A Sunday Supplement Icarus

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.

8 responses to “A Sunday Supplement Icarus”

  1. THANK YOU!!! the Rothwell piece is quite revolting. I didn’t even like some of the things immediately being said about Chatwin after he died, and it is quite astounding to see this kind of ill feeling still around over twenty years later. There seems to be something personal going on there. I sat in bed this morning fuming, thinking “What about On the Black Hill? Utz? The Viceroy? The fact that he wasn’t happy with Songlines in the end but was dying and put it out there anyway?”
    Thanks for the link to Dalrymple, going to read it now.

    • Well, on the whole, I actually think that the Rothwell review is better than the Dalrymple review, at least *as* a review of Under the Sun. But as a reflection on Chatwin as a man and as a writer, the Dalrymple review — if not as incisive as it could have been — is much more generous because, I think, closer to the mark. By “closer to the mark,” I mean that Chatwin’s self-mythologisation has essentially produced a sort of posthumous counter-myth of the “real” Chatwin which Rothwell buys into (and even exacerbates) while Dalrymple does what he can to dilute it.

      I guess what I’m saying is that, on the one hand, Rothwell focuses nicely on the letters but makes the mistake of thinking that what makes the letters interesting is Chatwin the man rather than the literature he left behind, whereas, on the other hand, Dalrymple understands the importance of the literature but spends less time exploring the connections between the literature in the letters and more time defending Chatwin the man from defamation. It’d be great to find a review that combines Dalrymple’s understanding of the importance of the literature with Rothwell’s erudition and attention to the letters. But of course, reviews that privilege the words on the page at the expense of the author behind the words on the page are firmly out of fashion these days, so I don’t hold out much hope for such a review…

  2. I do think, though, that Dalrymple is conscious of those kinds of concerns, having pointed out that Chatwin decided what he shared with whom, especially newspaper editors, whereas nowadays that is not at all fashionable as it does not pay bills. We are talking about someone who should have burned his letters if he wanted some kind of myth preserved – the fact that he didn’t suggests it wasn’t as important to him as it might be to those riding the comet’s tail.

    I understand that you appreciate Rothwell sticking to the letters, but the dismissive remarks about the writing – I’m gobsmacked by that, I think it’s awful.

    • Well, that’s true — perhaps Dalrymple’s piece is more subtle than I took it to be at first reading. I like the way you end that first paragraph, too: “…those riding the comet’s tail.” I don’t know if that was a particularly conscious choice of words, but it brought to mind W.G. Sebald’s remarks on Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Chatwin:

      “[Few German biographers] would have emulated Nicholas Sheakespare in tracking [Chatwin] down in the suburbs of Birmingham, in London, on the Welsh borders, the island of Crete and Mount Athos, in Prague, in Patagonia, Afghanistan, Australia and darkest Africa, to find witnesses who could speak of the man who passed them by like a comet.”

      As for Rothwell’s dismissive remarks about Chatwin’s writing — indeed. But what’s most awful about it, I think, is that they didn’t leave me “gobsmacked” because I didn’t immediately or suddenly catch on to what Rothwell was saying. Up until the “Icarus” comment, it’s basically character assassination in ultra-slow motion; I had to read it twice to make sure that an attack on Chatwin’s character was what Rothwell intended from the first. That it was so beautifully written made the pill quite easy to swallow on first reading, until the remarks in those last two columns (in the print edition) made me realise it was sugar-coated poison.

      • yessss, precioussss. Nasty hobbit, it isss.

        And no, I was not aware of Sebald on the bio – just a chance association! but lovely to hear of it all the same.

      • Hmm, I wonder if it’s a bit of a kill-the-father-type dynamic going on here? I.e. could Rothwell’s reasons for the swipe be due to his own feelings of indebtedness to Chatwin as regards his own literary production?

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