“You asked me to write you a letter about my proposed book on nomads,” Bruce Chatwin wrote an interested publisher in 1969. He was 28 years old, and it would be eight years before his remarkable books, beginning with In Patagonia, would start to appear. “The question I will try to answer is, ‘Why do men wander rather than sit still?'”
The outpouring that follows, reproduced in the new collection of Chatwin’s letters, Under the Sun, edited by his widow, Elizabeth Chatwin, and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare (Viking, 560 pages, $36), is a scintillating, daffy performance. Chatwin himself couldn’t stand to stay in one place for longer than a month or two and saw the imprint of the nomadic impulse everywhere he looked. Humanity’s tragic turning away from nomadism, he wrote, was the true subject of the Cain and Abel myth, and explained the rise of Hitler. As we embraced civilization, we became sick and violent. Parasites, shamanism, Mao, Io, the intrinsic femininity of the sailor, religion, the Pyramids of Giza and Marshall McLuhan were only fully explicable in light of the nomad. The right definition of nomadism would be a complete theory of humanity. “Sorry,” he concludes in a postscript. “I have a fiendish typewriter.”
“If he keeps his eye on his subject,” wrote a reader at his British publisher, “he may produce a rather good book.” But the subject kept moving. Work on The Nomadic Alternative devoured three years of Chatwin’s life. He groaned about his mounting fear that the book was total nonsense and trashed draft after draft. “Oh God,” he wrote his wife in despair, “when will I get it done. I’ve worked for example 8am to 12 midnight yesterday.” His doomed wrangling with what would turn out to be “the great unwriteable” spans a third of Under the Sun. The manuscript he eventually unloaded on his agent, he concluded, was a “load of humourless, egotistic, sententious rubbish” that “not even [he] could understand let alone the poor reader.” It remains unpublished, by all accounts unpublishable.
Chatwin never truly abandoned The Nomadic Alternative and continued to scribble notes about nomadism in his notebooks until his death, from AIDS-related illnesses, in 1989. Indeed, he never escaped his own restlessness; his five books are set in Patagonia, Dahomey (now Benin), the Welsh countryside, Central Australia and Prague. “Home,” he wrote in one of his famed Moleskines, “is a perversion.”
Chatwin’s most frequent correspondent in Under the Sun is his wife. Ms. Chatwin let her husband roam, preferring to stay at home, tending her sheep and their finances. It was an unusual marriage. Ms. Chatwin did not, it seems, object to her husband’s homosexual affairs, yet there are no letters to Chatwin’s two most significant male lovers, Donald Richards and the fashion designer Jasper Conran. Chatwin was charming and gregarious, and sexually irresistible, but, as a matter of principle, not romantic. “You do not find pining lovers among the Gipsies,” he wrote.
After unburdening himself of the manuscript of The Nomadic Alternative, Chatwin took a job at the Sunday Times. “I can’t write,” he told his friend, Times senior editor Francis Wyndham, and, indeed, there are very few letters from this period. Nevertheless, he proposed an article about Eileen Gray, the bisexual Irish architect who designed the Bibendum Chair. She was worldly and exotic, and, at 93, very old; Chatwin, who was vain and beautiful, had a natural affection for old people.
On Gray’s wall hung a map, which she’d painted in gouache, of Patagonia. The map reminded Chatwin of his childhood, when he’d been obsessed with an ancient patch of skin, with “strands of coarse reddish hair,” that his grandmother kept in a glass-fronted cabinet. It had belonged, she mistakenly told Chatwin, to a brontosaurus. (It was from an extinct giant ground sloth.) Her cousin Charley Milward, on his 50th circumnavigation of the globe, had found it in a cave when a shipwreck landed him in Patagonia.
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” Chatwin said, looking at the map.
“So have I,” Gray replied. “Go there for me.”
Chatwin’s most famous letter, a telegram to the Times that read, “Gone to Patagonia for four months,” may be apocryphal. What survives is a letter to Mr. Wyndham: “Dear Francis, I have done what I threatened. I suddenly got fed up with N.Y. and ran away to South America. … I am doing a story there for myself.”
As an art collector and former Sotheby’s partner, Chatwin was powerfully sensitive to the depths that were revealed, like a hologram, in a beautiful surface; with In Patagonia, he created a world of rare, exotic surfaces, observed by a distant narrator; the style echoes throughout the books of W.G. Sebald no less than the films of Wes Anderson.