Bruce Chatwin
Creative Commons AttributionBruce Chatwin - Credit: segnaleorario - Flickr

Bruce Chatwin's arrival on the literary scene caused electric ripples. He effectively redefined the travel literature genre and made it fashionable once more.

Born in 1940 in Sheffield, his early career was inauspicious and eccentric. He worked as a porter at Sotheby's auction house, became an expert on Impressionist Art, rose to become its youngest director, but then had to take a leave of absence, suffering from a squint. Disillusioned with the art world he applied to study archaeology at Edinburgh University, but dropped out after two years. Eventually employed as a features writer at the Sunday Times, he resigned his position with a now legendary (though perhaps mythical) telegram to his editor: 'Have gone to Patagonia.'

The result of that trip was his debut book, In Patagonia, an unclassifiable magpie's nest of family memoir, travelogue, journalism, history and anthropology. Ostensibly a quest to discover the origin of a piece of so-called brontosaurus skin he had spied in his grandmother's cabinet, he was also encouraged by the nonagenarian designer Eileen Gray when he interviewed her in her Paris apartment. On her wall was a map of Patagonia, and Chatwin remarked that he had always wanted to go there. 'Go there for me,' was Gray's reply.

In Patagonia was awarded the Hawthornden Prize, and both Chatwin and the remote, barely-known region of South America he described instantly captured the public imagination. Its themes of exile and wandering became Chatwin leitmotifs and signalled the start of his belief in and investigations into Pascal's Theorem: that man is essentially nomadic and settled civilisation a mistake.

Not everyone was happy with In Patagonia, however.  Later, characters described within its pages would complain that Chatwin had fictionalised much of his account, a charge that continues to dog his reputation even after his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989. Chatwin addressed the criticism in a posthumously published essay in What Am I Doing Here? by claiming that 'the word "story" is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.'

It could be a moot point, for whilst Chatwin may have played hard and fast with the facts, his words, photographs and ideas dazzle throughout his books, the last four published posthumously, and he continues to inspire travellers and travel writers to this day.

             

         

A two-part documentary, In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, was broadcast by the BBC in 1999. It is currently unavailable.

Although there is no official author website, there is a good blog by a PhD student whose thesis, 'Anywhere Out In The World: Restlessness in the work of Bruce Chatwin,' is available to download.