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Bruce Chatwin

From Academic Kids

Bruce Charles Chatwin (May 13, 1940 - January 8, 1989) was a British novelist and travel writer.

Chatwin was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire. He was educated at Marlborough College, in Wiltshire.

In 1958, Chatwin joined the London art auction house Sotheby's. Thanks to his sharp visual acuity, he quickly became Sotheby's impressionist expert. At twenty-six, he gave up his job at Sotheby's because he feared he was going blind from too much art. An ophthalmologist assured him that nothing was wrong but suggested that he might stop looking so closely at painting and turn his attention to "horizons."

Turning to an interest in archeology, Chatwin matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, where he was enrolled for several years, paying his tuition and supporting himself by buying and selling artworks. He did field work in Afghanistan and Africa, where he developed the interest in nomads and their detachment from personal possessions.

In 1973, when Chatwin was hired by the short-lived Sunday Times Magazine as an adviser on art and architecture. His association with the magazine cultivated his narrative skills and he traveled on many international assignments, writing on such subjects as Algerian migrant workers and the Great Wall of China, and interviewing such diverse people as Andre Malraux, in France, and Nadezhda Mandel'shtam, in the Soviet Union.

Chatwin interviewed the ninety-three-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon, where he noticed a map of Patagonia which she had painted. "I've always wanted to go there," Bruce told her. "So have I," she replied. "Go there for me." He set out almost immediately for South America and when he got there severed himself from the newspaper with a cable: "Have gone to Patagonia."

He spent six months in Patagonia, a trip which resulted in the book In Patagonia (1977), which established his reputation as a travel writer.

Later works included a study of the slave trade, The Viceroy of Ouidah, for which he traveled to Ouidah, an old slave town in Africa and then to Bahia in Brazil where the slaves were sold. For The Songlines, Chatwin went to Australia to develop the thesis that the songs of the Aborigines are a cross between a creation myth, an atlas and an Aboriginal man's personal story. In What Am I Doing Here?, (1989), he wrote about his friend for over 20 years, Howard Hodgkin. Utz, his last book, was a fictional take on the obsession which leads people to collect. Set in Prague, it describes a man with an outstanding passion for porcelain.

Chatwin is much admired for his spare, lapidary style and his innate story-telling abilities. However, he has also been strongly criticized for his fictionalized anecdotes of real people, places, and events. Frequently, the people he wrote about recognized themselves and did not always appreciate his distortions of their culture and behaviour. Many of the Aborigines he described in Songlines felt betrayed by Chatwin and pointed out that he did not spend much time with them. Hodgkin claimed the book Chatwin wrote about him was inaccurate.

Much to the surprise of many of his friends, Chatwin at age twenty-five married Elizabeth Chanler who he knew at Sotheby's. They had no children, and after fifteen years of marriage, she asked for a separation and sold their farmhouse in Gloucestershire. However, towards the end of his life they reconciled.

In the late 1980s, Chatwin developed AIDS. He was bisexual and had various lovers. He hid the illness, passing off his symptoms as fungal infections or the effects of the bite of a Chinese bat. He did not respond well to AZT, and Chatwin and his wife went to live in the South of France where, for his final months, he was confined to a wheelchair. He died in Nice in 1989 at age 48.

List of works

Books on Bruce Chatwin

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