwin tried to recreate his Patagonian success with a book about Aboriginal culture in Australia, The Songlines. Though another bestseller, it gave new currency to reports he interspersed the real people with whom he interacted with others, completely made up. Some- more so after his death- faulted him for failing to understand enough of Aboriginal language and culture to get past the romantic allure he found in peoples who could not stay put.

His health began troubling him, and his self-diagnosis was confirmed by doctors in Switzerland. Chatwin dismissed his ailments as recurrences of a rare tropical disease he’d picked up, which was true. It was also true, though not disclosed, that it was the sort of opportunistic infection that flourished in immune systems compromised by HIV. He died, in a French hospital, at the age of 48.

Few events sell books like their author’s death. His widow oversaw several posthumous works, and by century’s end, over a million copies of his works had been sold. His critical reputation has suffered, in the new century, as the documentation of his skill as a fabulist has grown.  As HIV/AIDS has stabilized into a chronic illness, freeing time from caring for the dying to reviewing the history of the plague years, and wondering how it all came about, Chatwin has been seriously faulted for dissembling about his personal life. He was neither the first, nor the last, to try to have it both ways. As his friend Salman Rushdie lamented, "All this fantastic entertainment and language and originality and erudition and display is a kind of hedge against not letting in the truth. The writing might have become astonishing if he had."

Chatwin remains an advertising icon for Moleskin notebooks.

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