three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

A-Under the SunThe late British novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin published award-winning works including In Patagonia (1977) and On the Black Hill (1982). The letters assembled in Under the Sun were largely supplied by his widow, Elizabeth Chatwin, and were prepared for publication by acclaimed novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.

The Topic: Although his reputation has diminished in the 22 years since his death from AIDS (a reputation tarnished, in part, by lurid accounts of homosexual affairs abroad while his wife waited patiently at home), Bruce Chatwin remains an enigma. Detractors allege that his travel writing includes fictional characters and fabricated events, and Chatwin himself resented the labels assigned to his work. "The borderline between fiction and nonfiction is to my mind extremely arbitrary," he once confessed to an Australian journalist. This collection of his personal correspondence, combined with profuse editorial commentary, spans nearly four decades--from his youth in an English boarding school to his deathbed in the south of France--and provides a vivid backdrop to the compulsively restless author's itinerant, unusual life and work.
Viking. 560 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780670022465

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"It's all there: the headlong pace, the nimble precision with a dash of snobbery, the obsession with the minutiae of far places, the charm of a man who could turn on a dime to jaw-dropping lectures on scenes you'd never dreamed of. ... We can see Chatwin developing from a narcissistic know-it-all, who used his wife as a base of domesticity while pursuing a wholly separate sexual identity, to a kind of pilgrim--a husband, friend and exacting writer of great originality and ambition." David Mason

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the pleasures of a good book of letters is watching a voice develop and ripen over time, and Chatwin's does. It grows lovelier, grainier, more confident, more wicked." Dwight Garner

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The epistles themselves are of considerable interest, but the chief merit of this collection is its superbly informed editing and footnoting by his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, and Chatwin's widow, Elizabeth. This is one book where it would be a serious error not to read every editorial word, both for the notes' unique insights but, perhaps even more important, as an essential corrective to Chatwin's own flights of fancy and worse." Martin Rubin

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"This 500-page selection of the writer's letters provides not revelation but evasion; not features but a mask. ... If Shakespeare's voluminous notes fill the gaping factual holes in Chatwin's airy correspondence (call it a striptease without a body), Elizabeth's footnotes give us the emotional ground." Richard Eder

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Chatwin's reputation has suffered in recent years, as Shakespeare admits. And so this collection is, in part, a reclamation project--one that would have been better served, perhaps, if letters had been more selectively chosen to show the writer in top form, focusing on his travels and not so much on impressing others." Carl Rollyson

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There is also a huge amount of ephemera--terse postcards, itineraries, money matters--that could and should have been pruned. Like Saul Bellow: Letters, published last fall, Under the Sun reminds us that not everything written by an accomplished writer merits publication, and leaves one wishing that the editors had exercised more discrimination in making their selections." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

"The value in a collection of letters must lie in bringing us closer to the writer," argued the Boston Globe, and therein lay the critics' chief complaint: though Chatwin infuses these chatty epistles with his charm and sharp wit, he remains elusive. Without the editors' copious annotations, in fact, readers would be completely adrift in a sea of requests for clean shirts and money. Elizabeth's thinly veiled hostility and the book's unnecessary length also drew some critics' ire. However, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal did detect a progression along professional and personal lines--enough to enhance their understanding of him. Nevertheless, Under the Sun will probably only appeal to fans and those with an academic interest in Chatwin.

Supplementary Reading

In Patagonia | Bruce Chatwin (1977): Though its reliability would later be questioned, this "little masterpiece of travel, history, and adventure" (New York Times) chronicles Chatwin's perilous journey to--and six-month sojourn on--the southernmost tip of South America.

The Songlines | Bruce Chatwin (1986): While trekking through the Australian outback, Chatwin explores the culture and beliefs of the Aborigines and ponders what they imply about the nature of humankind.

Bruce Chatwin: A Biography | Nicholas Shakespeare (2000): Compellingly written and painstakingly researched, Shakespeare's detailed account is considered by many to be the definitive biography of this self-absorbed but charismatic and exceptionally talented writer.