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Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

In the last months of 1988, dying, Bruce Chatwin talked about the books he would never write. There was the history of healing called The Sons of Thunder. He had a tale of Irish kings in mind, an epic set in Russia, an Asian botany story (he didn't know the meaning of the word novel, he always said). And then, in January, 1989, when Chatwin died at 48, they were all gone. Unless you're Roberto Bolaño or Stieg Larsson, that's what happens: Death pretty much puts a period on a writer's published works.

Of course, it was the writing we readers missed, the lyrical learning, the precision of the prose. But more, too: Maybe we'd never met the man, but Chatwin was one of those writers whose absence, immediately, felt very personal. His friend Michael Ignatieff wrote about this at the time: "[T]e fabulous character he had fashioned for himself" was as endearing as his inimitable voice.

There was a flurry of books, in the 1990s, that sought to answer to the absence, Collected Journalisms, Selected Writings, Portraits of a Writer, none of which really did the job. It was good to get Nicholas Shakespeare's biography in 1999, full and frank, to guide us through the byways of Chatwin's rich and not-so-fully-frank life.

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This new collection of letters that Shakespeare and Chatwin's widow, Elizabeth, have compiled isn't as rewarding as that, but it is welcome as an addendum, with its own satisfactions, not the least of which is the confirmation of how funny and fresh, how exotic and exhilarating was the world that Chatwin saw.

We get, to start, Chatwin as a seven-year-old schoolboy writing home to report on a "lovely film" about [sic]"a train the came into the station every year at midnight and if anyone looked at it they wold die." Shakespeare's introduction ticks off a long list of friends and lovers whose letters aren't here. The correspondents who are include Paul Theroux, Murray Bail, Gerald Brenan and Susan Sontag. Mostly, there are letters to Elizabeth, who, by the end, in Chatwin's final weakness, was having to pen his letters for him. The last one included here went out from France two weeks before he died: "It's wonderfully warm and sunny & certainly improves one's mood."

This is the part of the review where I decry the downfall of letter writers while wagging a finger at all the heedless e-mailers and wondering how we can go on without the insight and entertainment of future collections like this … although maybe that's too altogether dispiriting a conversation for now, and can we can postpone it at least until Vladimir Nabokov's letters to his wife, Vera, are published later this year? Chatwin might have hated e-mail, Elizabeth admits, though maybe he would have loved it; anyway, she sadly observes, there can't be many more books like this one still to come.

Restlessness was more than a literary theme for Chatwin; it was his whole life. In his books, he sought to puzzle out the why of French philosopher Blaise Pascal's proposition that all human unhappiness stems from our inability to remain quietly in a room. As a friend noted, Chatwin's own challenge, week to week, was where to be, and there was only ever one answer he could come up with: somewhere else.

Here, the pages are postmarked Kabul and Kardamyli, Punta Arenas, Wotton-under-Edge, Jodhpur, the Botswana Holiday Inn. He's an affectionate, newsy correspondent, and the pages teem with anecdotes and enthusiasms. There are also lots of writerly dodges and rages at fiendish, failing typewriters; many promises to write longer, later; guarded glimpses of books ("I'm writing something very odd," he reports of what will become The Songlines.)

In letters to Elizabeth, chequebooks feature prominently, and tradesmen linger at the margins ("The fireplace man is coming at 9.30 tom.") What's not here, where you'll need to go back to the biography for clarifying, as Shakespeare says in his introduction, "The business of love affairs is not prominent."

It was in 1986, having returned to England from India, that Chatwin fell ill. He was diagnosed at first with a rare fungus of the bone marrow - known only, as he told friends, in peasants in Western China and one beached Arabian killer whale, all now dead. What he didn't share was the other news that was in his hospital file: "Patient told he is seropositive, has pre-AIDS but true AIDS not yet certain." To paraphrase Shakespeare, "Chatwin would cling to that uncertainty."

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He could be a demanding friend, the evidence shows, and an impossible husband. But it's the devotion and the love and the gratitude he inspired that lingers on, none more heart-wrenchingly eloquent, perhaps, than a letter, quoted at length here, that Ignatieff wrote after he had visited his friend for the last time. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the doughty traveller and writer and soldier who died this month at 96, was another friend and Chatwin's frequent host in Greece. He's noted as having once described Chatwin as "very nice, tremendous know-all, reminds me of a couplet by O Goldsmith: 'And still they gazed and still the wonder grew/ That one small head could carry all he knew.' "

The wonder grew - that's it, I think. I went back, this month, to the Chatwin on my shelf, and reread his 1982 novel On the Black Hill. I was transfixed, again. To borrow from another admirer quoted in these letters, that's a book I adore so much, it's the same every time, I end up wondering whether there's any need for anyone to write another, ever. It's good to be remembering why, again.

Stephen Smith is a Toronto writer and critic.

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From a letter to Elizabeth Chatwin, Sept. 14, 1972

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So we went to San Francisco which is so unlike anything else in the US it doesn't really bear thinking about. it's utterly light-weight and sugary with no sense of purpose or depth. The people are overcome with an incurable frivolity whenever they set foot in it. This doesn't mean that one couldn't live here. In fact I think one could easily, preferably with something equally frivolous to do. I stayed with the Oppens [George Oppen, U.S. poet and wife Mary Colby]and they were lovely. … We went one night to the grand San Francisco poet Robert Duncan who is famous with the young for his grandiloquent and skillful outbursts on the Vietnam War. I on the other hand thought him one of the most unpleasant people I had ever met, with a waxen witch-like face, hair tied in a pigtail and a pair of ludicrous white sideburns. he gassed on and on in a flat monotone and it was impossible to decide if the tone was hysterical or dead pan. The house was a creep-crawly nightmare and betrayed la moralité des choses, all art nouveau of the worst kind. Bloodless fingers fingering the objects as he spoke, and suspect that if he weren't fingering art nouveau objects he could just as easily be pressing buttons or ordering napalm, so sinister and obsessed with the demonic alternative he was.

From Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

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