Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

Morgen zal het al dertig jaar geleden zijn dat “de Engelse Boudewijn Büch” Bruce Chatwin is overleden. Ik las voor het eerst iets van hem in 2010 tijdens mijn derde vakantie in Tenerife, die – zoals gewoonlijk – weer een leesvakantie is geweest. In de jaren negentig (dus nog niet zo heel lang na zijn overlijden) werd hij mij aangeraden door een naamgenoot (van mij, niet van Chatwin), waar ik toen veel sympathie voor had en op wiens oordeel ik dus gerust wou afgaan. Helaas ondervond ik enige tijd later dat deze persoon me op professioneel vlak een dolk in de rug had geplant en daarom bleven ook de boeken van Chatwin in de kast (ik heb toch nog massa’s andere boeken die ik moet lezen). Maar nu achtte ik de tijd rijp en dus ben ik begonnen in “On the Black Hill”, zij het dat ik het heb gelezen in een vertaling van Peter van Oers (“De zwarte heuvel”, Ooievaarpockets, 4de druk, 1994). Trouwe lezers kennen het systeem al: voor de biografische gegevens wend ik me tot Wikipedia. Deze keer opteerde ik voor de Engelse versie, ook al is die m.i. een beetje te gedetailleerd (ik heb m.a.w. een en ander weggelaten), omdat de Nederlandse dan weer een te beknopte (en niet zo heel goede) vertaling van dit origineel was.

Charles Bruce Chatwin was born 13 May 1940 in Sheffield, where his first home was situated. This was his grandparents’ house, as his mother, Margharita (née Turnell), had moved back to her parents’ home when Chatwin’s father, Charles Chatwin, went away to serve with the Royal Naval Reserve.
Chatwin went living with his parents again in Birmingham, where his father had a law practice. After leaving Marlborough College in 1958, Chatwin reluctantly moved to London to work as a porter in the Works of Art department at the auction house Sotheby’s. Thanks to his sharp visual acuity, he quickly became Sotheby’s expert on Impressionist art. He later became a director of the company.
In late 1964 he began to suffer from problems with his sight, which he attributed to the close analysis of artwork entailed by his job. He consulted eye specialist Patrick Trevor-Roper, who diagnosed a latent squint and recommended that Chatwin take a six-month break from his work at Sotheby’s. Trevor-Roper had been involved in the design of an eye hospital in Addis Ababa and suggested Chatwin visit east Africa. In February 1965, Chatwin left for the Sudan.
Much to the surprise of many of his friends, Chatwin married Elizabeth Chanler on 26 August 1965. He had met Chanler at Sotheby’s, where she worked as a secretary. Chatwin was bisexual throughout his married life, a circumstance his wife knew and accepted.
On his return, Chatwin quickly became disenchanted with the art world, and turned his interest to archaeology. He resigned from his job at Sotheby’s in the early summer of 1966 and enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study archaeology. Despite winning the Wardrop Prize for the best first year’s work, he found the rigour of academic archaeology tiresome. He spent only two years in the city and left without taking a degree.
In 1972, Chatwin was hired by the Sunday Times Magazine as an adviser on art and architecture. His association with the magazine cultivated his narrative skills. Chatwin travelled on many international assignments, writing on such subjects as Algerian migrant workers and the Great Wall of China, and interviewing such diverse people as André Malraux in France, and the poet Nadezhda Mandelstam in in the Soviet Union. When Chatwin interviewed the 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon, where he noticed a map of the area of South America called Patagonia, which she had painted. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” Bruce told her. “So have I,” she replied, “go there for me.”
Two years later in November 1974, Chatwin flew out to Lima in Peru, and reached Patagonia a month later. He spent six months in the area, a trip which resulted in the book “In Patagonia” (1977). This work established his reputation as a travel writer. Later, however, residents in the region contradicted the account of events depicted in Chatwin’s book. It was the first, but not the last time in his career, that conversations and characters which Chatwin presented as fact were alleged to have been fictionalised. Frequently, the people he wrote about recognised themselves and did not always appreciate his distortions of their culture and behaviour. In the same way as his Dutch counterpart Boudewijn Büch, Chatwin was philosophical about what he saw as an unavoidable dilemma, arguing that his portrayals were not intended to be faithful representations. As his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare argues: “He tells not a half truth, but a truth and a half.”
Around 1980, after fifteen years of marriage, his wife asked for a separation. According Nicholas Shakespeare, the Chatwins’ marriage seems to have been celibate. He describes Chatwin as homosexual rather than bisexual. About the same time Chatwin contracted HIV. Chatwin told different stories about how he contracted the virus, such as that he was gang-raped in Dahomey or that he believed he caught the disease from Sam Wagstaff, the patron and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He was one of the first high-profile people in Britain to have the disease. Although he hid the illness – passing off his symptoms as fungal infections or the effects of the bite of a Chinese bat, a typically exotic cover story – it was a poorly kept secret.
Chatwin was known as a socialite in addition to being a recognised travel author. His circle of friends extended far and wide. He was renowned for accepting hospitality and patronage from a powerful set of friends and allies. Penelope Betjeman – wife of the poet laureate John Betjeman – showed him the border country of Wales. She helped contribute to the gestation of the book that would become “On the Black Hill” (1982). Tom Maschler, the publisher, was also a patron to Chatwin during this time, lending him his house in the area as a writing retreat. “On the Black Hill” focuses on the relationship between twin brothers, Lewis and Benjamin, who grow up isolated from the course of twentieth century history. Althans, zo formuleert men het op Wikipedia. Persoonlijk ben ik er niet van overtuigd dat het zo “isolated” is, integendeel, ik vind juist dat ze de diverse gebeurtenissen erg goed incorporeren, zoals de ontwikkeling van de luchtvaart b.v. en die verschrikkelijke Eerste Wereldoorlog, waaraan ze zich allebei – elk op zijn manier – weten te onttrekken, maar waardoor ze paria’s worden in de – inderdaad – afgelegen gemeenschap. De Tweede Wereldoorlog grijpt, gezien hun ondertussen gevorderde leeftijd, minder doorslaggevend in, maar toch is ook die aanwezig via een Amerikaans bataljon zwarten dat in de buurt wordt gekazerneerd en een Duitse krijgsgevangene die op hun erf wordt tewerkgesteld. Zelfs hippies en een haikoedichter komen later aan bod!
Dat anderzijds één van de tweeling (Benjamin met name) na een levensbedreigende ziekte vrouwelijke trekjes begint te vertonen is een merkwaardige stelling voor een ervaringsdeskundige! Al vlug wordt duidelijk dat Benjamin nooit zal huwen en hun moeder laat Lewis beloven dat ook hij niet zal huwen zolang Benjamin single blijft. Op een bepaald moment lijkt het allemaal toch nog in orde te komen als een excentriek kunstenaarspaar opduikt, waarbij Benjamin het uitstekend kan vinden met de man en Lewis met de vrouw. Maar wanneer deze laatste Lewis effectief ontmaagdt, leidt dit toch nog tot een zwaar conflict met Benjamin.
Chatwins vertelstijl is associatief. Daarmee bedoel ik dat hij vrij minutieus, in juxtapositie van belangrijke en minder belangrijke zaken, de dingen verhaalt, maar dat sommige details hem tot een sprong in de tijd kunnen verleiden, waardoor hij genoodzaakt is op zijn stappen terug te keren.
Over het algemeen kan ik akkoord gaan met de lovende woorden van een aantal collega’s (w.o. Salman Rushdie) over zijn vertelstijl, maar één ding is me niet helemaal duidelijk, namelijk wat Chatwin nou precies ertoe aanzette om dit verhaal te vertellen. Of met andere woorden, waar hij met zijn verhaal precies naartoe wil. Of het zou moeten zijn dat Rudi Wester van het dagblad Trouw gelijk heeft en dat hij in de tweeling zijn eigen gespletenheid heeft willen weergeven. Het leest hoe dan ook vlot weg, dat wel.
Later works included a novel based on the slave trade, “The Viceroy of Ouidah”, which he researched with extended stays in Benin, West Africa. For “The Songlines” (1987), a non-fiction work, Chatwin went to Australia. He studied the culture to express how the songs of the Aborigines are a cross between a creation myth, an atlas and the long nomadic past of humans. German filmmaker Werner Herzog was working there on his film, “Where the Green Ants Dream”. Finding out that Chatwin was in Australia, Herzog sought him out. Herzog states that Chatwin professed his admiration for him, and when they met was carrying one of Herzog’s books, “On Walking In Ice”. The two hit it off immediately, united by a shared love of adventure and telling tall tales. Herzog also claims that when Chatwin was near death, he gave Herzog his leather rucksack and said: “You’re the one who has to wear it now, you’re the one who’s walking.”
“Utz” (1988), Chatwin’s last book, was a novel about the obsession which leads people to collect (once again just like Dutchman Boudewijn Büch). Set in Prague, the novel details the life and death of Kaspar Utz, a man obsessed with the collection of Meissen porcelain. Chatwin was working on a number of new ideas for future novels at the time of his death in 1989, including a trans-continental epic, provisionally titled “Lydia Livingstone”.
He did not respond well to AZT and suffered increasing bouts of psychosis. With his condition deteriorating rapidly, Chatwin and his reconciled wife went to live in the South of France at the house belonging to Shirley Conran, the mother of his one-time lover, Jasper Conran. There, during his final months, Chatwin was nursed by both his wife and Shirley Conran. He died in Nice on 18 January 1989 at age 48.
A memorial service was held in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia in West London. It happened to be the same day (14 February) that a fatwa was announced on Salman Rushdie, a close friend of Chatwin’s who attended the service. Paul Theroux, a one-time friend who also attended the service, later commented on it and Chatwin in a piece for Granta. He condemned Chatwin for failing to acknowledge he was dying of AIDS. The novelist Martin Amis described the memorial service in his essay “Salman Rushdie”, included in the anthology “Visiting Mrs Nabokov”.
Chatwin’s ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli in the Peloponnese. This was close to the home of another one of his mentors, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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De Provence, reisverhalen

06 brantes“Er zijn in de wereld slechts twee aardse paradijzen: de leeszaal van het British Museum en… de Provence,” aldus de Britse schrijver Ford Madox Ford, die lange tijd in de Provence verbleef en dankzij zijn vader Francis Hueffer (F.M.F. is een pseudoniem) zelfs een mondje Provençaals sprak en toegelaten werd tot de Félibrige, het genootschap ter verdediging van deze taal, dat door de dichter Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914) in 1854 was gesticht. Maar niet enkel vader en zoon Hueffer waren weg van de Provence, tal van schrijvers getuigen hieronder over hun liefde voor de enige aards paradijs (buiten het British Museum dus)…
Lees verder “De Provence, reisverhalen”