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.



Good Government

The Emperor Trajan (AD 53-117)

The Roman Emperors get a lot of bad press in the history books, thanks largely to such holders of the crown as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius (yes, he was not a nice guy after all), and Nero—not to mention some of the later occupants such as Commodus and Elagabalus. Still, there was a period of some eighty years when there was a sequence of five emperors who were actually outstanding both in terms of governance and as human beings.

Edward Gibbon’s 18th century The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with this paragraph:

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113)

Earlier this month, I finished reading the complete surviving letters of Pliny the Younger, who was selected by Trajan to be the governor of Bithynia-Pontus and who maintained a regular correspondence with the emperor. Here is a typical exchange:


The citizens of Prusa [modern day Bursa in Turkey], my lord, have public baths which are filthy and out of date, and they think it important to have a new building. In my view you can show favour to their request, for there will be money to finance it. In the first place, there are the sums which I have already begun to recover and to exact from private citizens, and secondly, amounts which they habitually expend on olive oil they are ready to contribute towards the building of the baths. In general, both the prestige of the town and the splendour of your reign make this demand.


If the construction of the new baths is not going to impose a burden on the resources of the Prusians, we can grant this request, so long as no levy is imposed on them for that purpose, and that they do not have fewer resources available for necessary expenditure in the future.

The whole of Book X of Pliny’s letters consists of numerous missives to the emperor, followed by the emperor’s responses. To me, this was the most interesting section in the letters, as it shows a correspondence between a competent and honest governor and a caring Roman emperor.



W. H. Auden’s “Good Angel”

Hannay, Lynton; Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923)

Extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the aftermath of World War II, Britain produced a bumper crop of great literary scholars and essayists. I have already written about F. L. Lucas (1894-1967). I am currently exploring the work of W. P. Ker, short for William Paton Ker. It was poet W. H. Auden who, in The Dyer’s Hand, penned this tribute to the Scottish scholar:

[w]hat good angel lured me into Blackwell’s [Oxford Bookstore] one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every age and tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.

I have been reading Volume I Ker’s Collected Essays, which one of the literature librarians at the Los Angeles Central Library entrusted me to take out, though it belongs to the Reference Collection. I read with interest until, suddenly, beginning with Page 109, I hate pay dirt. No doubt the name of Horace Walpole probably doesn’t mean much to most people, unless they suffered through the gothic The Castle of Otranto in college English. Instead, Ker concentrates on Walpole’s letters. Here he describes the country around Chamonix in the Alpes in a letter to his friend Paget Toynbee on September 18, 1739:

But the road, West, the road! winding round a prodigious mountain, and surrounded with others, all shagged with hanging woods, obscured with pines, or lost in clouds. Below, a torrent breaking through cliffs, and tumbling through fragments of rocks! Sheets of cascades forcing their silver speed down channeled precipices, and hastening into the roughened river at the bottom. Now and then and old footbridge, with a broken rail, a leaning cross, a cottage or the ruin of an hermitage. This sounds too bombastic and too romantic to one who has not seen it, too cold for one that has. If I could send you my letter post between two lovely tempests that echoed each other’s wrath, you might have some idea of this noble roaring scene, as you were reading it.

There are almost no collections of literary letters being written now, because there are no letters. There are scads of e-mails, tweets, text messages—few of which will be (or deserve to be) saved. Ker himself explains why such letters are valuable:

There is an interest in reading a series of letters like this which is not found even in personal memoirs. It may be a childish idea, but somehow in reading letters one seems to be nearer to the reality than in reading any other history. The phantoms of the past rise there less pale and shadowy than in common history, they come nearer to us, the colours deepen, the voices are more distinct. Letters like those of Cicero are not a record of the time; they are the life itself, the very accents of the time. He does not write any more to Atticus or to his brother: he writes to us: he tells us how Caesar came to stay with him, how they talked at dinner, how they spoke, Caesar spoke.

I wasted no time in buying Volume I of Horace Walpole’s collected letters (only 99 cents on Kindle). And I will, of course, finish reading Ker’s Collected Essays.

Ker’s Excellent The Dark Ages (1904)

This is not the first work of Ker’s that I have read. I own an old Mentor paperback edition of his The Dark Ages, and I have read portions of his Epic and Romance (1908), which is still available through Dover Publications.