With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer
by Susannah Clapp

Random House: 1997
246 pp., $29.95
ISBN: 0 224 03258 5

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

"People were drawn to Chatwin because of what he was as well
as what he wrote. He was feted for his looks as well as his books, for his
talk as well as his prose-- though there were always those who thought him
insufficiently frowning to be an author."

It pays to create mystery around your life, especially if you are an author. Bruce Chatwin knew this. So did the man who adopted Chatwin's name and seduced a Dutch girl whilst holidaying in Greece. She arrived home to see that Bruce Chatwin was signing books nearby and, on meeting him, she accused the real Chatwin of not being himself. It's a Chatwinesque story - "Such a Bruce", as his friends are apparently prone to say.

Bruce, now that he is dead, is well on the way to becoming a legend. Which is a problem. Susannah Clapp, who edited _In Patagonia_ and other Chatwin books, and who describes him as a "sweet friend", clears up many of Bruce's mysteries in her excellent biography. But, so flamboyant and glamorous is her subject, that in the opening chapter I felt that if I heard once more how beautiful Bruce was I should be sick.

'Glamour', according to Clapp, was "unalloyed praise" from Bruce. And it seems that he cast a glamour over many people: over the friends whose homes he descended on, wrote in and reorganised for his comfort ('A Bruce Visit'); over wealthy art collectors and dealers whom he cajoled and impressed ("I see you have The Eye. I too have The Eye. We shall be friends"); over the women and men who were his lovers; and clearly, at times, over Susannah Clapp who at one point happily transposes influences, quoting a friend's assessment of a Flaubert story as "very Brucey".

Clapp, however, is clear headed in her assessment of Chatwin's work. Writing from an editor's point of view, she gives a fascinating account of the process by which _In Patagonia_ was turned from a rather long and rather formless manuscript into a best-seller. She also provides a wealth of background information and good objective assessments of each of Chatwin's books. Writing about the recent, posthumously published book of Chatwin's photographs and notebook extracts, she observes how shared interests allow Bruce's artist friend, David King, to select and arrange the photographs in a way which shows the love of simple things, utilitarian objects and oddity-amongst-the ordinary, which inspired much of Chatwin's writing.

Clapp tries hard to be unbiased, too, in her presentation of Bruce's life and her assessment of his character. Inevitably, this prompts the question of how much we need to know about writers' lives to assess their work.

I enjoy Chatwin's unique style of travel-writing. But Chatwin, as the person described here, does not much appeal to me: too talkative ("He was known to one circle of acquaintances as 'Chatterbox' and to another as 'Chatty Corner'"); too exhibitionist; too precious in his delight for 'outfits' (swirling capes, natty shorts, and a custom-made, calfskin haversack). And anyone who wanted to perch on my bed first thing in the morning and regale me with "anecdotes and news" would quickly outstay his welcome. On the other hand, I think I would have liked his artistic sense, his pared-down aesthetics and his lively mind. I certainly do not agree with Hunter Davis, who took over as Editor of The Sunday Times Magazine when Chatwin was writing for it, and who thought his work was "all purple prose and self-indulgence".

Of course it is interesting to gossip about well-known people. And biographies do tend to be largely gossip, however sensitively this is presented. Clapp presents the bare facts of Chatwin's life: born in Sheffield in 1940 into a middle-class family; moved to Birmingham where he attended prep-school; educated at Marlborough College, but failed to get into Oxford; was found a job as porter at Sotheby's auction house where he rose to be offered a directorship in his early twenties; married a colleague, Elizabeth Chanler; and then resigned to study archaeology at Edinburgh University. Dropping his university study, he went to work for the Sunday Times, travelled widely and, at the age of 37, became an author. He died aged 48, having contracted AIDS, by which time he was a well-known writer with six published books.

Clapp (who was appointed as Chatwin's literary executor, together with Redmond O'Hanlon and Elizabeth Chatwin) has also talked to many of Bruce's friends and relatives in order to write this book. In particular, we learn a good deal more about Bruce's wife, about various of his lovers, and about the interests and obsessions which animated his life and are reflected in his books. This is fascinating stuff, and beautifully written, but is it all necessary?

Clapp writes perceptively, for example, on Chatwin's essay on Robert Louis Stevenson. She traces the points of resemblance between the two men (both were educated in Edinburgh, "Both were Francophiles; both married American women. The sexual proclivities of both have aroused public speculation") and she concludes that Chatwin's "dismissive" treatment of Stevenson stems from his recognition of, and rejection of, their similar natures. It is an interesting analysis, which owes much to Freud, but it really throws little light on Chatwin's work except to explain an apparent lack of sexual content. Nevertheless, much else that Clapp presents in this biography is valuable, and she is especially good at describing the process by which people, places and events in Bruce's life were collected and shaped to provide the content of his books.

Bruce Chatwin was a paradox. "It was one of Chatwin's charms to be several apparently contradictory things and to reconcile them in his books", writes Clapp. She also comments that "if Bruce Chatwin had been portly, myopic and mouse-haired his life and reputation would have been very different". Quite so!

Bruce Chatwin died in the South of France in January, 1989. He had lately been receiving instruction in the Greek Orthodox faith and a priest of that faith conducted a private funeral service. A month later, Elizabeth, who had nursed him throughout the last stages of his illness, arranged a commemoration service in the Greek Cathedral of Saint Sophia in west London. The cathedral was full and the service was dramatic - all black-robes, long- bearded priests and swinging censers - and totally in Greek. The only word most of the congregation understood in the whole service was the frequently repeated 'Bruce'. It was a 'very Bruce' occasion.

Read some reviews and/or purchase this book from Amazon.Com

Previous Page

To TOCE-Mail the AuthorSerendipity Link