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Dazzling and worrying: my memories of Bruce Chatwin and In Patagonia

Forty years ago, Chatwins debut volume transformed travel write. But simply 12 years later, its writer was dead. The Observer theatre critic, Chatwins editor for that volume, reflects on a brief, brilliant career

‘Does anyone read Bruce Chatwin these days ?” asked Blake Morrison, reviewing his letters seven years ago. Well, someone must: nearly 30 years after his death, all six of Chatwin’s books are still in print. But it is true that when the dominant novelists of the 1970 s and 1980 s are discussed, Chatwin’s name is rarely among them. The penalty of once being fashionable is that you may come to be thought of as simply fashionable. Almost violently successful at first, his books are now less likely to be mentioned than the Moleskine notebooks in which he sketched and jotted.

Vintage’s 40 th anniversary publication of In Patagonia is an invitation to look again at one of the most vivid but elusive novelists of the late 20 th century. Chatwin’s first volume, it helped to change the idea of what travel writing could be. It appeared at a rich literary moment, when both reportage and the novel was starting to fly high in new directions. I recollect the time well- I edited In Patagonia and in doing so became friends with the author. Angela Carter and Ryszard Kapuscinski, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie is currently being publishing; Julian Barnes was preparing to take off. In Patagonia was in a category of its own. It was clearly not a novel, but it flirted with fiction. A collage of histories, sketches, myths and memories, with short scenes glinting towards each other, without judgment, judgment or, often, relates. Chatwin said he was trying to make a cubist portrait. It is paradoxical, in content and in style. The syntax is snappy but the vocabulary is orchidaceous. It holds back from intimate revelation-” I don’t believe in becoming clean ,” Chatwin announced- but is fuelled by autobiography, lighted up by personal obsessions.

In Patagonia begins with the infant Chatwin in Birmingham looking at a piece of “brontosaurus skin” and ends with the grown-up adventurer embarking on a vessel at Punta Arenas. It examines the lives of the giant sloth and His Royal Highness Prince Philippe of Araucania and Patagonia- a short chap in a dark-brown tweed suit. It analyse new clues about Butch Cassidy,” who journeyed into a new life of wide horizons and the odor of mare leather”, and commits a lyrical report of the Welsh in Patagonia: hollyhocks, whitewashed rooms, ripe plums, pottery dogs and a harmonium. One of its final pictures is of” a boy from the Falklands with a sealskin hat and strange sharp teeth “. He declares: “‘ Bout time the Argentines took us over. We’re so bloody inbred .” That was five years before the Falklands war. Chatwin was often accused of committing being a fantasist. He was surely not through-and-through rational, but he was often shrewd, often prescient.

Chatwin was a traveller, an artwork expert, a connoisseur of the extraordinary. He had not set out to be an writer. At school- Marlborough- he had been considered” very much alive … he has a smooth and elegant style but is too fond of the byways of historical accident “. At Sotheby’s, where he went to work at 18, he was a star: he had a quick eye for a sham, a sure eye for what was good, and rose to dizzy importance in the impressionist and modern artwork( excluding British) and antiquities departments. He was also set to appeal patrons into buying and selling. At Somerset Maugham’s house on the French Riviera, Maugham’s secretary pleaded:” Bruce, do let Willy play with your hair .” He bolted from the auction house to Edinburgh University, to survey archaeology. He bolted from Edinburgh after two years without taking his degree. In his 30 s, he was taken on at the Sunday Times Magazine and, encouraged by Francis Wyndham, wrote sharp-edged, vivid, ingenious pieces: about the designer Eileen Gray, about George Costakis, an art collector in the Soviet Union, about Madeleine Vionnet, discoverer of the bias cut. He bolted from the Sunday Times to Patagonia.

At work in Lucca, Tuscany in the mid-1 970 s. Photo: J. Kasmin/ Camera Press/ J Kasmin

By the time I came across Chatwin, he was 36 and had done all these things. He had also accrued a reputation that, had I known about it, would have made me quail. He was celebrated for his seems: wide-browed, blond, strong blue eyes; his friend Howard Hodgkin thought he” looked like the captain of the first XI”- though he painted him, Chatwin noted, as” an acid green smear “. He was known for being particular about his outfits: his emerald coat, his khaki safari shirt and shorts, his soft, toffee-coloured boots, and for the haversack in dark dark-brown calfskin tradition make use of a saddler in Cirencester with each pocket carefully devised to mansion a specific item. He was famous for his sudden disappearances, his unexpected arrivals and for the whirling discourses that magnetised his audiences but which no one could quite summarise. His riff on red would like to know whether the color of revolution was inspired by blood or by fire, and took in the bonnet rouge of the French revolution, Garibaldi, Uruguayan butchers, bullfighters and Buddhism. All too much, you might gues, too exquisite. Yet he had been able to capture persuaded sceptics with his talk. Martin Amis had developed a rugged resistance to Chatwin before fulfilling him. When he saw” a very dinky little sleeping-bag with a club-class sticker” that the traveller had left behind him, he chose:” That just about sums him up .” But when he gratified him he melted. Six times after Chatwin’s death he keenly recalled an evening with him, talking about Romantic verse.” He did ,” Amis said,” remind you how intense the amusements of conversation can be .”

I first met Chatwin in the drought summer of 1976. He swooped into the dingy chamber( next to the dames’ lav) I occupied at the publisher Jonathan Cape, already talking and moving so fast he looked as if he were hiking through the room. He was carrying that calfskin haversack. In it was a paperback of L’or by Blaise Cendrars, a World Classics publication of Sydney Smith’s letters- and the bulky manuscript of what was then called ” At the Aim: A Journey to Patagonia “.

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and frets me. It was exceptional- but it was enormous and it didn’t flowing. I became his editor, with the task of stimulating the book velocity along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, read it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the artwork merchant John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home blithely to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction kill. Every morning, he arrived having cut- but often having also added another episode; stories continued spilling out of him.

Chatwin during his time at Sotheby’s. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Nevertheless, judging by the sums I scrawled in the margins, I guess we eventually cut between a one-quarter and a third of the typescript. The outcome was a swifter and consistently sleek volume: short phrases, short chapters, short book. Not much that moved was wasted. Some of the cut material bobbed up in later work, in The Songlines , his baggiest and likely most famous volume, and in On the Black Hill . That novel he wrote, he said, to escape the label of travel writer:” I decided to write something about people who never went out .” John Updike saw in this story of identical twin brothers the picture of a homosexual marriage. Chatwin, who had marriage at 25, had had male lovers.

For me, his great gift- on the page and in person- was visual generosity. He induced you realise different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic chamber in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of hopping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his motorcycle to buy it in the 1960 s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson– pleated like origami to hide his books- he hung portraits he had made by cutting coloured draws from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he continued a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones:” May the blessed Archangel Michael protect us in duel lest we perish in the horrible decision .” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.

In 1982, leafing through Time magazine, he came here across an article about a” lesbian plague “. He afterwards told his wife, Elizabeth, that he had immediately belief this applied to him. In his final years, sometimes feverish, sometimes high on the drugs he was prescribed, he became an exaggerated version of his already high-velocity ego. He was full of plans and wheezes. He wanted to write a mighty novel featuring” four decadent countries- the USA, the USSR, France and Britain “. He had a scheme for an opu about Florence Gould, the grande dame from San Francisco who, in the second world war, presided over a multilingual parlour in Paris, where guests included Jean Cocteau and German propaganda officers. It was to be an English opera in which scarcely a word of English would be spoken. He wanted to give all his friends presents and went on wild browse sprees. What he spent bore little relation to what fund “hes having”.” God is filling up my bank balance ,” he told the jazz singer George Melly. Meanwhile, Elizabeth cancelled cheques and returned objects to art dealers.

In the midst of this tumult, he rendered the intricate short novel Utz , which was shortlisted for the 1988 Booker prize. It is the narrative of a secret life which I imagine contains a quiet tribute to his wife. It is also a wonderful evocation of austerity and soothe. He asked me to edit it and I went down to his home in Oxfordshire with some small-scale propositions. We sat for cold bright mornings, inducing some tucks and trimmings, with Bruce beamingly anticipating some of my quibbles:” Beat you !” Halfway through spaghetti and bacon in the kitchen, he abruptly moved completely blue. Huddled up in a blanket, seeming tiny, he cried:” I’m a child of the tropics !” The following weekend he was worse:” My stomach is like a calabash !” he said, drumming on it rather proudly. A couple of months later, he was thin and disconsolate and in bed.

He died on 18 January 1989; he was 48. On 14 February, Elizabeth organized an Orthodox service of commemoration in the Greek cathedral of Saint Sophia in Moscow Road, London. It turned out to be an occasion of drama. Two hours earlier, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie had been announced. Rushdie was at the cathedral, greeted by a multitude of correspondents as he came out.” Keep your head down, Salman, or next week we’ll be back here for you ,” advised Paul Theroux.

It was also a mysterious event, unlike any other memorial service I have ever attended. Many thought it beautiful. Others thought its theatricality camp. Martin Amis saw this, homing in on” a religion that no one he knew could understand” as” Bruce’s last joke on his pals and loved ones “. The actor Peter Eyre, coming from a rehearsal of King Lear in a beard and clothes that would allow him to roll around- head to toe in black- was mistaken for a clergyman and approached by a member of the congregation about the possibility of transition. The real black-robed priests talked of the end of suffering, but there was no encomium , no evocation of the man who had died. The only term English speakers could be sure of was the repeatedly intoned “Bruce”. The author was absent from his service- as his admired Gustave Flaubert said that the artist should be absent from his run. And yet the occasion seemed full of his qualities. It was paradoxical, bringing together spareness and metropolitan commotion. Full of tales. Capriciously elusive.

* The 40 th anniversary edition of In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin is published by Vintage on 5 October( PS10. 99 ). To order a facsimile for PS9. 34 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders only. Telephone orders min p& p of PS1. 99. Susannah Clapp’s memoir < em> With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer ( 1997) is also published by Vintage

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Bergen, where Jo Nesbs Snowman carried out his grisly work, refashions its image

Bergen is dead set on ensuring its fame isnt merely for fictional noir slaughters by running huge sums into raising its global artistic profile, writes Vanessa Thorpe

Bergen, with its safeguarded historic waterfront and romantic, low-hanging mountain mists, is quite used to being packaged for foreign consumption. Long sold as” the gateway to the Norwegian fjords”, the Viking port is an established stop-off for Nordic cruises and, since the recent international literary boom in Scandi-noir fiction, it also observes itself a big describe for fans of the bestselling misdemeanour genre.

Some of its surrounding geographical features have become synonymous with gruesome fictional deaths, largely thanks to the enormously successful Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo. And Bergen’s streets, with their processions of hooded quilted coats, zipped against the rainwater , now say merely one thing to most modern tourists: “murder”.

The release this weekend of the mega-budget thriller The Snowman , a film starring Michael Fassbenderand based on the seventh book in Nesbo’s detective saga, should really mean that the city is bracing itself for another icy detonation of association with grim murder. After all, much of The Snowman was shot on place in and around Bergen and the popular Vidden hiking road between the Ulkriken and Floyen mountains is the scene of one of the horrific slaughters detailed in the book.

Yet this weekend, the person or persons of Bergen are actually busy celebrating the advent of an entirely different cultural landmark. Their gleaming new Kunst Musikk Design( artwork, music and designing) faculty house, which opened its entrances to students four weeks ago, is a key part of a concerted national bid to throw Bergen back on the European cultural map. The objective is to be recognised as a destination for more than just stately Saga sail daytrippers or devotees of BBC4′ s hit Scandinavian dramas. Backed by Norwegian government monies, the country’s second city is pushing for renewed status as an international centre of creative excellence, able to attract students and top artists from around the world. So the founding of this PS100m home for only 350 arts students at a time is a deliberately lavish strategic move.

Applicants from abroad, Frode Thorsen, the dean at KMD, promises, will be welcomed with open arms. Already about one in 3 of those who receive doctorates are foreigners and some are even funded. Most universities in Norway are state-owned and reasonably heftily endowed. Students are supported by the various kinds of loans and awards that would astonish British freshers. Tuition fees are covered by the government and those studying for a PhD at Bergen University are paid employees. What’s more, much of the teaching is be done in order to English.

Last week, Britain’s Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller was one of the high-profile guests invited to recognize the opening of the building , now formally is incorporated into Bergen University. Talking to a central dorm full of students and lecturers about his operate, ranging from his re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave during the miners’ ten-strike to his ” bouncy castle” Stonehenge, Deller emphasised the relevant recommendations that an artist can bring their work to the public in a variety of forms.” I haven’t really done any project that is conventional artwork for a long time now. Everything changed when I realised I could work with people, with communities, instead ,” he said.

It is a particularly appropriate message for this new house, which has been designed by the acclaimed Norwegian designers Snohetta specifically as a home for multi-displinary collaborations. The notion behind the KMD building, an amalgam of six schools previously scattered across the city, is that sculptors and ceramicists should be able to work right alongside fine artists and fabric decorators. It is interactions like these, said programme director Astrid Renata Van Veen, that may trigger new ways of thinking:” These encounters cannot be forced by an architect, of course, but you have to create spaces where these things might happen, to find ways for students to watch one another and find their work .”

Indeed, the logo Deller has created for the commencement of the celebrations presents an octopus deftly juggling several musical instruments, a paintbrush, a camera and knitting needles; a different artistic tool in each tentacle.

The first school of art was established in Bergen in 1772 and, while there is some unhappines about leaving the age-old faculty builds in the city centre, the big investment in the new site, coupled with the multi-disciplinary nightmare, seems to have won over most of the teaching staff.

Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole in The Snowman, a movie adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s book. Photo: Allstar/ Universal Pictures

For the vice-dean, Professor Anne-Helen Mydland, herself a former art student in Bergen, the value of artistic effort is philosophically closely linked with a political commitment to promoting democracy. She is therefore of the opinion that by cooperating with each other, across the disciplines, the arts stand a better opportunity:” Even in Norway, artwork is always fighting for itself. Art is about allowing new voices to listen to and it is always a struggle to communicate how important that is. And, with everything going on in the world now, it has never been more important .”

So, while British artwork colleges and university faculties are pondering how to cope with a future outside the European union, Norway, likewise an EU refusenik, has been quietly orchestrating a plot spin are worth one of Nesbo’s detective stories. A stealthy behavior to survive in the choppy seas of international markets, the government believes, is to use part of its vast and continuing national income from North Sea oil( PS1, 240 bn since production started in the 70 s) to position itself at the forefront of international artistic thinking. Now, on the back of the present popularity of Scandinavian style, the new artwork school will be using some of these oil funds to remind Norway’s larger neighbours, including Britain, that there is more to the country’s imagination than sleek chairs and cosy rugs.

And the KMD is just a portion of the Norwegian investment programme in the reputation of Bergen. As well as a planned new home for the city’s renowned music school, The Grieg Academy, to go up next door to the new artworks faculty in Mollendal, Bergen already has a pristine new airfield and is in the middle of erecting a light railway system. All this, despite the fact the entire metropolitan area only has a population of 420, 000.

Back in the 13 th century, Bergen was Norway’s capital, before Oslo overtook it in the 1830 s. Sitting at the centre of a lacy network of inlets on the west coast of the country, the Vikings first spotted its potential as a naturally sheltered harbour. But Bergen’s historic significance in Europe chiefly dates from its glorious period, running until the 16 th century, as one of the towns of the powerful Hanseatic League, the trading federation established all over the Baltic Sea and northern Europe.

Since then, several fires have reduced the size of the city’s most recognisable bit of visual branding, the attractive waterfront Bryggen district, a world heritage site recently traversed by the urgent feet of Fassbender as detective Harry Hole. Whatever the critics may say about The Snowman , it will doubtless attract a fresh wave of tourism to this part of town.

But perhaps the cultural attraction that best sums up the style Bergen now recognizes itself is a place that has already been drawing in the sightseers for decades: the hillside home of Edvard Grieg, the composer of the Peer Gynt Suite.

For, although that other Norwegian culture giant, the playwright Henrik Ibsen, writer of Peer Gynt, once run as a stage director in Bergen, it is the mighty reputation of Grieg, born there in 1843, that looms over the city, both metaphorically and literally. A visit to the villa in Troldhaugen that he lived in with his wife, the vocalist Nina Grieg, until his death in 1907 is charming enough. But what really stands out is the way the Griegs applied their small home, somewhat out of the route as it was for their fellow city dwellers, as a crucible of artistic and social activity. It was frequently full of musicians and regularly used for concerts, its bare wooden walls chosen for the best acoustics and its partitioned ground-floor chambers hosting impromptu performances: a perfect model for what the city of Bergen now hopes to become in northern Europe.

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