The fake with the pert rump

Voyages and Visions - Bruce Chatwin
June 4, 1999

Nigel Barley explains exactly why he dislikes the late Bruce Chatwin.

Everyone tells us we should love Bruce Chatwin. His fans tell us. His friends tell us. Now Nicholas Shakespeare, in 600 thumping pages, tells us. So I feel guilty about disliking him as much as I do. It is not really the books. Chatwin could write a solid sentence. It is him. All that self-love, arrogance, affectation, the whipped-up feeling for things - a mix of Jay Gatsby and Princess Diana with a designer rucksack.

Possibly this is no more than the sour grapes of one sadly deficient in the vaunted good looks and public-school charm that Chatwin so stridently claimed for himself, but since I never met the man, this him must be that of the narrator, the self-crafted voice that emerges through the books. I always half-hoped there would be the same enormous disparity between author and person that one finds in the case of Evelyn Waugh - only reversed - so that Chatwin, the person, would be altogether of a finer timber than Chatwin, the author.

Shakespeare's biography demonstrates irreproachably that this is just not so. Indeed, his chief difficulty in this otherwise elegantly impeccable work is the initial presumption that, despite the facts he assembles, Chatwin must be seen as a redeemed creature. People who actually met him seem to have been, in every sense, seduced, but the cold data as assembled by Shakespeare, counsel for the defence, seem quite damning.

It is a very big book to act as the tailpiece for such a slim oeuvre. Had Shakespeare - the other one - lived to be a manic octogenarian there would have been generous space here to cover his doings, but then Shakespeare - this one - does take us back, quite literally, to the Domesday Book in an effort to trace Chatwin to his roots. And this is only part of a Chatwin spin-off yet to come. The archive of private papers is gravely deposited at the Bodleian Library, no less, and still inaccessible. Here is a Gulliver's world of wild disproportion, enormously overstating the importance of Chatwin even within the teacup of travel writing. We are privileged to be present at the birth of a myth.

Shakespeare is a meticulous and thoroughly agreeable biographer with an eye for the bon mot and the telling anecdote, though somewhat burdened by a wearying Chatwinesque need to make simply everything quite desperately colourful. His constant and despairing task is to try to untangle real events from Chatwin's constant preposterous reinvention, and so it is with a strong leavening of dull factuality that he leads us from the youthful encounter with the family Wunderkammer , kindling to the fire of Chatwin's imagination, and through an undistinguished public-school childhood.

The pace picks up when Chatwin arrives in the flamboyant world of the art auction house, where his fake connoisseurship and pert rump are rewarded with swift and effortless success. Any contemporary biographer is held to have fallen down on the job unless he details the sexual life of his subject and Chatwin, hesitantly then self-declaredly, always itchily, omnifutuant, offers rich material that finally becomes simply a list and threatens to dominate the book. "He's out to seduce everybody, it doesn't matter whether you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy," says a friend.

Necessarily, Shakespeare seeks to make Chatwin's sexuality a complex thing and a great key to Chatwin's role as voyeur, ie writer, yet the secret of his generous sexuality seems, paradoxically, to have been its extreme selfishness and shallowness, a sort of nomadic exploitativeness. Typically, the truth was a mere canvas to be embroidered so that sexually, as elsewhere, Chatwin was all mouth and quite a lot of trousers - as when he "saved" the Somerset Maugham impressionist sale for Sotheby's by allowing the old man a little judicious fumbling, a humiliating incident that Shakespeare uses to drive Chatwin to both fiction and action.

Sharp dealing led to travel, stress and sexual doubt. There followed hysterical hypochondria ("If he described to you a minor epileptic fit and a discharge from his nose, it took some time to realise he was in fact only describing a sneeze"), a typically melodramatic self-discovery in the desert and a flight into marriage and archaeology. In view of the unashamed daftness of Chatwin's later views on nomadism, Evil and Man with a capital M, what surprises is not that he failed to stay the four-year archaeology course but that he had any formal training at all. The Chatwin of this period was clearly a pain to the world, feckless, faithless and footloose, billeting himself unannounced on reluctant hosts like a royal visitor.

In 1972 he became what would now be called a "luvvie" on The Sunday Times (as A. A. Gill was then known) but the pattern was already established and pique at the non-acknowledgement of his genius was followed inevitably by flight, this time to Argentina. What was new is that a published work, In Patagonia , finally came out of all this tumult and Shakespeare is at his best tracking down the sources of what remains a fine book.

Such nitpicking untangling of life and art is the very stuff of this sort of biography and - given that it is worth doing at all - Shakespeare does it very well and with a remorseless eye for detail. He has not spared himself in burrowing into archives or soliciting interviews with the hostile and aggrieved. The muted sources of Chatwin's work finally have their voices restored here. Yet even Shakespeare conveys a sense of having to work very hard to transform the arrogance, snobbery and rampaging promiscuity of the newly lionised Chatwin into endearing aspects of personal charm. The man-and-works theme tracks Chatwin, always in search of someone new to impersonate, through the brittle Viceroy of Ouidah , the uneven On the Black Hill , the romanticising Songlines and the frankly tedious Utz . One is astonished, first, that Chatwin had so much time to write letters and, second, that recipients kept them for so long.

Writers tend to be best remembered for their worst book and that is probably Songlines in Chatwin's case. Apart from the stirring, fictionalised descriptions of the outback, its chief virtue was to teach anthropologists how infuriating it is to have one's own sacred lore appropriated and traduced, and its bluffing, fake omniscience and heroic tone gall ethnographers precisely because they are the authentic voice in which ethnography normally presents itself. Before he even finished the book, Chatwin learned that he had the infection that would kill him but - again typically - he recast it not as HIV but a rare Chinese fungus caught either from a mysterious bat cave or the ingestion of a slice of raw Cantonese whale. Shakespeare's account of his death, where he became a caricature of his own Utz character - rampaging in wheelchair through dealers' shops buying up absurd objects he could not pay for - is a devastating piece of writing.

The outstanding mystery of this biography remains that extraordinary love that Chatwin could inspire in people, met even fleetingly, despite his obvious faults. Clearly this includes Shakespeare himself. Chatwin had the power to transform other people's lives. Unfortunately, like the royal touch, it does not work second hand and those who declare it seem less the repositories of a secret wisdom than simply beguiled.

Magical touch plays a recurring role in Voyages and Visions in the context of pilgrimage and saintly relics, and it is typical of the themes of belief, experience and knowledge that are raised between its covers. This series of essays seeks to trace a cultural history of travel writing from the 16th century up to the present and casts its net very wide indeed. We have South America, Italy, the Orient, Mexico, the Himalayas and interstellar space, room enough one might have thought for a single work. Yet rather than narrow it down, the editors, Jaś Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés, immediately launch into a somewhat self-indulgently wordy introduction that ranges in time from the Ancients to the PoMo present.

A discussion of Richard Burton's alternately technologico-imperialistic-Romantic gaze while looking at the hajar-al-aswad in Mecca is taken as central to the charting of the self-definitional stance of the modern (western) world. Burton was incapable of simply yielding himself up to the pilgrim's spiritual fulfilment, yet, despite his belief in progress, anticipated the sense of disappointment and futility that is inherent in modern travel writing. These become key terms as the editors trace travel as pilgrimage through classical and Christian sacred geographies, supplemented by travel as quest and crusade in the Middle Ages and finally as ethnography in the modern period. But quest and pilgrimage as Romantic vision and educational travel live on today and cross-cut the individual contributions. A brief summary will show something of the the scope of the compilation.

Jesús Carillo offers us a comparison of Petrarch's famous account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux (1336) and Oviedo's (1478-1557) of the volcanic Masaya. The former shows a conflict between standard allegorical modes of interpreting such an ascent and a fundamentally modern subjectivity, while the latter is characterised by a replacement of Oviedo's previous stance of the futility of representation by accurate, "scientific" measurement as an instrument of official reporting.

Through a second examination of Oviedo and other Spanish colonial figures, Rubies turns the common idea of the exotic as a site for the marvellous into the colonial encounter as a site for the production of disappointment, since myths are never simply replaced by history but necessarily either refuted or confirmed. The New World led to a fundamental break between the marvellous and the divine while the link with the exotic survived.

Wes Williams examines the travelling Montaigne, not the smooth Renaissance man of the Essays , but the more inconsistent and relatively unknown scribbler of the Journal who obsessively measured his liquid input and output and the gallstones he voids. Examining three encounters in his journey, Williams analyses different justifications for travel invoked at the time and weaves them into a clever play on notions of discovery of self and other.

Peter Burke turns the Occidentalist Edward Said on his head and, studying clearly situated texts, explores the use made by François Bernier, the 17th-century philosopher, of his Asian travels and writings to distance himself, in every sense, from the conventional religious and political views of his own culture.

Melissa Calaresu deals with the "native point of view" in the reactions of Neapolitans to travel writers' attempts to characterise them as idle southerners, defined against a classical past and an enlightenment present and the ironic fact that their defence is conducted precisely in that language of enlightenment.

Michael Bravo examines "precision" and its apparent opposite, "curiosity", in establishing Europe's view of itself as explorer and its fetishisation in the work of James Rennell, the cartographer. Oddly, he does not examine the consequences of this as regards the mapping of the River Niger, possibly Rennell's most important contribution to knowledge.

Nigel Leask writes of the gendered travelogue of 19th-century Mexico, the interaction of semi-blind historian William Prescott and blinkered Fanny Caldaron de la Barca and their co-production of the "fakelore" ghost of Chapultepec in the form of the spirit of the ambivalent Doña Marina, Cortes's Aztec mistress.

Peter Hansen traces the relations of alpine and Sherpa guides and their patrons, showing their incorporation in different maps of class, empire and power through time as they confront the hazards of mountaineering in partnership.

Kasia Boddy examines the case for the imminent disappearance of travel and travel writing in the context of the American European trip and analyses the American experience of an already-familiar Europe.

To finish, Edward James boldly takes us into sci-fi as travelogue, pilgrimage and quest, showing different resolutions of the tensions between the problems of known physics and the demands of plot and the emergence of a consensus cosmogeny. This itself becomes an object against which other models of travel and universe-building can define themselves.

Voyages and Visions is a useful and welcome addition to the literature of travel, particularly helpful to the historically challenged who might wish to gain a broader comparative insight into changing discourses of travel over time.

There has clearly been a degree of knitting across the various authors who are diverse in interest and academic background. So, as a book, it remains admirably focused without being excessively strait-jacketed and there is plenty of room for differences of opinion and emphasis between different contributors. Quite a lot of the material presented here is new and the unskimped scholarly apparatus makes it a handy source book for anyone working in this area.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, department of ethnography, British Museum.

Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel

Editor - Jaś Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés
ISBN - 1 86189 020 6
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £16.95
Pages - 344

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