BRUCE CHATWIN: A Biography
By Nicholas Shakespeare. Doubleday. 618 pp. $35
As he neared death at age 48, British novelist Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989) blamed his illness on, variously, a visit to a bat cave, a rotten thousand-year-old egg he had eaten in China, and a fungus previously reported only in a handful of Asian peasants and "a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia." Chatwin was really dying of AIDS, but mythologizing lay at the heart of his life as well as his five novels.
Now Shakespeare, a novelist, reveals the man behind the myths. Although Chatwin burned piles of papers during his illness, the biographer still had plenty to work with. Chatwin’s widow offered access to family papers and to restricted material at Oxford University. Shakespeare also gathered interview tapes, letters and diaries, and recollections from nearly everyone who crossed paths with Chatwin.
The result is a comprehensive portrait of a man so multifaceted that art critic Robert Hughes called him not a person but a scrum. By the time Chatwin published his first novel, In Patagonia (1977), he was only in his thirties and had already been a renowned art expert at Sotheby’s, a journalist, and an archaeologist whose pet theory was that settling down engenders human aggression.
His literary output was equally unclassifiable. Noting that Chatwin "made life difficult for booksellers, but vastly more interesting to readers," Shakespeare calls his work "the most glamorous example of a genre in which socalled ‘travel writing’ began to embrace a wider range: autobiography, philosophy, history, belles lettres, romantic fiction." The Songlines (1987), the bestseller about a journey across the Australian outback, was even up for a prestigious travel-writing award until the author reminded the judges it was a novel.
As Shakespeare explains, Chatwin’s life was full of paradoxes. He carried on a not-so-secret life as a gay man even as he shared a deep bond with a wife of almost unearthly patience. He was a middle-class boy from Birmingham who grew up to have an address book in which Jackie Onassis’s phone number appeared just before an oryx herder’s. While idealizing nomads’ ability to travel light, he spent a lifetime collecting beautiful objects. He traveled the world despite a bad case of hypochondria, toting a rucksack filled with pills. He was an impossibly handsome charmer but a difficult—and frequent—houseguest who never offered to do the dishes. Unlike With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (1997), editor Susannah Clapp’s slim memoir, this first-rate biography shows Chatwin in all his complexity.
—Rebecca A. Clay