Bruce Chatwin: letters from a fallen angel (or, A Woman Scorned)

I had no great intention to continue delving into the life and work of Bruce Chatwin, but I found the following article in this week’s London Evening Standard absolutely fascinating. The forthcoming book of letters edited by his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, with commentary by his long suffering wife is sure to prove quite explosive.

As I have said before I don’t know much about the man, but to be frank, from what I have read I don’t see him as much of a hero as some others clearly do. However good he may have been as a writer, he was clearly incapable of any form of loyalty, and seemingly indulged himself in fulfilling his bi-sexual fantasies during his extended journeys, where he clearly had many opportunities.  As Miranda Rothschild, told his biographer: “Sexually, Bruce was a polymorphous pervert … He’s out to seduce everybody, it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy.”

He seems to have carried over this trait into his writing; he does not appear to have been particularly honest with his readers, and in the forthcoming book of letters his wife demolishes many of the myths that have grown up around Chatwin. Elizabeth Chatwin has waited a long time to put over her own point of view and it seems that she has not held back. Beware a woman scorned.

Bruce Chatwin: letters from a fallen angel

by David Sexton

First published in The Evening Standard 25.08.10

Bruce Chatwin died in hospital in Nice in January 1989, suffering from Aids, aged just 48. His last days were all the more terrible for the fact that he had never been able to admit to himself or to others the nature of his illness or his sexuality.

Creator of his own myth: Bruce Chatwin died of Aids in 1989, aged 48. He had never been able to admit to himself or to others the nature of his illness or his sexuality

For Chatwin had spent his entire life turning himself into a fantastic story, a prize rarity, a human anecdote, and it continued right until the end. He gave various delusive accounts of his illness to his friends. He told Loulou de la Falaise that he had eaten a rotten thousand-year-old egg. He told George Ortiz it had come from bat’s faeces. To his mother-in-law he wrote, on first becoming ill: “Trust me to pick up a disease never recorded among Europeans. The fungus that has attacked my bone marrow has been recorded among 10 Chinese peasants (China is presumably where I got it), a few Thais and a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia.”

Among those who bought in to the Chatwin myth most eagerly during his lifetime was his friend, the novelist and literary journalist Nicholas Shakespeare, who loved to repeat such exotic stories about Chatwin as that “he once wore a live python as a bow-tie” or that “he once sold all he had, including a collection of 6th-century BC marble buttocks, and painted his flat the colour of a Nubian hut”. In a tribute published the week of Chatwin’s death, Shakespeare sentimentally proclaimed: “He was so inquisitive about all aspects of life, it is easy to believe he might have stumbled on its secret. That’s probably why the gods took him early.”

It is greatly to Shakespeare’s credit that, when he came to write the authorised biography of Bruce Chatwin, published in 1999, he steadily faced up to the often disappointing truth about his hero and produced such an excellent book. He researched deeply and he did not censor what he discovered, filling in the humdrum facts that Chatwin had excluded to make a more dashing effect. Famously, Chatwin once told Paul Theroux: “I don’t believe in coming clean.” Shakespeare did it for him, posthumously. Perhaps this very truthfulness has damaged Chatwin’s mystique and standing as a writer, which depended so much upon not being thus exposed.

Introducing Under The Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, shortly to be published, Shakespeare admits that Chatwin’s reputation is not what it was and that many — such as Barry Humphries — who used to admire him, no longer do. But he defends Chatwin nonetheless, hopefully maintaining that he was “less economical with the truth than spendthrift. He tells not a half-truth but a truth and a half”.

Chatwin’s biographer and editor of his letters, Nicholas Shakespeare was a lifelong friend

Salman Rushdie, Chatwin’s most perceptive critic, puts it differently. He has argued that Chatwin’s whole style as a writer resulted from the way he so persistently avoided the truth about himself and in particular his sexuality. “That’s the creature at the perimeter prowling around. All this fantastic entertainment and language and originality and erudition and display is a kind of hedge against letting in the truth.”

The great diarist James Lees-Milne, a Gloucestershire neighbour, was clear-headed and sceptical about Chatwin too. “I have seldom met a human being who exudes so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness.” He called him a “fallen angel” and, after his death, remembered himself nearly going to bed with him one night. “He admitted that he would never decline to sleep with any male or female if pressed, but only once. Nonce with me.”

In his memoir City Boy, published last year, Edmund White described his turn with Chatwin, which happened the moment they met. “Bruce … instantly groped me while we were still standing just inside the door, and a few minutes later we’d shed our clothes and were still standing. We had sex in the most efficient way, we put our clothes back on, and we never repeated the experience …”

Another of Chatwin’s once-and-once-only lovers, Miranda Rothschild, told his biographer: “Sexually, Bruce was a polymorphous pervert … He’s out to seduce everybody, it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy.” The act itself distressed her. “He was lust personified. It had nothing to do with anything else … I was lacerated as if by a Bengal tiger.”

Yet the mystery remains: this Bengal tiger was married for 23 years. Bruce Chatwin met Elizabeth Chanler in the early Sixties at Sotheby’s, where he was an expert on Impressionism and antiquities and she was the secretary to the chairman, Peter Wilson. In 1965, Londoner’s Diary in the Standard reported their engagement under the corny headline: “Love among the pictures”.

Their mutual friends were astonished at the time, and to all appearances their marriage remains inexplicable. Elizabeth Chatwin’s mantra appears to have been “love alters not when it alteration finds” and she lived up to this creed with extraordinary steadfastness, however absent, unfaithful and exploitative her husband proved. “He was dreadful to her,” one witness reported. When James Lees-Milne, himself a married homosexual, told Chatwin to his face that he was cruel to his wife, Chatwin agreed. Yet, save for one extended separation, they stayed married, and in his final illness became closer than ever.

Who can look inside another’s marriage? In a late letter to his mother-in-law, otherwise fairly bonkers as a result of his illness having reached his brain, Chatwin wrote: “Elizabeth and I have not had an easy marriage, but it survives everything because neither of us have loved anyone else.” Can it have been that simple?

Now Under the Sun provides a surprising insight into their union. Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare have edited the letters jointly, providing linking passages and explanatory footnotes as normal — and Elizabeth has contributed a brief preface which isn’t particularly revealing.

“He was always good at stories, which became his eventual career,” she says blandly. She didn’t mind his absences so much. “I simply wasn’t curious about what he was doing. He would entertain me with stories on his return.” In passing, she discloses that her life has long revolved around sheep. “In the early 1970s I was given my first Black Mountain ewes, and from then on my calendar was set to a sheep timetable.”

What makes these letters quite remarkable, though, is that Elizabeth Chatwin has also supplied her own initialled comments on them in the form of footnotes, throughout the book. “These are intended to have the effect of an ongoing conversation,” says her co-editor gamely.

Truth to tell, they’re more like a bizarre literary equivalent of Mr and Mrs, the game show, created in Canada in the Sixties, in which couples are tested on their intimate knowledge of one other. (My favourite story from this show, which I hope to be true, is that in one episode live on American TV, a couple were asked where was the most unusual place they had made love: hubby said, “In the back seat of the car”; wifey then volunteered, “Gee, in the ass, I guess.”)

So here Bruce gets told at last. In his first letter to Elizabeth’s parents, he refers to her as “Liz”. She sharply notes: “He’d overheard my parents calling me Lib and misheard it as Liz.” When in the next letter he gets her name right, she comments: “Now he’s got it.” When he tells them they’re going to hold an engagement party for 350 people, she retorts: “We never gave this party.”

Chatwin’s 23-year marriage to Elizabeth Chatwin, pictured, only ended with his death in Nice

It’s a fair old domestic, albeit conducted at long range. In 1968, Bruce complains of having to change his “beloved Citroën van” for a VW. Elizabeth snorts: “He didn’t have to drive from Edinburgh in a 2CV which had no heater.” He boasts: “I have bought the largest coco-de-mer I have ever seen. Beautiful and obscene. We take it to bed.” She snaps: “Nonsense.”

He brags about outdrinking some Russians, while reciting a Shakespeare sonnet. She punctures the picture by telling us that he when he got back to his hotel he was sick all over a friend’s dressing-gown. Chatwin admits that at a party he talked to a Qantas air steward who told him “the secrets of AIR LOVE” and then offended Elizabeth by not introducing her to him. She wearily observes: “He was continually not introducing me to people. He kept them in separate compartments.”

When he moans about some cats, she says sweepingly: “He really didn’t know anything about animals.” When he grandly presents an infant godson with an 18th-century sherbet spoon, she tells us: “The sherbet spoon was mine.”

He claims to his parents that he has spent a week repapering the house they just moved into. She doesn’t agree at all. “He spent two days … Then he went away. He didn’t carry any objects in, not a thing.” When he rejects a host’s claim that he colonised her house, she weighs in hard on his bad habits: “He’d suddenly come down from the top floor and say, Where’s the coffee?’ or What’s for lunch?’ He wanted to be waited on the whole time.”

He complains of having terrible bronchial problems in Kathmandu. “He gets worse and worse in the recounting of it,” she observes. “But all of this is ME, not him. We had to move because I was ill. Bruce never went to any doctor. He was fine.” He loftily announces from Jodhpur: “I am reading, properly for the first time, Proust.” That’s not how she remembers it: “I had brought out Proust to read.”

He apologises to a friend for somehow losing a letter while driving to the country. “Inexplicable!” Not to Elizabeth. “The letter was probably blown out of the car or slipped behind the seat. He was very untidy at loading things. You should have seen his baggage. He had no system at all. It was all jumbled together.”

On it goes. She is particularly unimpressed with his nomadic tendencies, his inability to remain happy in any one place, the greatest theme of his writing, as it happens, expounded at such length in The Songlines. He writes to her that he has got fed up with Patmos. “One was really ready for the Revelation.” She explains to us: “Everything having been paradise on earth suddenly turned into the biggest bore. It happened everywhere, except the Black Hill.”

He was perpetually on the lookout for the ideal location for his dream house, where he could be happy at last, in the right landscape, among the right people. She scoffs: “He would wear out people in certain places and then have to move on. Everything was absolute paradise for about a month and then things were not quite what he wanted them to be. I discovered after years of this nonsense that the sure-fire way of making Bruce not buy a house was for me to agree.”

Ouch! No man is a hero to his valet, as the French lady said — and that seems to have been part of Elizabeth Chatwin’s role for her husband. Then again, many widows and widowers would like to set down for posterity certain rejoinders to the public life of their partners but never get the opportunity she has seized here. Perhaps she has inaugurated a whole new genre, one with great scope for development yet? Elizabeth Chatwin has certainly proved herself a stayer, unlike her husband. Here Chatwin’s mystique is punctured once and for all. There’s no time limit on answering back, it turns out.

Under the Sun is published on September 2 (Cape, £25)

Related article:

Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos


7 thoughts on “Bruce Chatwin: letters from a fallen angel (or, A Woman Scorned)

  1. Pingback: Letters: In Search of a Bolt-Hole | tarnmoor

  2. Davis

    Our poor, dear Bruce. He understood that reality made indifferent art, and so he did what he had to do. And we are all the richer for it.

  3. Pingback: Scholar in the wilds – a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor « Patrick Leigh Fermor

  4. Pingback: Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos « Patrick Leigh Fermor

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