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Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare
17 reviews (2000) (672p)
ALA Notable Books - Nonfiction Finalist

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Book Description
Award-winning novelist Nicholas Shakespeare has written the definitive biography of one of the most influential literary figures of our time: Bruce Chatwin, whose works' strangely compelling combination of research, first-hand experience, myth, and mystification may have been the real substance of his seemingly contradictory life.

Chatwin's first book, In Patagonia, became an international bestseller, revived the art of travel writing, and inspired a generation to set out in search of adventure. Chatwin became a celebrity, while remaining a conundrum. With little formal education, he had become a director of Sotheby's. An avid collector, he eschewed material things and revered the nomadic life. Married for twenty-three years, he had male lovers throughout the world. And only at his death did his personal myth fail him. Nicholas Shakespeare, who was given unrestricted access to his papers, spent eight years retracing Chatwin's steps and interviewing the people who knew him. The result is a biography that is at once sympathetic and revelatory. Review
Bruce Chatwin was the golden child of contemporary English letters. Paradoxically, however, his books appeared relatively late in his life: until 1977, when the 37-year-old author published In Patagonia, this precocious, intense figure had occupied himself as an art specialist at Sotheby's, a journalist with the Sunday Times, an archaeologist, and a restless, perennial traveler. Once he got started, of course, Chatwin made up for lost time. By 1989, when he died of an AIDS-related illness, he had produced seven books--including two superb novels and his sui generis masterpiece, The Songlines--and won himself a worldwide audience.

As Nicholas Shakespeare makes clear in Bruce Chatwin, his subject remained an obsessive art collector long after he left Sotheby's. He was no less assiduous when it came to the acquisition of human trophies, taking both male and female lovers throughout the course of his marriage. Many a wife might have resented these magpie impulses--and indeed, Elizabeth Chatwin and her errant spouse endured some rocky times. Yet she remained touchingly loyal to him, and it was her cooperation and tenacity that enabled this biography to come about. Shakespeare captures the author's peculiar charisma and his tendency to transform everything--friendships, landscapes, meals, journeys--into aesthetic artifacts. Even when Chatwin experiences a writer's block while working on The Viceroy of Ouidah, he does it with style:

To try to finish the book, Bruce rented a house in Ronda for five months: "an exquisite neo-Classical pavilion restored by an Argentinean architect who has run out of money." He wrote in longhand on 20 yellow legal pads, refilling his Mont Blanc from two bottles of Asprey's brown ink.
There is excellent, evocative writing throughout Shakespeare's biography. The passages describing Chatwin's miserable death are both harrowing and deeply moving, but Shakespeare is no less adept at conveying, say, his subject's disappointment at failing to win the Booker Prize for Utz. (Chatwin cheered up considerably when a friend told him that Alberto Moravia had given the book a glowing thumbs-up in an Italian newspaper.) What comes across most, perhaps, in this immense and excellent life, is the complete aloneness of the man, an almost impenetrable solitude. Australian poet Les Murray may have had the last word when he noted: "He was lonely and he wanted to be. He had those blue, implacable eyes that said: 'I will reject you, I will forget you, because neither you nor any other human being can give me what I want.'" --Catherine Taylor

Nicholas Shakespeare Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award


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