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Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, eds.

Viking, 2011 | 554 pp., | $35.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

bruce chatwin

Like most great writers, Bruce Chatwin, the famed British author of In Patagonia and The Songlines, did not set out to become a man of letters—somewhere along the way, it just happened. Although he came to be known for his wide-ranging travels, Chatwin’s career began somewhat incongruously, at Sotheby’s auction house in London. Neither the position nor the institution suited him. Much later in life, he noted to a friend, that “everything about the firm filled me with claustrophobia and disgust.” Nevertheless, Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, holds up the author’s life for view in the same way that an auctioneer holds up a fine and curious object, appraising the audience of its features with a cool British calculation:

Unfinished figure of a man. Essentially European in nature, with exotic influences. Some facets showing shoddy or flawed workmanship, but on the whole, a marvelous and resonant production that could have been a masterpiece if carried to completion.

Letters are often fragmented things, but perhaps because Chatwin led a chaotic, fragmented life, the medium suits the subject. The task of assembling such a collection must have been daunting, given that the author’s correspondence spanned continents and included dozens of people, from his humble nearest and dearest, to notables like Salman Rushdie and Susan Sontag.

Because of Chatwin’s huge epistolary outflow, Under the Sun can at times seem too much: there were moments I felt bogged down by an overabundance of information, details, and letters that might best have been thrown away. However, this is the challenge that all works of this type face: even at a distance of twenty or more years, it is hard to determine what has lasting value and what can be discarded.

Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth worked with his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare to produce this collection, and, on the whole, they have erred on the side of inclusion. This seems a solid decision, first, because the breathless, headlong quality of the letters offers a glimpse of Chatwin’s personality, which emerges as both dynamic and exhausting.

Second, Chatwin’s books overflow with details, characters, and fleeting scenes—three years before his death, he wrote the playwright Charles Way that he “liked to think of [him]self as a kind of miniaturist”—which stem from episodes that occurred throughout his life. To a greater extent than for many other writers, the source material of all Chatwin’s literature, blurring fact and fiction as it does, is the author’s lived experience, and so his letters, being the record of that experience, uncover the roots of his literature.

Beyond the parallels of people and places that can be drawn between the events described in Chatwin’s letters, and the stories reformed in his novels, Under the Sun offers the reader a fascinating insight into the writer’s pioneering form. Chatwin’s correspondence with his agents, editors, and other literary confidants allows the reader to see him consciously working through problems of structure and its intersection with content. Juggling a novelistic approach, the cataloguing mentality of the travel writer, and the controlled abstraction of the academic, Chatwin’s books are difficult to categorize.

The Songlines is a prime example. Based on the author’s time in Australia, the book focuses on a semi-anthropological subject (the Aboriginals), assuming the detached tone of magazine journalism, while billing itself as a novel. Two-thirds in, a flood strands the narrator in a remote town and the text shifts to a series of travel vignettes and musings on philosophical and scientific ideas. And yet, as chaotic as such a structure might seem, it works, and the reader is left simultaneously stunned by the tour de force and uncertain as to how all the pieces came together. Under the Sun sheds some light on this question. In one brilliant letter to Deborah Rogers, his literary agent, Chatwin describes the structural intent of his first great novel, In Patagonia:

The form of In Patagonia described in the Daily Telegraph as wildly unorthodox is in fact as old as literature itself. It is supposed to fall into the category or be a spoof of Wonder Voyage: the narrator goes to a far country in search of a strange animal: on his way he lands in strange situations, people or other books tell him strange stories which add up to form a message…

And thus we see that far from being chaotic, Chatwin’s books provide the perfect, elusive marriage of form and content. In stories about wandering, the narrative itself wanders, but always returns to one core idea. There is a cyclic, purposeful quality to Chatwin’s literary meandering that resembles his understanding of nomads and nomadic culture as following “unalterable paths of migration.”

Nomadism was a subject that would haunt Chatwin his entire life, and in one way or another, most of his books were attempts to understand its allure. His first book, titled The Nomadic Alternative, never came to fruition, but in attempting to outline its structure in a letter to Tom Maschler (his eventual publisher), Chatwin articulated this preoccupation: “What is this neurotic restlessness, the gadfly that tormented the Greeks? Wandering may settle some of my natural curiosity and my urge to explore, but then I am tugged back by a longing for home. I have a compulsion to wander and a compulsion to return…”

Ultimately, the writings in Under the Sun can offer no more than any other collection of letters: a mere glimpse of a very complex man searching for something that even he himself did not understand. And as comprehensive and occasionally overfull as Elizabeth Chatwin and Shakespeare’s collection may be, one critical omission marks the book—namely, the absence of any substantial comment on Chatwin’s homosexuality.

The introduction rather evasively notes that “the business of love affairs is not prominent” and attributes this gap to the physical loss of all the author’s letters to his lovers. But Mrs. Chatwin’s interjections and footnotes are almost entirely silent on the subject and are equally closemouthed about the one curiously enduring relationship of the writer’s life: his marriage. Under the circumstances, editorial objectivity is an impossibility, and the reader is left as Chatwin was, blindly chasing questions that have no answer, but nevertheless discovering many marvels along the way.

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