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Bruce Chatwin Paperback – 6 Apr 2000
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Bruce Chatwin was the golden child of the contemporary English novel; by the time he died of an AIDS-related illness aged 49 in January 1989 he had produced the startlingly original masterpieces that made his name. Chatwin came late to being a published writer; In Patagonia, his instant classic of what can loosely be termed "travel literature", came out in 1977. In the preceding years this precocious, intense figure had been an art specialist at Sotheby's, a journalist with The Sunday Times, an archaeologist and a restless, questing traveller. By the time his novel of studying the Aboriginal dreamtime in Australia, The Songlines, was published, he had gained a worldwide audience.
An obsessive art collector, Chatwin also acquired people as he did fabulous objects. He took both male and female lovers while continuing to remain married to his wife Elizabeth, seemingly the most enduring relationship of his life. It is her cooperation and tenacity which enabled this biography to come about, as well as Nicholas Shakespeare's exhaustive research (the book was eight years in the making). It is the international span of Chatwin's experiences that makes the reader appreciate his desire to know all cultures and disciplines. There is some excellent, evocative writing here, particularly in Shakespeare's account of Chatwin's last weeks, his disappointment at not winning the Booker Prize for Utz and the detailed passage describing Chatwin's awful, miserable death surrounded by friends and family. There are a plethora of adjectives used to describe Chatwin such as "elusive", "mercurial", and "charismatic". Yet what Nicholas Shakespeare brings across in this immense, excellent life of Chatwin is the complete aloneness of the man. He was a flamboyant fabulist, an unparalleled conversationalist, yet, as the Australian poet Les Murray is quoted as saying: "He was lonely and he wanted to be. He had those blue, implacable eyes that said: 'I will reject you, I will forget you, because neither you nor any other human being can give me what I want.'"--Catherine Taylor
"Of my contemporaries he had the most erudite and possibly the most brilliant mind" (Salman Rushdie)
"An epic piece of work of immense satisfaction... Awe-inspiring" (The Times)
"A fascinating account of the man behind the myth" (Guardian)
"Comprehensively researched, elegantly written, perfectly balanced between the life, the books and the ideas" (Independent on Sunday)
"Quite simply, one of the most beautifully written, painstakingly researched and cleverly constructed biographies of this decade... Original, intelligent and observant" (Literary Review)
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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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