Bruce Chatwin
By: Mark Kingwell | Categories: Adventure, HiLo Heroes


Would it be a bad thing if the concrete legacy of English writer BRUCE CHATWIN (1940-89) was the continued existence of the Moleskine notebook? In 1986, the French company that produced these elegant writer’s aids, celebrated at some length in Chatwin’s bestselling book The Songlines (1987), ceased production; in dismay the author purchased the entire stock of his local store, prompting the line back into vogue. Chatwin is a notebook kind of writer. His travel books, often heavily fictionalized, are peripatetic and sparse of style, works of suggestion rather than narration. His novels, especially the last and best, Utz (1988), layer stories and allusions to sly overall effect. If there is a common theme in his varied writing, it is meaning’s elusiveness. Australia’s songlines, geo-spiritual maps of the aboriginal population, are at once revealed and concealed by his treatment; the Meissen porcelains that obsess Kaspar Utz are objects of both political interest (estate seizure) and mythological portent (the Yiddish golem fable). Chatwin’s own meaning was elusive. A prolific, almost compulsive fabulist, he romanticized his early years as an instant Impressionist expert at Sotheby’s and, later, disguised his HIV infection and eventual death from AIDS under a series of fictional covers: gang rape in the African nation of Dahomey, exotic fungal infection via Asian bat bite, and so on. It’s sometimes said that a writer’s best story is his or her own life; in Chatwin’s case, the noun goes plural, and only a bookshelf of notebooks could contain them all.

ADVENTURERS as HILO HEROES: Katia Krafft | Freya Stark | Louise Arner Boyd | Mary Kingsley | Bruce Chatwin | Hester Lucy Stanhope | Annie Smith Peck | Richard Francis Burton | Isabella Lucy Bird | Calamity Jane | Ernest Shackleton | Osa Helen Johnson | Redmond O’Hanlon | Gertrude Bell | George Mallory | Neta Snook | Jane Digby | Patty Wagstaff | Wilfred Thesiger | Joe Carstairs | Florence “Pancho” Barnes | Erskine Childers | Jacques-Yves Cousteau | Michael Collins | Thor Heyerdahl | Jean-Paul Clébert | Tristan Jones | Neil Armstrong

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Bea Arthur, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Morton.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).

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Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.