Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On a displaced person, finding a way to write his life

David Toms' reminder to us all, that today is St David's day, would tend to put anyone in mind of a contemporary who placed Wales more vividly on the imaginative map than anyone else, going so far as to fuse himself with the vision he creates. People don't go to Wales, but English speakers are enchanted by its existence, and rightly don't resist contemplating it. For my generation its celebrant would not be Jan Morris, who is partly Welsh and partly lives there, whose The Matter of Wales: Epic views of a small country (1984) is certainly the best, first book to read and to keep for Wales. It happens not, however, to linger in the mind.

On the Black Hill (James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Whitbread Prize, 1982) does, as will its writer, for everyone who read this book when it came out. Naturally, there are critics who've suggested we are a passing fad - a verdict of less concern than any spirit of judging could imagine. One doesn't boast to say, we'll always have Bruce Chatwin; it's simply the case, that 90 percent of readers of this book's first edition were waiting for it before it was written. 

Their syndicate would have subscribed it, if necessary. And it was. They had read In Patagonia (EM Forster Award, Hawthornden Prize, 1977); they had read The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980; filmed by Werner Herzog); they had seen the riveting Mapplethorpe portrait, and by 1982 they would go with Chatwin to that 'end of the earth' which they'd learned would never be where they thought it was. Not even his hand-picked patron-mentor, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, would draw that character of following, on Chatwin's scale and intensity.

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) was the beau idéal of that culture and cast of mind whose slaughter by HIV had only begun when he bestowed Wales as a story they could love. He did such things, to what he saw. One of the most gorgeous things that can be read by him is a visit to Mme Vionnet, a destination which the many would have no reason to consider but for his gifts. Chatwin almost lost his eyesight for one of those talents, a brilliant appraiser's gaze that made him a director at Sotheby's, an extremely plausible spot to find a fair alumnus wraith of Marlborough, but not a common rank for a twink. 

The kid, for such he always seemed, was electric; but one resists saying his electricity was childlike, because there was something much, much more unsettling about him. He dreamed. A flickering physical resemblance to John Clare only underscored the natural poignant connection in their writing.

Since his death, many have leapt forward to name him as a fraud, and (by all means, the field is open) as a snob, a panderer, a user, a professional house guest. Such aperçus - all containing more than a silo of truth - are alike less in their self-indictments than in begging the question: Yes, isn't he a scandal, and what year is your Whitbread Prize? Of course he 'knew everybody' - the man was almost unendurably attractive to know. This page will not pile on that pyre of pals with Chatwin stories; it isn't why we're here, as he put it, and Rimbaud before him. 

Everyone understands, in everything written by Bruce Chatwin, he's the traveller, looking in. His style of travel writing, that great genre of empire's island language, is rather that of the exile accommodating himself to brief encounters and their demands for alacrity of response, performance, extraction, satisfaction, precise commemoration. His immoderate genius as a writer was the gift for putting the mosaic together again, as no one had seen it before. This creativity is the mendacity some idlers in criticism don't like; it's what many of us live for, and not only in our reading hours. We see it as bravery, we see it as honesty, we see it as a gift; but it is none of those things if you don't care for writing, and would just as soon forget about a man.

The man is at stake in the books. 

Going down to Comodoro Rivadavia I passed through a desert of black stones and came to Sarmiento. It was another dusty grid of metal buildings, lying on a strip of arable land between the fizzling turquoise Lake Musters and the slime-green Lake Colhué-Huapi. I walked out of town to the petrified forest. Wind pumps whirled insanely. A steel-blue heron lay paraylysed under an electric cable. A dribble of blood ran along its beak. The trunks of extinct monkey-puzzles were broken clean as if in a sawmill. (i)

All through that month the hyenas came into the streets at night and the city was silent by day. The King had played with his prisoner for a season and now had grown tired of his plaything. And the prisoner looked on death as a face unfolding from a mirror: he let himself hang limp when they dragged him out and threw him on the ground before the throne. The King stood over him, his shadow falling in a dark diagonal stripe: 'Why has Portugal sent three hundred and thirty-five ships to attack Ouidah?" "It hasn't." "Why did you kill my greyhound?" He opened his mouth to speak, but the guards stoppered it with a wooden gag. "So you think you're a white man?" the King sneered, and ordered him off to prison. (ii)

We climbed the length of Neruda Street and walked around the Hradschin: the scene of my futile researches during the previous week. We then sat in an orchard below the Strahov Monastery. A man in his underpants sunned himself on the grass. The fluff of balsam poplars floated by, and settled on our clothes like snowflakes. "You will see," said Utz, waving his malacca over the multiplicity of porticoes and cupolas below us. "This city wears a tragic mask." .. I commented facetiously that a taste for giants was usually a symptom of decline: an age that took the Farnese Hercules for an ideal was bound to end in trouble. (iii)

On the way home, Lewis took a short cut through Lurkenhope Park. He skirted the lake and then entered the gorge that leads to the mill. The sky was hazy and the beeches were bursting into leaf. Above the path was the grotto, reeking of bats, where - so the story went - a forbear of the Bickertons paid a hermit to gaze at a skull. Below, the river splashed against the boulders in mid-stream, and big trout lazily flicked their fins in deep green pools. Pigeons cooed, and he could hear the toc-toc of a woodpecker. In places, the winter floods had washed away the path: he had to watch his footing. Twigs and dead branches had caught in the bushes along the bank. He climbed a bluff. On the downward slope some lilies of the valley pushed up through a carpet of moss. He sat down and peered past the branches at the river. Upstream was a thicket of ash-saplings, leafless as yet, and beneath them a carpet of bluebells, wild garlic, and wood-spurge with sharp green flowers. Suddenly, above the sound of the rushing water he heard a woman's voice, singing. It was a young voice, and the song was slow and sad. A girl in grey was walking downstream through the bluebells. He froze until she started to climb the bluff. Her head had reached the level of his feet when he called out, "Rosie!" (iv)

How many canvases, had Chatwin scrutinised for Sotheby's, before her head had reached the level of his feet so infallibly, that the entire world could fall into place? His writing goes beyond the conventionally lapidary (which is all he claimed for it, himself) to the depth of memory's fusion with instinct. He understands when the picture takes place, and of course he makes it up. Famously, he would stay nowhere very long, he would make love with no one very well, he would befriend no one very truly. Yet he would see for them, as some people can sing, and they would love him for it.

On the Black Hill was ultimately filmed in Wales, and quite beautifully and successfully, given the odds against. I think it is known well enough, to be the chronicle of the lives of twin boys in a rustic farmstead, and the trials and dear pleasures that might be those of any simple family in the first two-thirds of the 20th Century, when all of its horrors but one could be known. The rapport of the brothers is too original and universal, eccentric and authentic, indisputable and implausible to be characterised, second-hand. In that bond is the place we readers will always call, Wales. It takes great daring to see, and release to inhabit. It's a terminus.

Of that final horror of the Century, Chatwin is sometimes regarded as an apostate, for pretending in his final collection, to a diagnosis of radically alluring rarity and glamour, as if served from a salver of discernment to his plate at Le Gavroche. Nobody I knew was so brain-dead as not to welcome his exertion of imagination as the most obvious corollary of one's own, in the face of the extreme arbitrariness of the human immune deficiency retrovirus. An improvisation of meaning was surely permitted to that Dixie eschatology with a Cross, which prayed for the death of one's friends. It seemed reasonable to cut Chatwin some slack.

He is at stake in the books and now, is extravagantly laid open in the Letters. It's said, by the prettiest critics, that they show how he lies; let us close with a fragment of one that shows what they mean, not what they say. It was written to his cousin in January, 1978, who had almost brought suit against him through his own father, for purloining family papers for his Patagonian book; she is named in the 2nd US edition, as a partial holder of copyright. (Later, in On the Black Hill, she would inspire a jealous cousin's hauling away of our heroes' mementos). Here is Bruce Chatwin, pleading to his family, a displaced person finding a way to write his life:

The picture I wanted to convey was of two people, of different ages and backgrounds, both stranded at the end of the world; both wronged by a society (which, for all I can learn of it, was considerably off-beam), both of whom found consolation in each other's company and fell in love. Otherwise, to me at least, their behaviour is inexplicable.

Orchids, Robert Mapplethorpe


In Patagonia
Simon & Schuster, 1977©

The Viceroy of Ouidah
Simon & Schuster, 1980©

Viking Penguin, 1989©

On the Black Hill
Viking, 1982©

Bruce Chatwin
Under the Sun
  The Letters of Bruce Chatwin
Nicholas Shakespeare and
  Elizabeth Chanler Chatwin, editors
Viking Penguin, 2011©


  1. Would you believe dear Laurent that I have never read any of the man's works. Now I am intrigued and enchanted by your excerpts. Besides anyone that has visited Mme Vionnet, deserves to be read, a visit I would sell my soul for!

  2. Greetings of the day again! Yes, I should have known you could be spared the exposition, but I needed to erect a space for all the filthy pictures.

  3. A ripple effect of that guy, involving one's mother and one's friends. At Scott Martin Books, Tillman Place Bookshop, Minerva's Owl, A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, and Richard Hilkert Books in San Francisco, the arrival of a new edition of his created a decided stir, and much al fresco sipping of cocktails.