Under The Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

Review: Under The Sun: The Letters Of Bruce Chatwin - Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shake
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He met Elizabeth at the auctioneers Sotheby's, where they both worked, and they married in August They claimed to enjoy an "open" marriage, such a fashionable Sixties concept, and Chatwin's extensive travels certainly kept the couple apart for months on end. They were childless. Chatwin was bisexual throughout his married life, a circumstance his wife knew and accepted. According to Nicholas Shakespeare, the Chatwins' marriage seems to have been celibate and he describes Chatwin as homosexual rather than bisexual. He was one of the first high-profile British celebrities in Britain to acknowledge having the disease.

He proposed to her in Paris, in the Louvre, a romantic gesture. But there isn't much romance in the letter he sent telling a friend about it "The deed is done and in about three months I'll no longer be a free man" , or in his letters to Elizabeth herself: "My dearest Liz" is about as amorous as he gets.

But Chatwin himself wasn't poor, and his friends were full of largesse "We are invited to Glenveagh for the stalking in Oct. Or would you prefer Sir James Dundas's fishing lodge opposite Mull?

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"Wonderful the closest we are ever going to get to a Chatwin autobiography." -William Dalrymple, The Times Literary Supplement (London)The celebrated author of such beloved works as In Patagonia and. Bruce Chatwin's letters are as much a performance as anything else he wrote, says Blake Morrison.

Perhaps the real attraction was the emotional security she offered: like his mother, she loved listening to the stories he told when he returned from gallivanting about the globe. Within a year of marrying he'd quit Sotheby's to read archaeology at Edinburgh University: "Change is the only thing worth living for," he explained, before abandoning the degree halfway through.

He left that job, too, after three years.

But in the meantime he learned to write. But in running away Chatwin was also being true to himself and true to his vision of the nomadic nature of human beings. Travel didn't mean roughing it or embracing an alternative lifestyle.

By BRUCE CHATWIN; Edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare

He was a home-owner, after all, with a country farm and a London flat, and when travelling he liked to be put up in style: whether Tuscan towers, Greek villas or Indian palaces didn't matter so long as he was properly catered for. More serious offence was caused when he stayed with his cousin Monica in Peru and copied pages of her father's journal for his book In Patagonia ; he claimed, with some justice, that she had given him permission, but he knew a good story when he saw it and wasn't altogether frank in telling her how much of it he'd lifted.

By , Elizabeth's patience with him had also worn thin "I was furious with him, totally fed up and exasperated that he took me for granted" and they separated. How much she knew of his affairs with men isn't touched on. Nor do we learn anything about them here: his letters to lovers were either destroyed, or were never written, or where they've survived are blandly circumspect. Sex is the great void here, along with passion.

Which isn't to say that Chatwin lacked feelings: his grief at the death of his friend Penelope Betjeman was genuine, as was his attachment to his parents.

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As for Elizabeth, theirs has not been an easy marriage, he told her mother, "but it survives everything because neither of us has loved anyone else". In he was diagnosed with Aids.

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In letters to friends he claimed to have caught a rare fungus of the bone marrow "known only among 10 Chinese peasants and the corpse of a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia". Much less was known about Aids in those days, and Chatwin was desperate to protect his parents from the truth.

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But what also terrified him was the thought of dying a stereotypical death, one that would identify him as just one more casualty of the Aids epidemic. His frantic tales about killer whale corpses or fungal dust inhaled in a Yunnan bats' cave were a way of exoticising himself, much as his books exoticise the places he visited and the people he met.

At best, a disdain for ordinariness strengthens his writing.

Under The Sun

But at worst it just seems silly, as when he reports what he's been up to in Patagonia: "I have sung 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' in Welsh. I have dined with a man who knew Butch Cassidy. I have discussed the poetics of Mandelstam with a Ukrainian doctor missing both legs. For Chatwin, clearly, it would.

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This is a handsome book, full of informative passages from Shakespeare, illuminating quotes from friends and wonderfully laconic and deflating footnotes from Elizabeth. But the Chatwin who wrote the letters is no truer or more candid than the Chatwin who wrote travel books and fiction.