Bruce Chatwin: Under the Sun

Searing Letters From the Pioneering Journalist, Nomad and author of In Patagonia

As the late 20th century’s connoisseur of the enigmatic, traveler and writer Bruce Chatwin was his own most fabulous creation.  From remote outposts, he brought back extraordinary stories—of a Chinese geomancer, or a staged coup in Benin—to friends such as Salman Rushdie and Susan Sontag, who remembered Chatwin as the only person who would eat fried intestines and toe-nails with her in Chinatown. He was a man of contradictions, equally at home sipping tea with high-society ladies as he was on a ten-day camel trek across the African desert. His romantic life was equally polarized: though he had relationships with other men, Jasper Conran among them, he remained committed to his difficult marriage for his whole life. Born in 1940, Chatwin studied at Wiltshire boarding school Marlborough College (the alma mater of William Morris and John Betjeman), before joining Sotheby’s and becoming the expert on Impressionist and Modern Art and Antiquities. Disillusioned by “the world of boutiques and bitchery,” he made an aborted attempt to study archaeology at Edinburgh, before landing a job as a feature writer for The Sunday Times Magazine. In this capacity, Chatwin profiled everyone from couturier Madeleine Vionnet to Mrs. Ghandi, and so launched himself on the relentless criss-crossing of continents—from Africa to the Soviet Union—that would come to characterize his life. His first and most famous book, 1977’s In Patagonia, is an esoteric travelogue inspired by a six-month trip to the region, which innovatively blurred the boundaries between reportage and fiction. This was followed by a series of novels including The Viceroy of Ouidah, the story of a Brazilian slave-trader in Africa that inspired Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde. A fastidious dresser and torrential conversationalist, Chatwin was also an eager correspondent, and his collected letters, edited by his widow Elizabeth Chatwin alongside Nicholas Shakespeare, are published as Under the Sun by Jonathan Cape on September 2. Read some of our favorite excerpts here.  

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