Bruce Chatwin reports that, like most children, he was captivated by the notion that if you dig deep enough, straight down, you’ll emerge in China—or, in the version he learned in his English childhood, Australia. The initial fascination of this fanciful story is, of course, a question of physics (how do those upside-down nations stay glued to the earth’s surface?), but for Chatwin that fascination eventually became the scaffolding of an entire aesthetic; he was our great storyteller of the antipodes, the bard of the other end of the earth.
His major travel books, In Patagonia and The Songlines, were only the most literal manifestations of his proclivity for the antithetical, the as-far-away-as-possible (the first is a meditation on the nethermost tip of South America, the second the account of a trip through the interior of Australia). But Chatwin’s fancy for the contrapuntal went deeper than geography; it was also a matter of style and a sort of moral code. Thus, in his powerful novel On the Black Hill, this restless traveler told the tale of two brothers who live out their long lives within a 10-mile radius in rural Wales; in Utz, his last novel, this self-styled ascetic wrote with an insider’s knowledge about an art collector’s hunger for possession. Chatwin made a career out of playing both ends against a nonexistent middle; he plucked a string on one side of the conceptual globe, and it resonated on precisely the other.
The most perfect creation to emerge from this cat’s cradle of tightly pulled wires was undoubtedly Chatwin’s own literary persona. Among his fans, Chatwin has inspired a devotion usually reserved for more self-promoting figures. In fact, few authors in recent memory have remained so unassuming, so reticent—so absent—in their own work. The typical Chatwin travel book is a collection of other people talking: other people’s stories, and other people’s passions. In a genre that has frequently been criticized as arrogant and imperially expansive, Chatwin forged a style of scrupulous self-excision.
And yet it’s impossible to forget he’s there. A consciousness of Chatwin’s presence, his watching eye, is always inseparable from his most powerful pieces. This delicate trick of self-positioning made Chatwin himself the secret center of his work. Every one of his character sketches is really a drama between a speaker and a listener, and that unstated interaction lent his work its urgency. In Chatwin, the third person becomes a supremely supple register, by turns compassionate, ironic, even erotic. Describing him, people summon a contradictory assortment of adjectives: spare and hard, yes, but also, somehow, warm and intensely seductive. It is surprising but somehow just right to learn that his friend Salman Rushdie once described this terse, decorous writer as a “magnificent raconteur of Scheherazadean inexhaustibility” and a “giggler of international class.”
Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings: 1969-1989 is an odd and in places disappointing book. In large part this is the result of Chatwin’s tragically short life (he died in 1989, at 49); he may simply not have left enough material to fill another book as consistently dazzling as What Am I Doing Here, the collection he assembled just before his death. In comparison, Anatomy is something of a grab bag: a few brief personal sketches, four short stories, bits of Chatwin’s unpublished (unpublishable, he believed) manuscript on nomadism, a handful of book reviews. But Jan Borm and Matthew Graves, the editors, have thought deeply about Chatwin’s work, and their book eventually reveals itself as a sort of Rosetta Stone to his entire career.
The volume opens with four of Chatwin’s very scarce autobiographical sketches, collected under the title “Horreur du Domicile” (the phrase is Baudelaire’s name for wanderlust, and it was a favorite of Chatwin’s). The first piece, a recollection of his early years titled “I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia,” manages, in a few pages, to set spinning the constellation of concerns that defined Chatwin’s career: distance and detail, renunciation and indulgence. And like any good myth of origin, it is fantastically improbable.
Aimless and 16 years old, Chatwin tells us, he landed a job at Sotheby’s, where his passion for fine objects quickly transformed him into an art-world boy-wonder: “I was an instant expert, flying here and there to pronounce, with unbelievable arrogance, on the value or authenticity of works of art.” But Chatwin soon ended his own brilliant career through what looks now like an act of psychosomatic sabotage: After being praised endlessly for his impeccable “eye,” he woke up one morning half blind. An ophthalmologist suggested that he was spending too much time peering at finely wrought designs and recommended some broad horizons. So, Chatwin relates, deliciously deadpan, “I went to the Sudan”—and saw again.
Even in these openly autobiographical pieces, Chatwin plants self-revelation firmly between the lines. “A Place to Hang Your Hat,” a meditation on the rooms Chatwin lived in, opens with a quiet but unmistakable drama: “Sometime in 1944, my mother and I went by train to see my father aboard his ship, the Cynthia, a US minesweeper which had been lent to the British and had docked in Cardiff Harbor for a refit. He was the captain. I was four years old.” The prose masquerades as plain and businesslike—but this is a scene of wonder, and it speaks volumes about the nature of filial devotion. In the juxtaposition of those last two sentences Chatwin captures perfectly the utter, hopeless glamour of the parent-child romance.
It’s the kind of quiet writing that encourages overinterpretation, a willful self-imposition by the reader. As the book reviews collected here demonstrate, this was exactly the type of reading Chatwin himself reveled in. The reviews offer insight into Chatwin’s own stylistic values—”He is not,” Chatwin approvingly notes of one writer, “the confessional type”—but, more interestingly, they demonstrate that Chatwin imbued the reader’s role with a sort of poetic license. A review of a 1974 biography of Robert Louis Stevenson begins as a rumination on the gloom of Edinburgh and ends making wildly presumptuous speculations about Stevenson’s sexual hang-ups. In a piece on a 1976 political history of Patagonia, Chatwin abandons the review format altogether and introduces a gallery of Patagonians he knows to tell their stories.
The section titled “The Nomadic Alternatives” makes for the weirdest reading. Borm and Graves have compiled parts of Chatwin’s nomad manuscript, a letter he wrote to his editor, and a short Vogue piece on the topic. The section contains Chatwin’s most explicit statement of his idiosyncratic worldview: his belief that human history has been a long battle between wandering (nomadism) and settling down (civilization). He comes down strongly on the side of the more open-ended, tolerant ethos of the former. “Civilization was lashed into place,” he writes apropos of the slaves who built the Egyptian pyramids. “We inherit that load.”
The argument proceeds by means of a few grand claims and a riot of minute historical detail. There’s something a little unseemly about Chatwin’s enthusiasm, and occasionally he comes off like a fanatic peddling doomsday pamphlets. But as the examples proliferate, Chatwin’s Weltanschauung begins to take on an unlikely coherence. If he sounds in places as if his life depends on this theory, it’s because in a sense it did: He clearly identified passionately with the “nomadic alternative,” and it seems to have informed his every gesture, down to his refusal to turn his narrative powers fully to a depiction of his own life. When he relates that nomad societies detest any art object depicting the human image, a final puzzle-piece seems to fall quietly into place.
The nomad pieces lend an eerie theoretical roundness to Chatwin’s career, but it is the fiction that shows him at his best. There are only four short stories in Anatomy of Restlessness, and three of them rank with his most powerful work. “Bedouins” is a harrowing parable of home and exile, and “The Attractions of France” deftly turns Heart of Darkness inside out by contrasting African sophistication with European brutishness in eight densely suggestive pages. In “The Estate of Maximilian Tod,” Chatwin performs his most darkly ironic self-disclosure, inventing a narrator who is a sort of skewed, sinister version of himself. “I believe,” Chatwin/Tod confides, “that a man is the sum of his things, even if a few fortunate men are the sum of an absence of things.” Because he made such a rich commodity of his own absence, Chatwin’s good fortune is also ours.CP