Bruce Chatwin was born in 1940 in the Shearwood Road nursing home in Sheffield, England, and his first home was his grandparents' house in Dronfield, near Sheffield. His mother, Margharita (née Turnell), had moved back to her parents' home when Chatwin's father, Charles Chatwin, went away to serve with the Royal Naval Reserve. They had been living at Barnt Green, Worcestershire.
Chatwin spent his early childhood living with his parents in West Heath in Birmingham (then in Warwickshire), where his father had a law practice. He was educated at Marlborough College, in Wiltshire.
After leaving Marlborough in 1958, Chatwin reluctantly moved to London to work as a porter in the Works of Art department at the auction house Sotheby's. Thanks to his sharp visual acuity, he quickly became Sotheby's expert on Impressionist art. He later became a director of the company.
In late 1964 he began to suffer from problems with his sight, which he attributed to the close analysis of artwork entailed by his job. He consulted eye specialist Patrick Trevor-Roper, who diagnosed a latent squint and recommended that Chatwin take a six-month break from his work at Sotheby's. Trevor-Roper had been involved in the design of an eye hospital in Addis Ababa, and suggested Chatwin visit east Africa. In February 1965, Chatwin left for the Sudan. On his return, Chatwin quickly became disenchanted with the art world, and turned his interest to archaeology. He resigned from his Sotheby's post in the early summer of 1966.
Chatwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study archaeology in October, 1966. Despite winning the Wardrop Prize for the best first year's work, he found the rigour of academic archaeology tiresome. He spent only two years there and left without taking a degree.
In 1972, Chatwin was hired by the Sunday Times Magazine as an adviser on art and architecture. His association with the magazine cultivated his narrative skills. Chatwin travelled on many international assignments, writing on such subjects as Algerian migrant workers and the Great Wall of China, and interviewing such diverse people as André Malraux in France, and the author Nadezhda Mandelstam in the Soviet Union.
In 1972, Chatwin interviewed the 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon, where he noticed a map of the area of South America called Patagonia, which she had painted. "I've always wanted to go there," Bruce told her. "So have I," she replied, "go there for me." Two years later in November 1974, Chatwin flew out to Lima in Peru, and reached Patagonia a month later. When he arrived, he left the newspaper with a telegram: "Have gone to Patagonia." He spent six months in the area, a trip which resulted in the book In Patagonia (1977). This work established his reputation as a travel writer. Later, however, residents in the region contradicted the account of events depicted in Chatwin's book. It was the first, but not the last time in his career, that conversations and characters which Chatwin presented as fact were alleged to have been fictionalised.
Later works included a novel based on the slave trade, The Viceroy of Ouidah, which he researched with extended stays in Benin, West Africa. For The Songlines (1987), a work combining fiction and non-fiction, Chatwin went to Australia. He studied the culture to express how the songs of the Aborigines are a cross between a creation myth, an atlas and an Aboriginal man's personal story. He also related the travelling expressed in The Songlines to his own travels and the long nomadic past of humans.
Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, his novel On the Black Hill (1982) was set closer to home, in the hill farms of the Welsh Borders. It focuses on the relationship between twin brothers, Lewis and Benjamin, who grow up isolated from the course of twentieth century history. Utz (1988), was a novel about the obsession that leads people to collect. Set in Prague, the novel details the life and death of Kaspar Utz, a man obsessed with his collection of Meissen porcelain. Chatwin was working on a number of new ideas for future novels at the time of his death in 1989, including a transcontinental epic, provisionally titled Lydia Livingstone.
Chatwin is admired for his spare, lapidary style and his innate story-telling abilities. However, he has also been criticised for his fictionalised anecdotes of real people, places, and events. Frequently, the people he wrote about recognised themselves and did not always appreciate his distortions of their culture and behaviour. Chatwin was philosophical about what he saw as an unavoidable dilemma, arguing that his portrayals were not intended to be faithful representations. As his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare argues: "He tells not a half truth, but a truth and a half."
Much to the surprise of many of his friends, Chatwin married Elizabeth Chanler (a descendant of John Jacob Astor) on 26 August 1965. He had met Chanler at Sotheby's, where she worked as a secretary. Chatwin was bisexual throughout his married life, a circumstance his wife knew and accepted. They had no children. After fifteen years of marriage, she asked for a separation and sold their farmhouse at Ozleworth in Gloucestershire. Toward the end of his life, they reconciled. According to Chatwin's biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, the Chatwins' marriage seems to have been celibate. He describes Chatwin as homosexual rather than bisexual.
Chatwin was known as a socialite in addition to being a recognised travel author. His circle of friends extended far and wide. He was renowned for accepting hospitality and patronage from a powerful set of friends and allies. Penelope Betjeman – wife of the poet laureate John Betjeman – showed him the border country of Wales. She helped contribute to the gestation of the book that would become On the Black Hill. Tom Maschler, the publisher, was also a patron to Chatwin during this time, lending him his house in the area as a writing retreat. Later, Chatwin visited Patrick Leigh Fermor in his house near Kardamyli, in the Peloponnese of Greece. Numbered among his lovers was Jasper Conran.
He extensively used moleskines, a particular style of notebooks manufactured in France. When production stopped in 1986, he bought up the entire supply at his stationery store.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog relates a story about meeting Chatwin in Australia while Herzog was working on his 1984 film, Where the Green Ants Dream. Finding out that Chatwin was in Australia researching a book (The Songlines), Herzog sought him out. Herzog states that Chatwin professed his admiration for him, and when they met was carrying one of Herzog's books, On Walking In Ice. The two hit it off immediately, united by a shared love of adventure and telling tall tales. Herzog states that he and Chatwin talked almost nonstop over two days, telling each other stories. He said that Chatwin "told about three times as many as me." Herzog also claims that when Chatwin was near death, he gave Herzog his leather rucksack and said,"You're the one who has to wear it now, you're the one who's walking."
In 1987, Herzog made Cobra Verde, a film based on Chatwin's 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, depicting the life of Francisco Manoel da Silva, a fictional Brazilian slave trader working in West Africa. Locations for the film included Brazil, Colombia and Ghana.
Around 1980, Chatwin contracted HIV. Chatwin told different stories about how he contracted the virus, such as that he was gang-raped in Dahomey, and that he believed he caught the disease from Sam Wagstaff, the patron and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He was one of the first high-profile people in Britain to have the disease. Although he hid the illness – passing off his symptoms as fungal infections or the effects of the bite of a Chinese bat, a typically exotic cover story – it was a poorly kept secret. He did not respond well to AZT, and suffered increasing bouts of psychosis. With his condition deteriorating rapidly, Chatwin and his wife went to live in the South of France at the house belonging to Shirley Conran, the mother of his one-time lover, Jasper Conran. There, during his final months, Chatwin was nursed by both his wife and Shirley Conran. He died in Nice in 1989 at age 48.
A memorial service was held in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia in West London. It happened to be the same day that a fatwa was announced on Salman Rushdie, a close friend of Chatwin's who attended the service. Paul Theroux, a one-time friend who also attended the service, later commented on it and Chatwin in a piece for Granta. The novelist Martin Amis described the memorial service in the essay "Salman Rushdie", included in his anthology Visiting Mrs. Nabokov.
Chatwin's ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli in the Peloponnese. This was close to the home of one of his mentors, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Burial: Agios Nikolaos, Chora, Kardamili, Peloponnese, Greece
In Patagonia (Penguin Classics) by Bruce Chatwin
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics (March 25, 2003)
Amazon: In Patagonia (Penguin Classics)
In Patagonia is Bruce Chatwin's exquisite account of his journey through "the uttermost part of the earth," that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome and Charles Darwin formed part of his "survival of the fittest" theory. Chatwin's evocative descriptions, notes on the odd history of the region, and enchanting anecdotes make In Patagonia an exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land. An instant classic upon publication in 1977, In Patagonia remains a masterwork of literature.
Bruce Chatwin : Photographs and Notebooks
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape; First edition (1993)
Amazon: Bruce Chatwin : Photographs and Notebooks
Bruce Chatwin: A Biography by Nicholas Shakespeare
Paperback: 672 pages
Publisher: Anchor (July 17, 2001)
Amazon: Bruce Chatwin: A Biography
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.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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