Wish You Were Here...

Bruce Chatwin on Waltzing, Writing and Entrails

This place,” Bruce Chatwin wrote from Douala, “is something between Lausanne and a Turkish bath.”  Such cross-breed territory Chatwin made his own, via his wild, wanderlust-filled travel memoir In Patagonia and novels including On the Black Hill and Songlines. His letters, published this month by Jonathan Cape as Under the Sun, edited by Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth, reveal how his books are animated by his insatiable taste for the unusual and sublime. But they also show the compromises of constant traveling. Always hankering for elsewhere, returning to England made Chatwin ill (“Catarrh started on the Pas-de-Calais”) and Kabul provoked longings for Italy and France. Exhilarated in the company of illustrious friends, he could tire of their pretensions.  And while he lusted after exquisite possessions, his footloose existence necessitated flogging the odd jade-handled dagger to keep finances afloat.  Here we offer a taster of Chatwin’s dazzling prose, in the form of five excerpts from Under the Sun, which collects letters from his schoolboy days up until his death in 1989.

To Elizabeth Chatwin, Béke Étterem, Hungary, August 1967

The dining room of the Béke Étterem is a long corridor with barely room for three rows of tables… In between the Gentlemen’s which smells horribly and the Ladies which smells less is the orchestra, three violins, a double bass and a xylophone… I have never known an orchestra with a greater capacity to shock. We have been running through Lehar Waltzes, and whenever we hit a high note it is like crossing a humpback bridge, never fails to hit the wrong note… The noise is quite deafening. Thieving Magpie, drab potbellied gentlemen with their shirt tails flapping… Sweaty fingers. Dark rings around their eyes.  

To James Ivory [of Merchant Ivory Productions], Mauretania, 1971

I have hardly earned a penny for the past four years, though I manage to survive somehow – a mixture of meanness and cunning, but nothing more. The bright star on the horizon financially is that I have a feather cape from Peru bought for 300 bucks in 1966 in NY. Yesterday the phone rang from a friend asking whether I would accept $22,000 for it. You bet I bloody well would. The deal has yet to go through, but God… just one further proof of the lunacy of the times.

To Francis Wyndham, Lima, Peru, 1974

I have done what I threatened. I suddenly got fed up with N.Y. and ran away to South America… I intend to spend Christmas in the middle of Patagonia… I’m working on something that could be marvelous, but I’ll have to do it in my own way.

To Paul Theroux, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1981

Your name, bandied about the breakfast table at this colony of insecure and initiated writers and artists, prompts me to send a card to say hello. V strange. A lot of lady artists – vaginal iconography in sand and acrylic. That kind of thing.

To Susan Sontag, London, England, 1982

…I loved our dinner of entrails, and hope for a repeat.


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