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Remembering Bruce Chatwin

Gennaio 2010
“Bruce era troppe cose e una vita sola non poteva bastargli”. Così lo ricorda la moglie Elizabeth, madrina del ‘Premio Chatwin’, un incoraggiamento per tutti quei narratori che seguendo le sue orme esplorano a piedi le strade del mondo.

di Derek Allen

Bruce Chatwin (Corbis)
Bruce Chatwin (Corbis)
Elizabeth Chatwin
Elizabeth Chatwin

Twenty-one years ago, the literary world was shocked by the death of Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin, who was both a novelist and travel writer, was 48 years old. He had written several successful books, but his admirers felt that he would have produced many more.
Yet Bruce Chatwin’s memory lives on. His books continue to sell well and he enjoys “cult status” in many countries. He is particularly popular in Italy and the city of Genoa hosts an annual “Premio Chatwin” (Chatwin Prize). Here writings, photography and videos with a travel theme receive prizes from Bruce Chatwin’s American-born widow, Elizabeth. When she went to Genoa for the most recent edition, she talked to Speak Up about her husband and his legacy.


The couple first met at Sotheby’s, the famous London auction house, in the early 1960s. As Chatwin’s literary agent, Susannah Clapp, shows in her excellent book, With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, he did well at Sotheby’s. He had a “natural talent” and became the company expert in Impressionist art. His love of the antique world was apparent in his 1988 novel, Utz, which was about an eccentric Czechoslovakian porcelain collector. This book later became a film starring Armin Mueller-Stahl.


Bruce’s work at Sotheby’s did, however, have negative effects. Examining artwork was bad for his eyesight and a specialist doctor told him to take a break. So Bruce resigned from Sotheby’s. He started traveling and spent six months in the Sudan. He later studied Archaeology at Edinburgh University.
In the 1970s he began a new career as a journalist with The Sunday Times, specialising in art and architecture. After interviewing an elderly architect and seeing a beautiful painting of Patagonia on the wall of her apartment, he decided to go there. He resigned from The Sunday Times with a simple telegram: “Have gone to Patagonia.”


That journey was to produce his first book, In Patagonia, which was published in 1977. It was a great success and established him as a writer, but, as Elizabeth Chatwin admits, it’s difficult to describe In Patagonia as a “travel book,” as her husband often changed facts. This was also true of his other great “travel book,” Songlines (1987), a study of nomadism in general and the Australian aboriginals in particular. The book is written as a travelogue, but Elizabeth says it was based on two journeys: the second was an expenses-paid trip to the Adelaide literary festival, “which Bruce accepted, as he never had any money!” She confirms that he spent a few weeks traveling around the Australian outback with his good friend, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie isn’t mentioned in the book, and Elizabeth talks sympathetically about a German woman who tried to make a documentary about Bruce’s Australian travels: “But you can’t do that: it wasn’t a continual journey. He changes the names of people, he changes the names of places and this poor German was tearing her hair out!”


Bruce was an enigmatic figure. The cause of his death was a mystery: only later did it emerge that the reason was Aids. This was in the early days of the disease and people were still embarrassed about it.
1989 was certainly a dramatic year. The Ayatollah Khomeini (whose government ordered the fatwa on Salman Rushdie) died, Liverpool soccer fans were crushed to death, Chinese soldiers massacred students in Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall fell. In many ways Chatwin’s life – and death – was a bridge between the old and the new world.

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legacy - retaggio, eredità spirituale.

auction - house - casa d’aste.

the company expert - l’esperto ufficiale di Sotheby’s.

eyesight - vista.

to take a break - fare una pausa.

elderly - anziano.

travelogue - diario di viaggio.

an expenses-paid trip - un viaggio pagato.

sympathetically - con grande comprensione.

was tearing her hair out - si strappava i capelli (dalla disperazione).

were crushed to death - morirono schiacciati.