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Hide and seek

Thankfully flushed out and fleshed out by editors, Bruce Chatwin’s letters obscure more than reveal

Bruce Chatwin reveals few of the major struggles and failures of his life in his letters. Bruce Chatwin reveals few of the major struggles and failures of his life in his letters.
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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Through a blur of branches and creepers the pretty, faintly petulant features of Bruce Chatwin peer out. “See me hiding,’’ they announce, “but see me.’’

Rarely has a book-jacket photograph disclosed so cannily the nature of the contents. Had he not died 22 years ago, Chatwin, who in his books rarely failed to unearth a hidden astonishment or invent it so as to astonish all the more deeply, might almost have chosen it himself. This 500-page selection of the writer’s letters provides not revelation but evasion; not features but a mask. Except that evasion is heart’s blood; the mask, his countenance.

Here it is a weakness: The value in a collection of letters must lie in bringing us closer to the writer. Veils, however ornamented, grow tedious in any extended show. Paradoxically, though, the need for somewhere else to be his true home and someone else his true identity are what gives Chatwin’s gifts their distinctive character.

He was a vast explorer in a contracted world of package tours and identical airports. He went to places still remote and calling for strenuous, even dangerous effort. In “In Patagonia’’ and “The Songlines’’ (sometimes criticized for using myth to enhance their real encounters), and in a collection of shorter pieces that may be his best work, his precarious journeys sought out inhabitants who defied the odds by flaunting a style, an extremity, a passion, an art, out of all reason and seasons. Tweaking them, no doubt, he found anachronisms and free spirits who could tell us the world is still mysterious, unafraid, unbounded.

Chatwin’s zigzag life did indeed feed into his work. Apart from the writing, which he labored on in unflagging torment, he lived a pattern of starting out with a hilarious conviction worthy of Mr. Toad and then, Toad-like, walking away to some new revelation. This was true of much of his career: a meteoric rise as arts expert with Sotheby’s and sudden departure; studying archeology in Edinburgh and quitting after two years; triumphing as interviewer and writer of portraits for Britain’s Sunday Times Magazine and renouncing such journalistic endeavors. It was true of his continual discovery of ideal places to live and work — an Indian palace, an Oregon cabin, a posh London garret, a Provence chateau — and his quick disillusion with them. It was true of many though not all of his attachments.

“He would wear out people in certain places and then have to move on. Everything was absolute paradise etc. for about a month and then things were not quite what he wanted them to be.’’ Thus one of many chilly footnotes by his widow, Elizabeth, a co-editor of the letters.

The other editor, Nicholas Shakespeare, uses his long labors as Chatwin’s biographer to supply notes so extensive as to all but rival the letters in length and far surpass them in substance. Between the two, they tell what was happening beneath the evasions and masquerading; without their efforts the collection would be a colored drift of cloud.

Chatwin’s letters are a glittering dust storm of plans, changed plans, travel descriptions, sudden enthusiasms, financial quandaries, and correspondence with his publishers. There are grueling and quite unmasked accounts of his writing struggles. There is a steady warm correspondence with several lifelong friends; and quite a few letters of the making-nice variety with those he admired or courted. Only occasionally is there a hint at his homosexual liaisons, mainly set down as affectionate friendships.

Shakespeare’s notes cite these more specifically; and they reveal much that the letters keep silent. Only in the notes do we read of the rejection of his first book, a two-year effort at a study of nomads. It is Shakespeare who spells out the details of Chatwin’s long struggle with the AIDS that killed him; the letters insist that his illness is a fungus found only in Chinese peasants and a dead killer whale. (It was important to be rare.) And while Chatwin is writing his usual jaunty to-do lists to Elizabeth, who had left Edinburgh to work on their house in Gloucestershire, it is Shakespeare who quotes his relief at her absence.

Baron Munchausen mostly preferred his wife at a distance, though he depended on her in all kinds of ways: for errands, logistical support, and as someone in whom he could confide (only some things, and usually by letter). There was love of a sort, if only that of the child who runs away from home but wants to know supper will be there when he chooses to return. It was he who sought and won reconciliation after she, beyond exasperation, kicked him out.

And Mrs. Munchausen? 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. Tart, impatient, they present the bill for her husband’s extravagances. Yet they are not vindictive; on the contrary: Her insistence on the facts is in its way the most truly loving of services. She sees the man who is able to see himself only in the mirror. She tugs at the balloon which otherwise would drift off out of sight.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

UNDER THE SUN: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin Selected and Edited by Elizabeth

Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare

Viking, 554 pp., illustrated, $35