Cover image for Bruce Chatwin
Bruce Chatwin
Shakespeare, Nicholas, 1957-
First Anchor Books edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Anchor Books, 2001.

Physical Description:
xiv, 618 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
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PR6053.H395 Z88 1999C Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Award-winning novelist Nicholas Shakespeare has written the definitive biography of one of the most influential literary figures of our time: Bruce Chatwin, whose works' strangely compelling combination of research, first-hand experience, myth, and mystification may have been the real substance of his seemingly contradictory life. Chatwin's first book, In Patagonia, became an international bestseller, revived the art of travel writing, and inspired a generation to set out in search of adventure. Chatwin became a celebrity, while remaining a conundrum. With little formal education, he had become a director of Sotheby's. An avid collector, he eschewed material things and revered the nomadic life. Married for twenty-three years, he had male lovers throughout the world. And only at his death did his personal myth fail him. Nicholas Shakespeare, who was given unrestricted access to his papers, spent eight years retracing Chatwin's steps and interviewing the people who knew him. The result is a biography that is at once sympathetic and revelatory.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Shakespeare spent eight years tracking Bruce Chatwin and, initially at least, seems bent on showing us his work. The acknowledgments, in the front matter, run for almost three full pages. As the narrative begins, one feels put off by the many quotes of and references to these sources. But then the masterful writer of The Dancer Upstairs (1997) settles in, and the work becomes absorbing, the sources a chorus of witnesses to the life of an extraordinary individual. Chatwin was a charming, enigmatic writer-adventurer--an intrepid T. E. Lawrence type who sought out remote and dangerous places, at times trekking across countries on foot and alone for great distances, and like a Hemingway he thrust himself into his imaginings and wrote books that were incredible mixtures of fact and fiction. Yet, too, he was very English, very private and died of AIDS in the '80s still refusing to confess publicly his homosexual leanings. One of Shakespeare's sources claimed that Chatwin was "a polymorphous pervert. . . . out to seduce everybody, it doesn't matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy." Interesting. The portion on Chatwin's evolution as a writer is simply a brilliant portrait of the artist as a young man. With the unhurried storyteller's pace, Shakespeare re-creates Chatwin's peripatetic childhood, his intrigues at Sotheby's and Christie's before the stint at Edinburgh where he began a formal study of archaeology, his marriage to the American Elizabeth Chanler, which would last 23 years, and the twists and turns that took him to Patagonia and the classic travel book that launched his writing career and his celebrity. From that point, Shakespeare charts the descent into the heart of darkness that adventurers always seem compelled to travel before the mad scramble back to safety and sanity, though Chatwin didn't quite make it back. Bonnie Smothers

Publisher's Weekly Review

Chatwin's fallen-angel looks had withered from HIV by his death at 47 in 1988, but he had achieved a cult reputation as a writer-adventurer that shows no signs of fading. Shakespeare's warts-and-all biography, thoroughly researched and unsparingly revealing of Chatwin's literary and personal failings, will be manna to cultists but ammunition to critics who see him as an overrated manufacturer of his own myth. Chatwin himself declares that the borderline between fiction and nonfiction "is to my mind extremely arbitrary, and invented by publishers." To Shakespeare the "camouflage of fiction did allow Bruce to do what he liked." A friend sees an unresolved tension in the bisexual Chatwin and his work; below the "smooth attractive surface, he was split, rather like his books, between fact and imagination." His small, genre-defying oeuvre, highlighted by In Patagonia and The Songlines, both travel narratives enhanced by artifice, and Utz, which Chatwin considered a "Middle European fairy-story" though it was largely factual, is as compelling as his ambiguous personality. Yet he is exposed by Shakespeare, an award-winning novelist, as an exploiter of people, especially his masochistically loyal wife, and as a writer who relished being in control but was obsessed self-destructively by his homosexuality. A charismatic parasite, he borrowed homes in which to write, borrowed lovers, borrowed ideas, borrowed other investigators' research. A critic he knew called him "a great intellectual thief." "I have seldom met a human being," an acquaintance wrote, "who exudes so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness. When the gilt has worn off his jeunesse how much substance will be left underneath?" Always fascinated by nomads of every description, Chatwin was a sophisticated nomad, restless and dissatisfied, even with his fame, and ever pulling up stakes to hide from himself. The biography, a graphic page-turner, leaves the reader wondering whether Chatwin, here simultaneously charming and unpleasant, will survive Shakespeare's relentless yet often empathic dissection. Illus. not seen by PW. Author tour. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Chatwin (1940-89) referred to his legs as his "boys." His boys carried him to many exotic locals, long journeys that eventually led back to England, his home, his green tomb. Chatwin believed man was designed to be nomadic; he also loved to collect things, a love he turned to as he was dying from AIDS. Novelist Shakespeare (The Dancer Upstairs) effectively shows readers Chatwin's many sides: his rise to prominence at Sotheby's, where he met and married Elizabeth Chanler; his homosexual leanings, from which he fled; and his constant wandering--including a journey to Edinburgh to study archaeology and to South America as a journalist, which inspired the book In Patagonia (LJ 7/78). We see Chatwin's scabs and halos, his eroticism, his deep water, his angel (no doubt, Elizabeth), his rapid heart, his vivid kingdom: the road ahead. Highly recommended for all public libraries.--Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Shakespeare--novelist, newspaper editor, and biographer--is perfectly positioned to write this first, yet also definitive biography of Bruce Chatwin (1940-89), the glamorous travel writer and novelist. Shakespeare had the cooperation of Chatwin's wife and access to the writer's papers, although Chatwin managed to destroy significant material in an effort to thwart precisely the kind of book Shakespeare has written. Shakespeare writes with sensitivity and authority, but perhaps the greatest contribution of his biography is to record the many different reactions to Chatwin's person and work by his contemporaries. Many of these witnesses to Chatwin's life present their memories while they are still fresh--before they have ossified into the oft-told stories that later biographers have to sift through. Notable writers such as Susan Sontag spoke to Shakespeare with an immediacy and apparent frankness that is refreshing, confessing quite openly how charming Chatwin could be even as he rather ruthlessly pursued his career. This biography is required reading for anyone interested in how great writing is enhanced by a personality who knew that to promote himself well would enhance his contribution to contemporary letters. All academic and public collections. C. Rollyson; Bernard M. Baruch College, CUNY



Chapter 1 i. 3 Fire "Was he a cold fish?" I asked "A fish?" "A cold person." "He was hot and cold. He was all things." -BC, from "Among the Ruins" On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria. He is six feet tall, with fair hair swept over a huge forehead and staring blue eyes. He is only a step ahead of the illness that will kill him. He is 43, but he has the animation of a schoolboy. Bruce Chatwin had come to South Africa to see the palaeontologist Bob Brain after reading his book The Hunters or the Hunted?. It was, Bruce wrote, the book he had "needed" since his schooldays, and it had reawoken themes that had been with him a long time. "This is a detective story, but rather an odd one," begins Brain's classic text on early human behaviour, based on 15 years' excavation at the Swartkrans cave near Johannesburg. Brain's analysis of fossilised bones raised the possibility that Early Man was not a savage cannibal, as had been generally held, but the preferred prey of one of the large cats with whom he shared the open grasslands of Africa. Around 1,200,000 bc the roles were reversed when homo erectus began to outwit his predator, the dinofelis or false sabre-tooth tiger. What had given man the upper hand? "Everything," says Brain, "is linked to the management of fire." But 30 years of exploring and digging in caves over southern and Saharan Africa had failed to produce evidence of fire prior to 70,000 bc, by which time dinofelis had been extinct a million years. Bruce called Brain's book "the most compelling detective story I have ever read". As a schoolboy he had held that "everyone needs a quest as an excuse for living". Brain's findings promised a key. For two days Bruce engaged Brain in conversations which he described as "the most stimulating discussions in my life". They spoke of Birmingham, where Bruce had grown up and from where Brain's father, finding England restrictive, had departed for the Cape. They spoke about Brain's son Ted, who died at 14 months when he choked on a piece of apple, teaching Brain-painfully-to live his life as though each day might be his last. And they spoke of the origin of evil. Bruce seized on Brain's discoveries to support his conviction that human beings were "not that bad" and that the predator instinct was not essential to our nature. If the leopard-like cat had preyed on our ancestors, then man in his origins was not necessarily aggressive. He lived his life in fear, dinofelis watching him from the shadows. Bruce-who called the cat "the Prince of Darkness"-amused the older man. Brain says, "He understood 'the Prince of Darkness' as a psychological necessity. He thought we had lived so long with prowling nocturnal predators they had become part of our make-up. When we no longer had these animals in bodily form, we invented dragons and heroes who went off to fight them." Discussing, for instance, Uccello's painting of St George in the act of lancing the dragon, Bruce seemed to think this was an illustration of what had actually happened. Brain had misgivings about this nostalgia for "the Beast we have lost". Nevertheless, it excited him to watch Bruce take his work and run with it. "Chatwin was like a nineteenth-century synthesiser," says Brain. "There is a place again for that kind of generalist, someone who can wander among specialised fields and pull things together. Otherwise it's very compartmentalised and syntheses don't really occur." The two men talked late into the night and on the following day they drove to the cave at Swartkrans. From the cave entrance on a hill of pink dolomite it is possible to see, 40 kilometres to the south-west, the skyline of Johannesburg, and to the east, the dumps of chalky rock from the goldmines of Krugersdorp. Close as it is to one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Swartkrans is always tranquil. Black eagles looking for rock rabbit glide above slopes dotted with white stinkwood, and here and there are bright red flowers. Brain completed his book in a hut nearby. Bruce, too, sensed a place of special significance. He wrote in his notebook: "Good feeling at Swartkrans." He was familiar with the excavation procedure. With Brain and the site foreman, George Moenda, he took up a position close to the west wall. The three started to dig into a patch of calcified earth with plastic-handled screwdrivers. At 10 a.m. one of them found a bone tool. A second grey bone looked like a scraper. "Turned out to be gnawed by a porcupine," recorded Bruce. Over the course of 19 years, Brain told him, the cave had yielded more than 100,000 specimens like these. They had been digging in the west wall for half an hour after lunch when Moenda prised from the earth, alongside an arrangement of three stones, a cracked fragment of antelope bone. Beige white on the outside, blackened on the inside, the bone was speckled with dark patches, as if burned. George handed it round. It had a soapy feel. Brain was not a demonstrative man. He had so often set out to find confirmation of his thesis, suffered so many false alarms. But this time he was visibly moved. "This bone is remarkably suggestive!" What they were looking at would eventually be validated, in 1988, as man's first known experimentation with fire. It would predate by 700,000 years the previously oldest find, at Choukoutien in China. "That was the first convincing evidence for the earliest use of fire in any human context anywhere," says Brain. "It was a very astonishing moment." Brain was quick to speculate. This bone provided a partial explanation of how our ancestors escaped the continual threat of predation. He reconstructed the scene: a thunderstorm at the beginning of summer, the yellow grass, dried to a parchment in the winter sun, a lightning-struck bush, and homo erectus dragging back to his cave this elusive substance, which coming with flashes and thunder must have had a magical significance. Man's use of the fire-struck bush represented for Brain the "crucial step in the progressive manipulation of nature . . . so characteristic of the subsequent course of human affairs". It would not, of course, guarantee permanent protection: another half million years would pass before man could make fire to order. But it offered intermittent respite. Bruce gave his own account of that day in a letter to Colin Thubron: "When visiting the excavation at Swartkrans with Bob Brain, one of the questions uppermost in my mind was man's use of fire: the myth of Prometheus is absolutely crucial, to my mind, in understanding the condition of the First Man-since it is with fire that Man could adequately protect himself at night from the predators. "Bob and I discussed the pros and cons of the first hearth over lunch. Then, in the first few cubic centimetres which we-or rather the foreman George-excavated that afternoon, there were some fragments of bone which looked most definitely charred! Since the level in question would date somewhere close to 2 million [1.2 million is now the accepted figure], I got very excited-though he, sanguine as ever, was inclined to pooh-pooh the discovery. This morning, however, I had a letter in which he says the bones were definitely burned. In other words, I may, conceivably, have turned up at Swartkrans on the day the world's earliest hearth was found." The Swartkrans discovery has not been challenged and Brain remains convinced that here, more than a million years ago, there occurred the first step which released our ancestor from his subservience to big cats. Brain took four more years to excavate the next eight metres. Close to the end of his life, impatient to have the finding registered, Bruce wrote from Vienna in 1987. "Do I take it that the bits of blackened bone were burnt? And does this mean that the use of fire has been found with fossils associated with H. Habilis [sic]. Or is that going too far?" Not until the following year was Brain able to demonstrate with confidence, microscopically and chemically, that the 260 charred pieces of antelope bone constituted good evidence of "the earliest use of fire". In December 1988, the results were announced on the cover of Nature magazine. Bruce was dead before the news reached him. Bruce never, except in letters, wrote about the events on 2 February, 1984. His discretion owes much to his respect for Brain: Swartkrans was his life's work. But somehow it is typical that Bruce should have been party to this crucial archaeological discovery. So many of the threads of his life come together on that dolomite hillside: the uncanny good luck, the speedy in-and-out, the all-suggestive fragment, the speculative theory, the fascination with provenance and the origin of things. At last, he had scientific evidence to support his belief that man was not a bloodthirsty and cannibalistic aggressor, as authorities like Dart and Lorenz would have him. Bruce hammered out his theory on the telephone to Colin Thubron. "I got this wonderful call out of the blue," says Thubron. "He was terrifically geared up about it. After all, what could be more important than trying to diagnose the origins of evil in the world? I remember his charge of intellectual delight. He wanted to share it with someone. He had held the bone in his hands. 'Colin, I've just been down in South Africa and I've been at the moment that they uncovered the earliest discovery of the domestic hearth, which puts back the discovery of fire to . . .' and so on, then bang, down the telephone went and Bruce had disappeared for a year or two years." Thubron wrote down what Bruce had said: "If the sources of aggression are directed not against other human beings, but against the wild beast etc, then our condition is OK." The glitter-eyed cat disappeared, according to Bruce, at the same time as humans developed speech. He told Thubron, "It was through language that the earliest hominids saved themselves." Language was the medium of uniting against "the Beast". The discovery at Swartkrans was a glorious affirmation of the work on which Bruce had been engaged for 16 years. On his return to England he signed a contract with Tom Maschler at Cape for the book he now decided to entitle The Prince of Darkness Is a Gentleman. The evidence of fire had suggested to Brain the "perfectly valid speculation" that language, and so storytelling, might have evolved from a need to issue warnings about our predator. "Language came into being," Brain says, "out of a need for far more precise communication and identification of objects and circumstances, and for more elaborate audible signals." Our earliest stories were vessels for preserving vital information about how to survive: water supply, plant location and, possibly, the whereabouts of dinofelis. Brain makes no extravagant claims, but he does say that when fire was available, it lengthened the daylight hours and encouraged people sitting around the flames to discuss what they had done during the day. He calls fire a "social facilitator" and says that it promoted language because people had to be within the arc of firelight. "If they strayed outside, they were in mortal danger." The significance of fire was not lost on Bruce. From childhood he was fascinated by the priest-like figures who tended its flames. "Shamanism," he declared at the beginning of his writing career, "has always been connected with mastery over fire." His identification with shamans endured right to the end. In a hospital bed in Oxford, he wrote in what would be his last notebook: "Aren't all true healers-from the prehistoric shaman on-all 'thundermen'?" In his failing hand he added, "the feminised man, healer, songmaster etc. always set apart in every tribe . . . Appeased. Honoured. Essential. The superior man." They were almost the last words he wrote. For Bruce, as for "the early guardians of fire", stories were not just entertainment: they concerned his own survival too. "Man is a talking animal, a storytelling animal," he wrote in one of his black notebooks. "I would like to think that he talked his way out of extinction and that is what talk is for." Bruce Chatwin's gift for instant intimacy meant that a lot of people felt they knew him. As often as not, it was the perishable intimacy of a first encounter. What impressed the Australian poet Les Murray was not the dazzle but the loneliness it concealed. "He was lonely and he wanted to be. He had those blue implacable eyes that said, 'I will forget you, I will reject you because neither you nor any other human being can give me what I want'." He reminded Murray, forcibly, of T. E. Lawrence. Stephen Spender was also reminded of Lawrence. "Two hundred years ago, Bruce might have conquered a large slice of Empire and he probably would have died early and been buried in Afghanistan. He didn't like England, but that is very English too. The British Empire, after all, was based on people trying to get away from Britain." Bruce professed a distaste for Lawrence, as he did for anyone with whom he might be compared. "I hate T. E. Lawrence. Well, I think I do. Incredibly unpleasant." Yet he was powerfully attracted to the myth and, like Lawrence, travelled as much to leave one self behind as to find another. "He is in the tradition of Drake, Cavendish, Darwin, Bridges," says Professor Zampini, who entertained Bruce in Patagonia. "For a long time the only way to be universal was to be English. You are an island open to the sea which takes you everywhere." Bruce's father was a sailor. "At heart we are an island of buccaneers and pirates," Bruce told AndrÃ(c) Malraux. "If he'd lived in the nineteenth century," says Sandy Martin, an antiquities dealer who knew Bruce at Sotheby's, "he would have got a backer, a peer who fancied him, and been a good archaeologist and discovered something." This may account for his attraction to nineteenth-century figures: shipwrecked sailors who have lost everything and start again on the tip of the world; Europeans who create kingdoms in Patagonia; Portuguese who have the run of the Slave Coast. Ordinary folk, in other words, who leave the suburbs to reinvent themselves royally in the sticks. In the late twentieth century, Bruce had to be "a Stanley of literature", according to Gregor von Rezzori, exploring places which everyone else had passed over. "He was attracted to small countries like Dahomey, where he might have felt quite powerful," says the American novelist David Plante. "His attitude seemed to be: 'Except for the fact it's too late, I might have run the Empire. But I certainly have a right to it in a retrospective way because I know more about it than anyone else.' With Bruce, knowledge and fantasy became power." Excerpted from Bruce Chatwin: A Biography by Nicholas Shakespeare All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xi
i Firep. 1
ii "Let's Have a Child," I Saidp. 14
iii The Cabinetp. 28
iv War Babyp. 40
v From Brothel to Piggeryp. 46
vi I Know Where I'm Goingp. 60
vii The English Schoolboyp. 69
viii The Smootherboyp. 90
ix The Impsp. 101
x The Art Smugglerp. 116
xi A gout de monstresp. 122
xii Elizabethp. 138
xiii Afghanistanp. 154
xiv The Chattysp. 165
xv Out of His Depthp. 184
xvi The Archaeologistp. 199
xvii A Season in Hellp. 212
xviii That Wretched Bookp. 226
xix Distractionsp. 245
xx Deliverancep. 267
xxi The Journalistp. 279
xxii "Gone to Patagonia"p. 301
xxiii I Don't Know What You'll Make of Itp. 320
xxiv "Kicked by Amazon"p. 337
xxv Brazilp. 352
xxvi New Yorkp. 361
xxvii Oh, mais c'est du Flaubert!p. 378
xxviii Border Countryp. 394
xxix A Judicial Separationp. 419
xxx Australiap. 426
xxxi The Bat Cavep. 447
xxxii An Hour with Bruce Chatwinp. 450
xxxiii A Sincere Fumblingp. 462
xxxiv There Is a Godp. 474
xxxv Indiap. 478
xxxvi An Ai Medical Curiosityp. 487
xxxvii The Harlequinp. 498
xxxviii A Cosmic Bookp. 511
xxxix My Inexplicable Feverp. 518
xl Fallen Angelp. 552
xli The Chatwin Effectp. 562
Epiloguesp. 575
Notesp. 579
A Chatwin Reading Listp. 601
Indexp. 603