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.