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on 9 June 1999
The seven or so years spent researching and writing this book is clearly evident in this thorough, well-written biography. Obviously, the late Bruce Chatwin would make a challenging candidate for any biographer to tackle, but in Nicholas Shakespeare the right choice was made. The admiration Shakespeare has for his subject is paramount, and his enthusiasm is reflected in the lucidly written pages, but without necessarily overdoing it.
But Chatwin was a man who generated almost magical interest in those he came in contact with, and like myself, through reading his work, although he kept himself well out of it. Having read most of the Chatwin ouevre, I found the biography doubled as a reference aid too, as it cleverly described the background work and processes Chatwin was engaged in before he set out to write a particular book.
More importantly, it managed to shed more light on the development of Chatwin's complex character, his unconventional marriage and his secret sexuality. It was also intriguing to read about the struggle and sacrifices he had to make to produce his beguiling art. Shakespeare has managed to unearth everything imaginable: from ideas jotted down by Chatwin himself in his safeguarded moleskin notebooks, to interviewing endless family, friends and acquaintances from all over the world.
The transformation of Chatwin from a Sotheby's high-flyer to a restless writer is the driving force behind the book. It is a joy to read, but the final chapters describing his falling victim to AIDS are ultimately the most fascinating, and are penned with careful dignity. It is still hard to believe that he was only 48 years old, having died only a decade ago. Nevertheless, the weighty 550 pages make a relatively light, but highly absorbing read when his life is injected into them.
For those of you who need yet to discover the real Bruce Chatwin, this biography could be read as a possible starting point. It will give you a thorough insight into one of the most colourful and intriguing literary figures of the late twentieth century. And believe me, after having read it, it will spark your interest to read Bruce Chatwin's own dazzling output of work, which are all very different in their own right.
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on 23 August 2000
The best way to annoy Bruce Chatwin would probably have been, on the basis of this biography, to file his books under the Travel section, or the Gay Author section. Which is ironic, since his bisexuality and wanderlust are two key themes in this immaculately researched and skillfully written biography. Nicholas has been granted access not only to most of Bruce's friends, associates and relations, but also his extensive notebooks, at one time thought to be so scandalous that they were to be held in the Bodleian library away from the public until 2010. This book is a journey in its own right though - Shakespeare travels in the footsteps of Chatwin through Africa, Argentina and Australia, but never lets his subject over take him - this is a well paced and balanced book. Chatwin was never a prolific writer - he wrote marginally less than Jane Austen, and never had a strong reputation as an author until his final years. In an ideal world, this book would be read as a companion to Chatwin's own work. However, whether you have read all, or some, of his writing, I can definitely recommend this book.
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on 7 August 2000
A few years back I indulged myself in a marathon reading of every Ernest Hemingway biography that came to hand. Not all were top-notch, but a few were so good that I will forever after prefer to read a Hemingway bio to anything by Papa himself.
And so with Nicholas Shakespeare's lovely masterpiece of a biography of Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin's own works are scoured for biographical data, but most of Shakespeare's research involved 8 years of painstaking interviews and worldwide travels to Afghanistan, India, Patagonia, New York and elsewhere. Simply put, this is a more enjoyable book than anything Chatwin himself ever wrote, and maybe it's better than anything Chatwin could write.
The parallels to Hemingway can be expanded. Chatwin's life was more varied and exciting than anything he was able to commit to his tight, crystallised prose. He was a much greater man than the sum of his works, and he's a very very lucky dead author indeed to have had someone like Nicholas Shakespeare take the first crack at a full-length treatment of the Chatwin life.
Again like Hemingway, Chatwin was brilliant, charismatic, generous--and often supercilious, nasty and a downright selfish bastard. He was so dedicated to his craft that he appears never to have felt a pang of guilt over his readiness to sponge off friends and his long-suffering wife. Anyone who thinks he wants Chatwin as a role model will give the idea second thoughts before finishing this marvelous book!
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on 30 July 1999
Even though my "to-be-read" pile of books now occupies over two bookshelves, I had to read this as soon as it arrived. The first Chatwin book I read was "The Songlines", when it was first published, and I just inhaled everything I could find by him after that. I was fascinated and intrigued by his writing and, to a lesser degree initially, by the man. My interest in him grew as I read more about his "fiction" and his "non-fiction" and the line (or, rather, the lack of a line, in his case) between the two ... After reading this book I find myself torn - I have to say that I really really disliked the man Chatwin appeared to be (as disclosed by Shakespeare), and am having a hard time reconciling that with my reaction to his (Chatwin's) work ... One of the things that troubled me about the book was Shakespeare's use of euphemism - particularly when referring to Chatwin's sexual encounters, which were, apparently, many. Were ALL of these "friends" that he visited all over the world people he had affairs with (as seems to be the case !) ? I ask not out of prurience, but because I think that it adds to an understanding of the man. The use of euphemisms to describe Chatwin's theft (I can think of no other word for it) of art objects which were smuggled out of various countries throughout the world to finance his lifestyle is also unforgivable, as is Shakespearse's implicit defence (by the language he chooses to describe these "adventures") of this behaviour. Finally, there is Chatwin's indefensible treatment of his wife - I find it difficult to believe that someone as egocentric, as childish, so unwilling to come to terms with the person he was, could ever have any kind of equitable, loving realtionship with anyone, and I certainly do not think that he had such a relationship with his wife. He treated her with the utmost disrespect - I shall never, ever forget the scene where, upon arriving at a pub/restaurant with a group of people which included his wife, to find that there was no table which would accomodate them all, he promptly told his wife to go away ... and she did ! Sorry to go on like this, but this book really affected me and, given that I know few people who have read Chatwin, and fewer still who would want to read a tome like this, I've used this forum to present at least some of my thoughts on the book and the man ... If you are at all interested in Bruce Chatwin, I encourage you to read this book !
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on 31 January 2007
Chatwin was a compulsive fantasist in his own life, unable to stop himself from using his considerable knowledge as a launchpad for his own inventions. At the same time, his writing was very clearly rooted in his own experiences, drawing considerably on the people he met and the places he visited. His own life was often as interesting as his books - and when it wasn't, he managed to invent a story to make it so.

As a result, Shakespeare had an uphill struggle to pin down a man who hated being pinned down more than anything else, and he largely succeeded. The result is a portrait of a terribly flawed man who still seemed to be able to touch people's lives even when his own behaviour was at its worst, illustrated best of all by the devotion his wife Elizabeth showed him even as he fled from her repeatedly.

The biography's only flaws are a tendency to trail in his wake, never quite wanting to acknowledge that Chatwin, while a brilliant writer, could also be a brilliant monster. However it does capture the one indisputable truth about Chatwin, that he desired more than anything else to be the central figure in his greatest work of fiction - his own life.
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on 10 March 2000
The subject justifies the labour as Chatwin is truly interesting.
The range of issues thrown up by his life - fidelity, relationships, sexuality, writing, "myth-making" are very intriguing.
The author spent 8 years travelling the world to make this book - surely a huge chunk of anyones life. But it is time well spent as the book surpasses its peers with such incredible research, dispassionate analysis and comment.
I was left with the belief that he had layed out Chatwin's character for all to see without adding or taking away from the reality. That is really what you need from a biographer.
I only wish Chatwin could read it himself although I expect he would find it so shockingly accurate as to completely destroy his illusions about himself.
I am also left wondering what his wife Elizabeth feels about their life being so publicly exposed. She was protected by their privacy - no more.
A truly great book, without reservation
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on 21 August 2000
Have just finished reading Nicholas Shakespeare's fantastic biography on Bruce Chatwin. I'm not usually that interested in biographies, but this one was so well written that I spent - literally - the whole weekend reading. I would wake up at night and read some more. The subject matter is interesting enough, but I think Nicholas Shakespeare proves himself to be a great writer through this biography - utterly fascinating. Thank you, Nicholas! This is a book - almost more an "experience" - that will stay with me for a long time, and that I will surely recommend to many people!
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on 31 August 2001
Nicholas Shakespeare has written a very impressive biography of an author who was as complex and elusive in his persona as his work is crystalline in its clarity. Those who like their heroes to be as inspiring as their prose should look elsewhere. Chatwin displayed all the ruthlessness of many creative artist as he exploited his friends, and most especially his devoted and long suffering wife, in the pursuit of his destiny. Shakespeare's biography is scrupuously fair, exhaustively researched and superbly written. I'm left wondering what my reaction to Chatwin's work would have been had I read this first.
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on 1 June 2007
This is a masterful biography, penetrating yet never judgemental, complete but not clinical. The inspiration behind Chatwin's brutally clipped prose are laid bare, from Hemingway on, with the most excruciating detail about all aspects of his life from childhood to the gay nirvana that was late 70s and early 80s New York. For all those who have ever marvelled at his work's effortless evocation of atmosphere, its probably best not to read this as any illusion you may have had about him wil be irretrievably shattered. He was the centre of a cult of beauty and brittle sociality, fuelled by incredible egotism and arrogance, that left great literature on the upside, and a series of ruined lives and broken hearts on the down. Hitler was said to be a gifted watercolurist, after all, though I doubt that many would enthusiastically embrace his work. However, for all that, Chatwin's writing is staggering, and Nicholas Shakespeare's book should be lauded as THE example of what a modern biography ought to be: a great, eloquent, wide-ranging, well-expressed and truly epic tour de literary force. Outstanding.
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on 10 March 2000
This biography must be one of the great biographies of all time.
The subject justifies the labour as Chatwin is truly interesting.
The range of issues thrown up by his life - fidelity, relationships, sexuality, writing, "myth-making" are very intriguing.
The author spent 8 years travelling the world to make this book - surely a huge chunk of anyones life. But it is time well spent as the book surpasses its peers with such incredible research, dispassionate analysis and comment.
I was left with the belief that he had layed out Chatwin's character for all to see without adding or taking away from the reality. That is really what you need from a biographer.
I only wish Chatwin could read it himself although I expect he would find it so shockingly accurate as to completely destroy his illusions about himself.
I am also left wondering what his wife Elizabeth feels about their life being so publicly exposed. She was protected by their privacy - no more.
A truly great book, without reservation
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