In the book review section of today’s Weekend Australian, Nicolas Rothwell offers a typically erudite assessment of Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin:
Chatwin… was a truth-trimmer, he had the certainties and fallibilities of an autodidact, he was a travel-writer with touristic protocols, his writing never escaped from his training-ground in journalism; yet he, being endlessly obsessed by self-scrutiny, knew all these things, and it is his attempt to escape from them that gives his life, and thus this book, its quality of tension.
Rothwell is nicely suited to discussing this particular book. His own writings are recognisably kith and kin to Chatwin’s work, and, at the very least, the first section of his Wings of the Kite-Hawk is as good as Chatwin’s best. Yet despite his clear affinity with Chatwin, Rothwell holds little affection for him. He pays no mind to the nuances of Chatwin’s novels except for a few brief remarks on The Songlines, and his attitude towards Chatwin as a self-mythologised figure is resolutely ambivalent. Although he celebrates the aspirations that propelled Chatwin around the globe, he turns a jaundiced eye towards the resultant words on the page:
Chatwin was the contemporary British writer who felt most strongly the hollowness of modern literary forms and tropes, and cast his net wide, as wide as the world, in order to seek new inspirations. He wanted to steal those new sources of writing and insight, and bring them back, but all he brought back was travelogues, postcards from the ends of the earth. The writers who befriended him, more sober-minded figures, felt the same void in Western literature and shared Chatwin’s admiration for the exotic frontier; but they held back, and pondered the circumstances of their prison-cage, while he went right through, through to the bones of things.
In this sense, and this only, he was the truthful one, he was the Icarus, if a Sunday supplement Icarus, a creature who reached out for the very heart of life. In the through lines of this correspondence, one finds often in notes Chatwin’s friends sent him a kind of stricken awareness that he was out ahead of the pack, closing in on the absolutes of man’s condition, a beautiful, sacrificial victim who would never grow old.
I think that’s mostly right, but I also think it’s unfortunate that Rothwell does not at this point return to the novels. I don’t think it’s possible to decouple the novels, so incredibly slim and yet packed so full of substance, from the life lived on such a monumental scale; I think that what makes the novels so rich is, in part, that they were hewn out of, or distilled from, an existence so manic and so restless that it would seem able only to provide momentary inspiration for the writing of such novels without offering the time and the space for those novels to actually be written. Thankfully, although William Dalrymple’s review of Under the Sun pales in comparison to Rothwell’s review, it at least gives some thought to Chatwin’s literary output and to the emergence of that literature from the author’s life:
The letters also reveal what he read, how he wrote, and the sheer amount of hard labour that went into it, as he rewrote and pared his books down to their published form. “I’ve never liked big books,” he writes while hard at work on The Viceroy of Ouidah, “so I don’t see why I should try and write them. Unless you’re Tolstoy most of the ‘great books’ of the world should have been cut in half.” One characteristic remark notes how “I have written four bad pages and will reduce them to a single line.”
That’s the Chatwin who interests me more than the self-mythologised figure to whom Rothwell devotes most of his words, and that’s who I’ll be on the lookout for when I open up the letters.