In the twelve years before his death, Charles Bruce Chatwin produced five books of superlative quality and in the process invented a new form of the novel somewhere between travel literature, pure fiction, and the novel of ideas. He was born to a middle-class family, Margharita Turnell Chatwin and her husband, Charles Leslie Chatwin, a lawyer who served in the navy during the war. Chatwin was sent to an excellent boys’ school, Marlborough, and by the age of eighteen he was working as a porter for the international art dealer Sotheby’s. By chance, despite the fact that he had no formal training in art, he identified a Pablo Picasso gouache as a counterfeit; on the strength of his talent for assessing paintings, he became a working member of the staff, specializing in the Impressionists as well as with art from the South Seas and Africa. By his early twenties he was a senior official at Sotheby’s, and it was there that he met his wife, Elizabeth Chandler.
He left Sotheby’s after an illness, advised by his physician to do some traveling. He went to Africa and studied archaeology at Edinburgh University for a short time. As a result of photographs he had taken in the desert, he was offered a job as an art consultant with the London Sunday Times. He often traveled to develop material for the paper, but in 1975 he decided that he wanted to go to Patagonia to write a book about that remote section of southern South America. In Patagonia was an enormous success, in part because it was quite unlike the usual kind of travel literature. This was a kind of antitravel book. Most critics praised the author for his refusal to stick to the facts and for the curious collection of local tall tales and eccentric history. Chatwin himself called the mix of history, myth, autobiography, anthropology, and occasional fiction a “search.”
In his next work, The Viceroy of Ouidah, Chatwin took the idea of fusing fiction and fact a step further. While working on a book about the slave trade in Dahomey, he began to imagine the life of a slave trader who was so important to the local chiefs that he became a figure of political power in the old port of Ouidah and ultimately founded a dynasty that lasted into the twentieth century. The resulting work is partly based on historical fact, but those facts are hardly important to the grand, grotesque world of extravagant eccentricity Chatwin conjured up. The work proved Chatwin to be an authentic and very original talent who could not be classified as a mere travel writer.
Chatwin’s next book, On the Black Hill, could be seen as a drawing back from eccentric distances; set in the hills on the Welsh-English border, it not only confirmed (as the first two books had suggested) that Chatwin had a daring imagination but also that he could write with considerable feeling. The tale of two Welsh twins living out their interdependent lives in the natural richness, and sometime social and physical squalor, of farm life had all the energy of the earlier books. Moreover, Chatwin’s preternatural gift for telling seemingly unconnected stories and the fecundity of his descriptive talent came together here to create something that is tonally reminiscent of Thomas Hardy.
Chatwin did not stay home for long, however; in On the Black Hill he had included the suggestion that human beings were meant to be wanderers, and Chatwin himself continued to wander through the world. His next work was The Songlines, a peculiar study of aboriginal life in Australia told from an unnerving point of view that is partly autobiographical (the narrator is called Bruce) but also an amalgamation of anthropology, anecdote, history, and fiction, held together by the philosophic quest for the answer to the question of whether, in settling down, human beings have offended God, who had intended that they always wander.
Interestingly perverse in all of his work, Chatwin chose in his last novel, Utz, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, to explore the life of Utz, a rich man settled, almost to the point of claustral retreat, with his priceless collection of Meissen porcelain. Utz, the last of a line of Czech aristocrats, is surrounded by the collectivist state in Prague, jealously determined to take the figurines into nationalist ownership upon his death. Fastidiously detailed in its handling of the porcelain as art, the novel reminds the reader of Chatwin’s early career at Sotheby’s, but it goes further in ways that link it with his earlier novels in its exploration of the obsessive search for value, for what makes life worth living.
“What might have been” is a legitimate speculation; Chatwin seems to have been on his way to making an important place for himself as one of the twentieth century’s improvisational manipulators of the novel. Shortly after the publication of Utz, and following a long illness that had confined him to a wheelchair, Chatwin died at the age of forty-eight. He left five elegant, minor masterpieces.