To describe Bruce Chatwin's life as bordering on the picaresque may seem unfair. However, he was a writer with a talent to invent himself as much as the characters in his novels.
A married bisexual and an early victim of HIV infection, Chatwin's chaotic personal life seems at times to cloud any attempt to provide a sober and solid assessment of his artistic achievements.
After a spell working at Southeby's, and failing to complete a BA degree at the University of Edinburgh, Chatwin found his true métier as a travel writer and later as an adviser on art and architecture with the
Sunday Times Magazine
which, in the early 1970s, enjoyed considerable prestige.
In 1974 Chatwin visited South America. Later he would claim that he simply sent a telegram to Francis Wyndham, his editor at the
, with the terse message, 'Have gone to Patagonia'. This, however, like so much in Chatwin's life, can be most kindly described as somewhat economical with the truth. What is not in dispute, however, is the outstanding success of
which firmly established him as a gifted travel writer.
In 1982 Chatwin published
On The Black Hill
in the wake of the critically acclaimed but poorly selling
The Viceroy of Ouidah
which later became the inspiration for Werner Herzog's film
On The Black Hill
is a bleak novel but at the same time an extremely approachable one. In it one quickly discovers what John Updike has perceptively described as Chatwin's "clipped, lapidary prose that compresses worlds into pages". Set in mid Wales but on the border with England, the novel explores the life and times of identical twin brothers who grow up on a farm and never leave home. As someone who lived for fifteen years in the area, I can vouch for the authenticity of Chatwin's remarkable depiction of place. That the farm in the novel is named 'The Vision' is ironic but not in a clear or obvious way. For in examining the lives of the twin brothers against the backdrop of the early years of the twentieth century, not least those encompassing the Great War, Chatwin manages to explore a wide variety of themes: the closeness of twins, sibling rivalry, sexual repression, religious fanaticism as well as the ongoing effects of social and economic change.
Chatwin's style echoes those of his literary heroes – Flaubert, Hemingway and Mandelstam – but he doesn't simply ape them but properly digests their respective virtues. It proved a winning formula as the novel won not only the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1982, but also the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award. In 1986 the novel was adapted for the stage and, a year later, reached a wider public as a feature film directed by Andrew Grieve starring the late Bob Peck.
There are many books worth reading. This certainly, I believe, should be on your list!