Bruce Chatwin

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Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin as he appears on the cover of Nicholas Shakespeare's 2001 biography, Bruce Chatwin: a biography.
Born May 13, 1940(1940-05-13)
near Sheffield, England
Died January 18, 1989 (aged 48)
Nice, France
Occupation Author, Travel Writer. Art and Architecture Advisor
Nationality British
Writing period 1977 - 89
Genres History, Travel, Non-fiction, Fiction
Subjects Patagonia, Slave Trade, Britain, Europe, Afghanistan
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Chanler

Bruce Charles Chatwin (13 May 1940 - 18 January 1989) was an English novelist and travel writer.


[edit] Early life

Chatwin was born on 13 May 1940 at his maternal grandparents' house in Dronfield, near Sheffield, England. His mother, Margharita (née Turnell), had left the family home at Barnt Green, Worcestershire, and moved to her parents' home when Chatwin's father, Charles Chatwin, went away to serve with the Royal Naval Reserve.[1]

He spent his early childhood living in West Heath in Birmingham (then in Warwickshire), where his father had a law practice. He was educated at Marlborough College, in Wiltshire.[2]

[edit] Art and archaeology

After leaving Marlborough College in 1958, Chatwin reluctantly moved to London to work as a porter in the Works of Art department at the auction house Sotheby's.[3] Thanks to his sharp visual acuity, he quickly became Sotheby's expert on Impressionist art. He later became a director of the company.[4]

In late 1964 he began to suffer from problems with his sight, which he attributed to the close analysis of artwork entailed by his job. He consulted eye specialist Patrick Trevor-Roper who diagnosed a latent squint and recommended that Chatwin take a six month break from his work at Sotheby's. Trevor-Roper had been involved in the design of an eye hospital in Addis Ababa, and suggested Chatwin visit east Africa. In February 1965, Chatwin left for the Sudan.[5] On his return, Chatwin quickly became disenchanted with the art world, and turned his interest instead to archaeology. He resigned from his job at Sotheby's in the early summer of 1966.[6]

Chatwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study archaeology in October 1966.[7] However, despite winning the Wardrop Prize for the best first year's work[8], he found the rigour of academic archaeology tiresome, and spent only two years in the city, leaving without taking a degree.[9]

[edit] Literary career

In 1972, Chatwin was hired by the Sunday Times Magazine as an adviser on art and architecture.[10] His association with the magazine cultivated his narrative skills and he travelled on many international assignments, writing on such subjects as Algerian migrant workers and the Great Wall of China, and interviewing such diverse people as André Malraux[11], in France, and Nadezhda Mandelstam[12], in the Soviet Union.

In 1972, Chatwin interviewed the 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon, where he noticed a map of the area of South America called Patagonia which she had painted.[13] "I've always wanted to go there," Bruce told her. "So have I," she replied, "go there for me." Two years later, in November 1974, Chatwin flew out to Lima in Peru, and reached Patagonia a month later.[14] When he arrived there he severed himself from the newspaper with a telegram: "Have gone to Patagonia." He spent six months there, a trip which resulted in the book In Patagonia (1977), which established his reputation as a travel writer. Later, however, residents in the region came forward to contradict the events depicted in Chatwin's book. It was the first, but not the last time in his career, that conversations and characters that Chatwin reported were alleged to be fictionalised.

Later works included a fictionalised study of the slave trade, The Viceroy of Ouidah, which he researched with extended stays in the West African state of Benin. For The Songlines, Chatwin went to Australia to develop the thesis that the songs of the Aborigines are a cross between a creation myth, an atlas and an Aboriginal man's personal story. Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, On the Black Hill was set closer to home, in the hill farms of the Welsh Borders, and focuses on the relationship between twin brothers, Lewis and Benjamin, who grow up isolated from the course of twentieth century history. Utz, his last book, was a fictional take on the obsession which leads people to collect. Set in Prague, the novel details the life and death of Kaspar Utz, a man obsessed with the collection of Meissen porcelain. Chatwin was working on a number of new ideas for future novels at the time of his death in 1989, including a trans-continental epic, provisionally titled "Lydia Livingstone."

[edit] Style and influence

Chatwin is admired for his spare, lapidary style and his innate story-telling abilities. However, he has also been strongly criticised for his fictionalised anecdotes of real people, places, and events. Frequently, the people he wrote about recognised themselves and did not always appreciate his distortions of their culture and behaviour. Chatwin, however, was philosophical about what he saw as an unavoidable dilemma, arguing that his portrayals were not intended to be faithful representations; as his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare argues: 'He tells not a half truth, but a truth and a half.'

He extensively used a particular brand of notebooks manufactured in France. When production stopped in 1986, he bought up the entire supply at his stationery store. A modern version of the simple, black notebooks is sold by Moleskine.

[edit] Personal life

Much to the surprise of many of his friends, Chatwin married Elizabeth Chanler, a descendant of John Jacob Astor, on 26 August 1965.[15] He had met Chanler at Sotheby's where she worked as a secretary. Chatwin was bisexual throughout his married life, a circumstance his wife knew and accepted. They had no children, and after fifteen years of marriage, she asked for a separation and sold their farmhouse in Gloucestershire.[16] However, towards the end of his life they reconciled. According to Chatwin's biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, the Chatwins' marriage seems to have been celibate, and he describes Chatwin as homosexual rather than bisexual.[17]

Chatwin was known as a socialite in addition to being a famous travel author. His circle of friends extended far and wide and he was renowned for accepting hospitality and patronage from a powerful set of friends and allies. Penelope Betjeman - wife of the poet laureate John Betjeman - showed him the border country of Wales, and thereby helped to contribute to the gestation of the book that would become On the Black Hill.[18] Tom Maschler, the publisher, was also a patron to Chatwin during this time, lending him his house in the area as a writing retreat.[19] Later, he visited Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his house near Kardamyli, in the Peloponnese of Greece.[20]

Numbered among his lovers was Jasper Conran[21].

[edit] Death at an early age

Around 1980, Chatwin contracted HIV. Chatwin told different stories about how he contracted the virus, such as that he was gang-raped in Dahomey, and that he believed he caught the disease from Sam Wagstaff, the patron and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe[22]. He was one of the first high-profile sufferers of the disease in Britain and although he hid the illness - passing off his symptoms as fungal infections or the effects of the bite of a Chinese bat, a typically exotic cover story - it was a poorly kept secret. He did not respond well to AZT, and suffered increasing bouts of psychosis which included extravagant shopping trips around the auction rooms of London - many of which purchases his wife quietly returned.[citation needed] With his condition deteriorating rapidly, Chatwin and his wife went to live in the South of France at the house that belonged to the mother of his one-time lover, Jasper Conran. There, during his final months, Chatwin was nursed by both his wife and Shirley Conran. He died in Nice in 1989 at age 48.

A memorial service was held in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia in West London on the same day that a fatwa was announced on Salman Rushdie, a close friend of Chatwin's who was in attendance. Paul Theroux, Chatwin's one-time friend and fellow-writer, quotes himself as saying to Rushdie "it'll be your turn next, Salman". Theroux later commented on the memorial service in a piece he wrote for Granta, condemning Chatwin for failing to acknowledge that the disease he was dying of was AIDS.

Chatwin's funeral was also attended by the novelist Martin Amis who describes the memorial in his essay Salman Rushdie, from the anthology "Visiting Mrs Nabokov".

His ashes were scattered by a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli in the Peloponnese near to the home of one of his mentors, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

[edit] Works

[edit] Citations

  1. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 22.
  2. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 65.
  3. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 86.
  4. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 176.
  5. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 158-159.
  6. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 178.
  7. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 189.
  8. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 192.
  9. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 214.
  10. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 267.
  11. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 280.
  12. ^ Chatwin 1990, p. 83-85.
  13. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 286.
  14. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 287-291.
  15. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 171.
  16. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 373.
  17. ^ "Yarn spinner", The Guardian, April 10, 1999,, retrieved on 2008-08-20 
  18. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 377.
  19. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 387.
  20. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 444-448.
  21. ^ Bruce Chatwin, "The Knitting Circle" , accessed 2006-12-28
  22. ^ James Crump "Black White + Gray: A portrait of Sam Wagstaff + Robert Mapplethorpe"

[edit] References

[edit] Documentaries

  • Paul Yule, 'In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin' (2x60 mins) BBC, 1999 - Berwick Universal Pictures

[edit] External links

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