"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday 18 November 2010

Chatwin Under the Sun

The publication of Bruce Chatwin's letters, Under the Sun, edited by his wife Elizabeth Chatwin and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, has led to the usual assertions about (a) his being the most wonderful, magical being that ever wrote in the late 20th century or (b) his being a precious pain in the neck.  The letters, which are well-edited, giving helpful linking passages and crisply informative (and often, in Elizabeth's case, sharply funny) footnotes, build up to a picture of Chatwin, that once again emphasises his originality and interest.  Yes, he can seem precious, especially when talking about his art collection, his writing materials, even his rucksack (hand made to his instructions by a Cirencester saddler) but people sometimes forget that his first job after leaving school was to work for the auction house Sotheby's where his job involved writing copious and detailed descriptions of rare and beautiful objects.  You and I can get away with saying "that green marble thingummy" but Chatwin was trained to do the exact opposite of this vague approximation and was at home with dates, attributions, provenance, materials etc.

It is possible to quote some rather absurd passages, but usually Elizabeth has got there first with a  wryly deflating footnote.  And there are some unexpected moments, such as his discomfort at emerging as "a writer" in the 1980s, a role, relished by his friend Salman Rushdie, but one that he hated.  He didn't want to be lionised, televised, invited to review books and so forth.  He just wanted to disappear and write his next book.  There are contradictions of course.  He was televised. He did court the rich and famous and his friends always seemed to have been utterly exceptional in his estimation, the dull and the pedestrian members of the population never seemingly coming to his attention.  But one day he had a group of writers around to lunch at his Oxfordshire home and found their noisy, shrill posturing unbearable: "a lot of egos sounding off, but we were able to open the windows so all the talk blew out over the sheep..."

And I can forgive him everything for writing: "With so many 'cooked-up' books knocking around, I don't really believe in writing unless one has to."

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