Tag Archives: Bruce Chatwin

Reading Chatwin, Gide, and Connolly

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

It makes sense that Bruce Chatwin and Werner Herzog were friends. Of course they were. According to Herzog, the two of them met in 1984 in Australia’s Northern Territory. Chatwin was doing research for the book that would become The Songlines and Herzog was working on his film Where Green Ants Dream. They spent two full days talking to each other. Chatwin on his deathbed supposedly gifted Herzog with the leather rucksack he’d used on so many of his travels. Parallels both of style and substance can be drawn between the two artists, but I suspect that Chatwin must have been the happier person. Curiosity in Herzog seems most of the time to serve his melancholy. Chatwin is no less curious, but more sanguine. In The Songlines Chatwin’s curiosity turns toward the roots of human language, early human evolution, and the origins and meaning of wanderlust. The book is in part a travelogue (though one should never take Chatwin’s reportage at face value) and in part an essay in speculative anthropology. Fascinating and great fun at the same time.


Lafcadio’s Adventures, André Gide

Diverting, satirical, but nothing very deep, despite the fact that it reminds me of a Dostoyevsky novel in some respects. I mean that it deals with questions of faith and corruption and the peculiar allure that some people feel for motiveless crime. But this is not Gide at his best and Lafcadio’s Adventures is only a cheap-shot, bitter-at-heart version of Dostoyevsky.


The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

Connolly made his name as a critic and so when he opens his book with the statement that “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence,” it serves both as a jab at fashionable contemporaries and an announcement of his intention to make his own “assault on perfection.” The book was written during WWII and is part journal, part commonplace book, and part philosophical essay. There are lengthy quotations from French authors which, unfortunately, I was usually unable to decipher without help, but Connolly’s own prose is engrossing, his ideas engaging. He was exorcising some personal demons here: his marriage was falling apart at the same time the world around him was falling apart, and the general sense of catastrophe is strong. The Unquiet Grave may not be quite the masterpiece Connolly hoped for, and I can’t endorse certain of his Freudian obsessions and conclusions. Nonetheless, the book is highly quotable, bright if only with a fractured light, and in the end it makes a powerful meditation on the significance of love and of art and of being human in a world that is often short on all three.

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Marginalia, no.353

There are two hotels in Djang: the Hotel Windsor and, across the street, the Hotel Anti-Windsor.

~ Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

The choice in this case is less clear than the choice my wife and I conceived on seeing one day that the retail space next to Super Donut was vacant. How could we fail to succeed, we thought, if we rented the spot and opened Super Duper Donut right next door? Who would settle for a merely super donut when he could have a super duper donut instead?

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Marginalia, no.54

I had in fact picked up a very rare fungus of the bone-marrow in China.

~ Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here

Every writer lies.  Better writers do so in order to reach oblique truths not directly attainable.  Chatwin lied for other reasons too.  In fact he had HIV.  He was blamed for not being more honest about it.  But for Chatwin the self was as much fiction as fact.  He lied to preserve his own narrative freedom and deny others the totemic biographical details by which they might reduce him to rigid caricature or draft him for crusades he never signed up to fight.

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