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Nicholas Shakespeare:
Bruce Chatwin
Nicholas Shakespeare
  Bruce Chatwin  
Nicholas Shakespeare    
reading

an excerpt



  Nicholas Shakespeare is the author The Vision of Elena Silves, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, The High Flyer, for which he was nominated one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 1993, and The Dancer Upstairs for which he was a featured author at Bold Type. He spent eight years researching Bruce Chatwin: A Biography and that time and attention is evident on every page. Shakespeare grew up in Asia and South America. His peripatetic life has well prepared him to span the globe in search of Chatwin's trail. He delivers him to the page with clarity, empathy and exceptional detail. Chatwin was not always a very likeable fellow and Shakespeare doesn't wince but this life was a magnificent creation and Shakespeare has written it masterfully.

Chatwin was born to a middle class family in Birmingham. He was educated at Marlborough and soon after joined Sotheby's where he first achieved renown as an "eye" discovering and debunking fakes across genres with unerring instinct. After eight years, he went to Edinburgh to study archeology and stayed for three years until he could take it no more and decided to return to London to begin work on a book about nomadic culture. The Sunday Times Magazine financed his travels as he put in for essay after essay that would take him throughout the world. It wasn't until In Patagonia was published in 1977 that Chatwin's fame and literary success arrived in full force. Over many years four great books followed, the novels The Viceroy of Ouidah, On the Black Hill, and Utz as well as a second fascinating travel book called Songlines. All were fictions of true stories, places and people.

This portrait reveals Chatwin as a trickster, a transformer-god. He outwitted impediments with calculation and suavity and was ruthlessly determined. He blurred the lines between fact and fiction, immediately transforming his experiences with heightened color. He was fascinated by shamanism and much as a shaman reaches out to the world beyond, Chatwin spent his life reaching out to the beyond that was not England. He considered his English accent to be "like a layer of slime" and never stayed for long. Patagonia always fascinated him because it was the farthest place a man could walk to and walking was a spiritual quest for Chatwin, the self-styled nomad.

Chatwin demanded extraordinary latitude from others but shared only what was required for seduction. He was, according to Loulou de la Falaise, a "pique-assiette, someone who eats off another's plate". He seduced for contacts, for in-roads and to create a reputation that was loyal to his vision of himself. His wife, Elizabeth, was intelligent and openhearted but crushed by her absolute and extraordinary support of Chatwin. It is clear in this biography that Chatwin loved her as much and as deeply as he was capable of loving. Her courage and her determination to be the ballast for the demands of his voyage were both amazing and woeful.

Chatwin died at 48 from what he claimed to be a rare bone marrow disease picked up in China. So tragic. Alas, half true. His death was truly caused by AIDS and the fungus was an opportunistic disease that took hold as a result of his HIV. His death at 49 was a great tragedy and a loss to his family and friends and to literature but here as elsewhere the truth and fiction reveal the man he wanted to be and the man he was. In Bruce Chatwin: A Biography, Shakespeare has unearthed a rarer creature than even Chatwin ever described.

In this issue of Bold Type you will find an essay by Nicholas Shakespeare and an excerpt from the biography.


--Catherine McWeeney
 
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  Photo of Nicholas Shakespeare copyright © Miriam Berkley

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