Letters: In Search of a Bolt-Hole

Bruce Chatwin Writing

This is the first in a series of posts on literary letters. I have just finished reading Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, edited by Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.

When I started reading Bruce’s work, he was a hero to me. One of the mixed blessings of biography is that you are likely to find out some uncomplimentary facts about your heroes. This is definitely the case with Bruce, who lived an oddly compartmentalized kind of life. He was married, yet carried on numerous affairs with men and women, some of which were predatory. Although I still love his writing, I would feel uncomfortable with the man himself. (For more on this subject, I would refer to two postings by his late friend, Patrick Leigh-Fermor entitled Bruce Chatwin: Letters from a Fallen Angel (or, A Woman Scorned and Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos.

Reading his letters, I find almost half of them deal with Chatwin’s search for a comfortable place to live, where he can read and write—separately from his semi-estranged wife Elizabeth—and carry on affairs. There was no love lost between him and the land of his birth, England. In a letter to Patrick Leigh-Fermor, he writes:

At least I thought that going to England in August might lessen the shock, climatically. But no! Nothing but rain. Freezing cold. I went wind-surfing on a scummy little reservoir near Oxford, and my hands were white and numb after ten minutes. But what I miss the most are the mountains! The country round here is tolerably attractive, immaculately kept: but then you keep running up against the cooling towers of the Didcot [nuclear] power-station; the antennae of Greenham Common; the nuclear installations at Harwell—all of which give me the feelings of claustrophobia.

But then there doesn’t seem to be anyplace that suits. It’s either too hot or too noisy or too crowded with tourists or yadda-yadda-yadda. To his in-laws, he complains:

But I’m afraid this gypsyish life cannot go on. I shall have, whether I like it or not, to get a proper bolt-hole to work in. Otherwise I find I can fritter away six months at a time without achieving anything, and that only makes me very bad-tempered. In a way, I like being in Italy, but the climate’s quite tough in winter, and the villages (because I’m sure it must be in a village) are usually quite depressing. Our old stamping ground in the Basses-Alpes is not half bad. Uzès is another possibility. What it’ll mean, I’m afraid, is that the London flat will have to go. I’m after 3 rooms: one to sleep and work in; one to live in, and a spare room. It’ll have to have a terrace, somewhere to sit out at least; and walks in neighborhood.

Alas, Bruce died without finding his perfect bolt-hole in a land with perfect climate. Every place has its disadvantages, even Los Angeles. Last night, I was jolted awake at 12:03 am by a Richter 3.7 earthquake whose epicenter was only a few miles south of me. And so it goes!






Say Goodbye to One of My Favorite Literary Forms

When was the last time you actually took pen in hand and wrote a letter to someone? I don’t mean an e-mail or a “text.” I rather think that most of the electronic communications will all disappear into some digital hell, and no one will actually write letters. As the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote, “How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvelous.”

As I continue to read the collected letters of Bruce Chatwin, I foresee that within a very short time (if not now), no one will write letters. The thought saddens me, as I think back on great letters of the past from such writers as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert, Sir Walter Scott, and countless others. Already in Chatwin, many of the letters are scribbles on postcards, interspersed with a few lengthy think pieces.

Now there are so many more ways to communicate, including telephone, text messaging, e-mail, and more ad infinitum. I can’t for the life of me think of an e-mail I’ve written that was worth saving for any reason except for passing convenience.

People used to save letters because of their sentimental or literary value. Long-distance relationships were conducted in the mails, resulting in bundles of letters that were saved for decades, letters that warmed the soul as the cold of age started to set in. Do I save my text messages? Not for more than a week or two. As for e-mails, I do large-scale erasures every six months or so.

I think I will highlight in future posts some of my favorite letters from authors and poets.

Perpetuum Mobile

Author and World Traveler Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

I have several things in common with the late British writer Bruce Chatwin. He was not in love with the land of his birth: In one letter, he writes, “England is gradually closing in on me again, and the moments of euphoria become rarer and rarer as one gets paler and paler and fatter and fatter and the backbiting conversations grow bitchier and bitchier, and everyone thinks and talks of selling something to somebody else.” To his friend Ivry Freyberg, he writes,“My life at present is the way I like it. Perpetuum mobile.”

In like manner, although I had a happy childhood in Cleveland, I desperately wanted to get away from the place and see the world—this at a time when the family’s finances were unencouraging. I got my four-year scholarship to Dartmouth College and went off to graduate school in California, but it was to be another nine years after graduation in 1966 that I went beyond the borders of the U.S.

Reading the letters of Chatwin (published as Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin), I feel some of the same excitement as when I read his two masterpieces, In Patagonia and The Songlines. I loved reading about Bruce’s travels when he was at his best. At the same time, I am well aware of the flip side of his way of life. As his friend John Kasmin wrote, “Bruce’s biggest problem was where to be. He never knew where to be. It was always somewhere else.”

Even more damning was his wife Elizabeth’s judgment on his travels:

He would wear out people in certain places and then have to move on. Everything was absolute paradise etc for about a month and then things were not quite what he wanted them to be. I discovered after years of this nonsense that the sure-fire way of making Bruce not buy a house was for me to agree.

Part of Chatwin’s wanderlust was his own dual life as a bisexual. The letters show him to be seemingly happily married, yet spending most of his time on the road, enthusing about various places and people.

I, too, would like to be a traveler; but I am content to use Southern California as my base. And I hope not to be tempted by a double life.



Substantially True

Polish Writer Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007)

Although he is usually classified as a writer on non-fiction, the late Ryszard Kapuściński has been “outed” by some journalists for embroidering the truth. In this era of fake news and outright official lying, I feel we need to appreciate someone who is 95% true, or even 90% true. Almost no one is 100% true. I keep thinking back to the ancient Greek and Roman historians who put polished speeches into the mouths of Greek heroes such as Pericles and Augustus Caesar. The idea was to give the general idea, and to adjust the truth just enough to show the basics. No matter that the historian spoke more elegantly than Pericles or Augustus ever could. Shall we dump Thucydides, Herodotus, Tacitus, and Livy for such venial sins, which were certainly not considered as sins at the time they were writing?

According to a biography by Artur Domoslawski, friend of Kapuściński, occasionally crossed the boundary between straight reportage and fiction: “Sometimes the literary idea conquered him. In one passage, for example, he writes that the fish in Lake Victoria in Uganda had grown big from feasting on people killed by Idi Amin. It’s a colourful and terrifying metaphor. In fact, the fish got larger after eating smaller fish from the Nile.”

It seems Domoslawski was perhaps less than a real friend of Kapuściński: He also included numerous accounts of the author’s sexual peccadillos and collaborations with Soviet intelligence.

I am reminded of another travel writer whose work I love, Bruce Chatwin, author of In Patagonia and Songlines. Instead of 90% truth, Chatwin aimed at perhaps 70% truth and occasionally fell short of that mark. And there was, with Chatwin, a lot of sex going on with even with his sources. (He died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 49.) I still classify both authors as non-fiction, even though Domoslawski thinks they should be on the shelf with fiction.

After Domoslawski’s book came out, a bunch of other writers jumped on the topic, including such notable historians as Timothy Garton-Ash. I know that, for many years, Ryszard Kapuściński  has been on the short list to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that he is dead, he does not qualify. More’s the pity.


Horreur du Domicile

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

The following is a blog I first published on April 7, 2011 for the defunct Multiply.Com:

I have just finished reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellent biography of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin. As I write this, I am acutely aware that Chatwin was uncomfortable with his Britishness and with being classified as a travel writer. His entire life was a series of escapes from “home.” Despite being bisexual, he married and—except for a brief separation—remained married. Married or not, nothing could stop him from straying to parts unknown by himself, or with a male traveling companion; and, after his early years, he logged far more time in places like Afghanistan, Patagonia, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, West Africa, Nepal, and India than in the British Isles.

Chatwin was the male equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. People usually took to him at once, impressed with his looks, volubility and esoteric knowledge of faraway places and customs. Bruce seduced them, either literally or metaphorically. He would find a complaisant person and stay with them, sometimes for months at a time, while he commandeered their living quarters and set up to write books or articles.

I have read most of his books and loved every word of them. There was something new about them. Instead of any scholarly commitment to exactitude, he mixed fact and fiction into a new synthesis that somehow mirrored his evasions from workaday life.

These evasions also led to his death. Chatwin was perhaps the first famous Briton to die of AIDS. In between books, he lived the life of bathhouses and casual sex with multiple partners, befriending Robert Mapplethorpe in New York and a whole retinue of rent boys around the world. He would not admit that he had AIDS. His evasions on the subject were facilitated by the general lack of medical knowledge about the emerging global epidemic in the Eighties. He told people he had a rare Indonesian fungus, or some tropical parasite caused by his proximity to a dead whale, or something equally bizarre.

Whatever my feelings about the whole gay subculture, about which I am not the most tolerant of people, I cannot deny that Chatwin’s books, most particularly In Patagonia and The Songlines, are among the best written in the latter twentieth century. What do I care about divergences from literal truth?

There is a story about a patient going to a psychologist and telling him the details of his life.

“Hmm, that’s very interesting!” exclaimed the psychologist.

“Hah!” exclaimed the patient. “What would you say if everything I told you were a lie?”

“That’s even more interesting,” replied the psychologist.

That’s the way I feel about Chatwin’s work.

* * * * *


I have just finished reading Bruce Chatwin’s Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings 1969-1989. The two things that these essays added to my knowledge of Chatwin were, first, his “horreur du domicile,” his unwillingness to be tied down to any one place. (The phrase is from Baudelaire’s Journaux Intimes.)

Secondly, it is surprising to find in a former art specialist who worked for Sotheby’s in London such a dislike of people who are essentially collectors. This is from the last essay in the book, entitled “The Morality of Things”:

Such observable disparities turned people against art, particularly valuable art. The artists started it by creating unsaleable nothings. Now they have been joined by a chorus of critics, who once jumped on the art wagon and find it convenient to jump off. A famous New York critic declared the other day that, in his experience, people who are attracted to art are—it goes without saying—psychopaths, unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

Why psychopath? Because, in some opinions, the work of art is a source of pleasure and power, the object of fetishistic adoration, which serves in a traumatised individual as a substitute for skin-to-skin contact with the mother, once denied, like the kisses of Proust’s mother, in early childhood. Art objects, leather gear, rubber goods, boots, frillies, or the vibrating saddle, all compensate for having lost ‘mama en chemise toute nue.’

If you would like to read my review of Anatomy of Restlessness on Goodreads.Com, you can find it by clicking here.