Wednesday, December 22, 2010

“Under the Sun” letters by Bruce Chatwin collected by N. Shakespeare & E. Chatwin.

Caspar David Friedrich : Wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg

Things are happening around us.

At the moment you are reading this, a number of rescue operations are taking place, by academics and non – academics alike, to save from oblivion, deceased but still admired writers, who are at risk of being washed away by the flood of new authors who arrogantly claim their space on the bookshelves.

Clearly it has become nearly impossible for dead writers and their works to keep their ground against the tsunami of the nearly 500.000 new titles ( in English) which are proposed each year. Fighting for attention in the media with reviews, dug – up early books, biographies and literary companions, it seems that even the most celebrated writers of the previous generation are pushed out of the light – sweep of our attention by the newcomers and are slipping, as they say, “under the radar”.

Authors have a shelf life and their masterpieces an expiry date.

I have become increasingly aware of this struggle while reading introductions and companions of some great books. For instance Stephen D. Dowden in his introduction to the companion to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain says: “Mann’s place in the canon of modernist classics may not be secure…” and Peter Carey in his foreword to his biography of Golding, says “…Golding’s name does not spark instant recognition…”

If great writers like Thomas Mann and William Golding still have to motivate and defend their position on the literary Canon, what about lesser Gods like Colin Farell or Bruce Chatwin, who have passed away, at a much too young age, and can not strengthen their reputation with new books like their contemporaries Julian Barnes or Salman Rushdie? Colin Farell was saved “in extremis” last year, first by the publication of his “Krishnapur” by the famous Folio society, then by posthumously winning “the lost Man Booker” for the forgotten year 1970. This will surely “buy him some time” but the effect of the prize seems to have ebbed away already.

Bruce Chatwin however has to rely on the efforts of his wife Elisabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare to keep him “under the sun”. In 1999, ten years after the writer’s untimely death, Shakespeare wrote a splendid Chatwin biography which deservedly received widespread critical acclaim,. The biography, which at moments reads like a genuine adventure roman, depicts in detail Chatwin’s life and the biographical moments of inspiration and conception of his different books: the cult-novel “In Patagonia”, the Flaubertian “The Viceroy of Ouidah”, the slim gem “Utz”, and the masterpiece “The Song lines”.

But for all its merits, the biography may have come too early, for in it’s honest depicting of the writer-traveler’s short live, it demystified Chatwin, who until then had been slowly growing the status of a cult writer.But the biography did revive the interest in Chatwin albeit only for a few years.

Now again, ten years later, we can only observe that the interest in Chatwin’s works is waning and that his books are slipping into oblivion.
Again there is an urgent need of un-dusting and this is exactly the aim of this new book, a compilation of letters from Bruce Chatwin, collected under the title “Under the Sun” sampled and edited by his wife and his biographer. The picture on the cover of the hard back edition is well chosen. It shows a Chatwin half hidden, on the verge of disappearing in the long grass.

Keeping the above in mind, it was with some apprehension that I started reading Chatwin’s letters. I was at first confirmed in my dubious feelings, as the first 100 or so pages are absolutely without interest. Chatwin, despite some flashes of precocity, is no Wunderkind and his letters during his schooldays and the Sotheby years are quite boring. The same goes for the letters of the last days of the writer’s life. His wife takes over the writing while an exhausted Chatwin dictates some short letters. Poignant enough for the collector of Chatwiana, but it remains less interesting from a literary point. I understand that the early and later letters were added for the sake of completeness but Shakespeare’s biography is much more interesting reading for these periods of Chatwin’s live.

But I am happy I persevered because from the moment Chatwin starts to struggle with his first attempt of a book “The nomadic alternative” (p130!) and explains his aims to correspondents like Desmond Morris or James Ivory, things do get more interesting. Frustrated that his “In Patagonia” is not understood as the “Wonder Voyage” he wanted to describe, for example, Chatwin explains in his letter to his agent Deborah Rogers what were his intentions. This is interesting for it gives the inquisitive reader the possibility to gauge the success of the attempt, evaluate the literary techniques that were employed and discuss their merits.

Chatwin destroyed the drafts of his books. Some suggest that he did that to hide the fact that writing his books was hard work and that he wanted to give the impression that his “In Patagonia” was really a barely corrected genuine travel journal or diary.
Therefore the letters are the closest we can get to the non-edited Bruce Chatwin. In one of these letters for instance he describes a Czech marriage where he is best man to a fellow archeologist. That happening is turned into a funeral scene in the opening pages of UTZ and shows how the writer turned a real life situation into scenes of his book.

Not everybody would appreciate such transformations, especially not the people who trusted him and who under his charming spell, would open their hearts, their diaries and family albums. The Welsh community and the Australians were not all happy with how they were depicted in “Patagonia” and the “Songlines”. But writers, according to me write fiction and to confront them with inaccuracies is unfair. They are artists after all.
Sometimes the situations are kind of funny. Chatwin had for his “In Patagonia” taken whole chunks out of the diary of Monica Bartnett’s (a far relative) father’s diary. Bartnett who knows that Chatwin is writing a book gives him full access to all her private papers , even let him copy whole parts, but then is dumbfounded when she reads her father’s lines in the book Chatwin so graciously send her. But far from being an “idea snatcher”, Chatwin corrects the subsequent impressions of the book and offers his genuine apologies.

Bruce Chatwin really is a fascinating character. You either love him or hate him. Chatting away, impressing people around him with his travels, his cultural erudition and the many grotesque anecdotes he so eagerly recounts, he is the master storyteller “par excellence”.
There is an anecdote, recalled by Theroux I think, where Chatwin is sitting during a dinner between two adventurers who have just returned from an expedition to the Himalaya or something like that in the most dreadful conditions. But it is Chatwin who with all his anecdotes and stories attracts all the attention and impresses everybody, including the two mountaineers!

In the center of a network of famous and less famous people, he discusses in his letters issues from the most intellectual arcane to the most elementary gossip.
Who knows Osip Mandelstam, John Flemming and Hugh Honour for instance? Why should Peter Mathiessen’s “Far Tortuga” be preferred to his “Snow leopard”? Have you seen Jean Vigo’s great movie l’Atalante? Have you read the Baburnama, Ib’n Khaldun’s Muquaddimah or the poems by David Ap Gwilym? Did you meet the exentric Princess Marie-Gabrielle von Urach, or fascinating Eileen Gray? Do the names Luis Barragan or Professor Zazzo ring a bell?
Reading a paragraph of Chatwin’s biography or letters invariably sends you to Google or an encyclopedia for fascinating new discoveries!

Most interesting are Chatwin’s literary models, the writers who influenced his original prose. There are the ones he speaks about like Racine and Turgenev. He advices aspiring young writers to read Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Guy de Maupassant, Ivan Bunin and even Carson Mc Cullers’ sad café. Chatwin, being who he is claims, that his biggest influence is Zahir ud-Din Mohammed Babur with his Babur – Nama !
He admires Flaubert, especially the Flaubert from the letters and the short stories. He writes, he says, the Viceroy of Ouidah, a Flaubertian conte, “in the high style of Salammbo”…

But there are also the more immediate influences which he does not mention: the travel writers, the people who are pushed of the scene by his own noisy appearance. Writer-travelers like Robert Byron, who with his two “sacred texts”, the road to Oxiana and the Station for instance, were a huge influence on Chatwin as we now know. Or Blaise Cendrars or Frederick Prokosch or even the famous writer-traveler and friend of Chatwin Patrick Leigh Fermor!

 Finally, there are some real gems to be found in the books. Michael Ignatieff letter for instance. Ignatieff who had witnessed Chatwin’s erratic behavior during a last visit, wrote a letter of adieu to the dying, but still lucid writer which is baffling in its sincere simplicity and humanity: “I’m not sure it is among the offices of friendship to convey my sense of foreboding & disquiet at how I saw you. I must just be expressing a friend’s regret at losing you to a great wave of conviction, to some gust of certainty, that leaves me here, rooted to the spot, and you carried far away. In which case, I can only wave you onto your journey”.

I for one, find Chatwin a fascinating writer and he is one of the few of whom I have all the books, read all the books and admired all the books. Now he is in danger to slip under the radar and there is a genuine risk that his books will be only remembered as literary curiosities like Byron’s Oxiana.

Rather than advising this book of collected letters, which has certainly its merits, I would  nudge friends to Shakespeare’s biography or even better to one of Chatwin’s brilliant books. The fascinating journeys he offers us are without doubt unique experiences the like we will not encounter again soon.