Archive of (Charles) Bruce Chatwin
The papers comprise Black moleskine diaries, 1969-1988; Papers concerning Afghanistan, 1963-1964, 1969; Notebooks concerning Chatwin's work at Sotheby's, [1965-1966]; Early writings, 1965-1968, n.d.; Papers concerning undergraduate archaeology studies at the University of Edinburgh, 1966-1969; F. Notebooks concerning Chatwin's work as co-curator, with Emma Bunker and Ann Farkas; of the Animal Style exhibition, Asia House Gallery, New York, 1967; Papers concerning unpublished work 'The Nomadic Alternative', mainly c.1968-1973; Journalism, 1970-1986; Correspondence and papers concerning In Patagonia, 1974-1978; Correspondence and papers concerning The Viceroy of Ouidah, -1981; Papers concerning On the Black Hill, 1980-1982; Papers concerning The Songlines, 1983-1987; Papers concerning Utz, [1987-1988]; Papers concerning What Am I Doing Here, ; Last writings and papers, 1986-1989; Works included in posthumous publication Anatomy of Restlessness: Unpublished Writings (1996); Miscellaneous correspondence and papers, 1966-1987, n.d.; Financial correspondence and papers, 1977-1981; Correspondence and papers relating to July 1989 Sotheby's sale of Chatwin papers, July-Oct. 1989
- Creation: 1963-1989
18.92 Linear metres (175 physical shelfmarks)
Language of Materials
Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, e.g. MS. Eng. e. 3672, fol. 1].
Full range of shelfmarks:
MSS. Eng. b. 2153-2155; c. 7834-7877; d. 3951-4002; e. 3672-3744
Collection ID (for staff)
CMD ID 7027
Papers of (Charles) Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989), writer.
Biographical / Historical
Introduction by Chatwin's biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare:
In 1991, I was invited by his estate to write the biography of Bruce Chatwin. I was granted unrestricted access to his papers, contained in 41 boxes and lodged with the Modern Western Manuscript collection at the Bodleian. I would spend a total of seven summers sitting in the reading room, getting to grips with Chatwin’s handwriting and attempting to track the sequence of his life. In 2010, according to the terms of its bequest, this archive was made open to the public.
Chatwin was a private person who in his published texts minimised his own biography. Perhaps for this reason, one of his literary executors, Redmond O’Hanlon, went so far as to hope that the already legendary moleskines – the black-bound notebooks that Chatwin purchased in Paris – would be bound to contain a mass of intimate material.
Those approaching this archive in the expectation of finding an equivalent of, say, Roger Casement’s Black Diaries will be disappointed. There is nothing salacious in Chatwin’s 85 notebooks – not because they have been vetted or censored, but for the simple reason that Bruce Chatwin was not by nature a confessional observer. What his archive instead reveals – and does so again and again – is in many respects much more rewarding.
The task of unscrambling Chatwin’s life was not made easier by his habit, before he set off on a journey, of grabbing whatever notebook lay to hand. It is not unusual in a single moleskine to come across records of his travels to Brazil, the United States, Australia – journeys undertaken, perhaps, over a span of a decade. Chatwin rarely dated his entries and, when he did so, it was not uncommon for him to write down the wrong year. Many of his notes refer to what he is reading, and remind us that even an author as peripatetic as Chatwin passed a huge number of hours sitting in libraries. Aside from his research material, there are doodles, maps, snatches of conversation, descriptions of his natural surrounds, telephone numbers, addresses, photographs, draft paragraphs, financial resumés.
Illuminating though they are, the notebooks are but one facet of Chatwin’s archive. Here you will also find his lecture notes when an archaeology student at Edinburgh University, early drafts of his manuscripts, his correspondence. In short, the travels but also the intellectual and artistic development of one of the most original literary figures of the past fifty years.
Bruce Chatwin was conceived in a hotel south of Aberystwyth and born on 13 May, 1940 in the Shearwood Road Nursing Home in Sheffield. His father Charles Chatwin was a Birmingham solicitor; he was away at sea in the Navy when Chatwin was born. His mother Margharita Turnell, the daughter of a clerk for a Sheffield knife-manufacturer, brought him up in the homes of great-uncles, great-aunts and grandparents. He had a younger brother Hugh, born on 1 July, 1944.
For Chatwin’s first six years, mother and son were everything to each other as they fled from the noise of war. The carpet-bombing of Coventry in November 1940 frightened Margharita into giving up the small house which Charles had rented for them in Barnt Green. Her memory of the awesome orange glow in the night sky continued to haunt her after she bolted north. She would talk to herself and shout out, hunting for her absent husband, "Charles! Charles!" As they shuttled on the train between a dozen dwelling-places, including pokey lodgings in Baslow and Filey, Chatwin’s duty was to be the brave little boy looking after his distressed mother.
When Charles returned from the war, the family moved first back to Birmingham, taking a lease on a house in Stirling Road which had been used by the army as a brothel; then, in April 1947, to Brown’s Green Farm twelve miles south of Birmingham, a "fairly derelict" smallholding with eleven acres, for rent at £98 per annum. A lawyer during the week, at weekends Charles invented himself as a food-producer, keeping an eventual tally of pigs, geese, ducks and 200 chickens. "We were brought up as country children, tied to the rhythm of the seasons," says Hugh.
At the end of April 1948, Chatwin went away to Old Hall School in Shropshire. He was seven years old and would spend the next decade at boarding-school.
Old Hall School, a former Elizabethan coaching inn set in 25 acres, was the personal fiefdom of Paul Denman Fee-Smith, a bachelor of rigorous Anglo-Catholic beliefs whose sermons were delivered in full regalia of cassock, surplice and cope. Miracles, the Fires of Hell and the Conversion of Saul were staple topics. To the boys, he was known as "Boss". He would leave an enduring mark on Chatwin, who was still known at this stage as Charles Bruce Chatwin; although through making a certain amount of noise he earned the nickname "Chatty".
In the summer of 1953, Chatwin passed his Common Entrance Exam and was accepted by Marlborough College in Wiltshire, a public school founded in 1843 for educating the sons of poor clergy. Life was not so organised as at Old Hall. Marlborough, with 800 boys, was more like a university. So long as he promised to stay in pairs (in case of trouble), from the age of thirteen he could bicycle out of town in any direction. He was soon hunting down antiques.
In the summer of 1957, after passing his driving test, Chatwin borrowed his father’s van and drove to the south of France, returning with a cane-seated high chair. It made a pair with his first major furniture acquisition, a grey Louis XVI chair costing £2.10s. Both requiring restoration, he bought a set of wood chisels and stripped them down in the box room at Brown’s Green Farm.
As at Old Hall School, he concentrated his best efforts on acting. He was Secretary of the Shakespeare Society and played the Mayor in Gogol’s "The Government Inspector" and Mrs Candour in Sheridan’s "The School for Scandal" – revealing to the critic of the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald "considerable acting ability". Less impressive was his performance in class. In 1955, following a blow on the head while playing rugby, he had to miss the Michaelmas term. He struggled to catch up. His report for Michaelmas 1957 was typical. "Thoroughness and consistent concentration do not come easily to him. Too often in school and, it seems, in preparation, he is led astray and his mind goes off at a tangent, usually interesting but usually irrelevant." In his third year, he planned to try for a place to read Classics at Merton College, Oxford – the college of his grandfather and also of Robert Byron, an Old Marlburian writer whose work Chatwin revered. But then National Service ended, the university had to find space for an extra generation of students and Chatwin might have to delay coming up for two years. Instead, he proposed a stage career. Charles, however, was adamant that neither of his sons should go directly from the sheltered life of boarding-school to student digs in London, and declined Chatwin’s ambitions for RADA. Chatwin’s next idea was a job in Africa, following the example of his best friend at Marlborough Raulin Guild, who had gone to work in Northern Rhodesia, but Margharita objected: Africa was where Charles’ uncle Humphrey had been murdered by his cook-boy. Then she read an article in Vogue about a firm of fine art auctioneers. "What about Sotheby’s for Bruce?" So Charles contacted one of his clients who had sold at Sotheby’s a Monet of "a train going over a bridge", to effect an introduction to Peter Wilson, the Chairman of Sotheby’s. Wilson saw Chatwin on 26 September 1958 and offered him a job as numbering porter in the Works of Art Department for £6 a week.
Chatwin was lucky to join Sotheby’s at a time when Peter Wilson was expanding the auction house from four departments to 15. He rode the crest of this expansion. Within a short space, he held the reins in both Antiquities and Impressionists and Modern Art, or "Imps". He learned from Wilson, and from the Antiquities Department adviser John Hewett, how to look at and handle a work of art, describe it concisely and to judge its market value. Sponsored by Sotheby’s, he visited countries where these objects had originated and, "slavishly" aping his itinerary, tracked Robert Byron’s footsteps through Greece and Afghanistan. In September 1960, he travelled through the Greek islands on his way to Crete. Eager to go further in tracing Byron’s footsteps, in the summer of 1963 Chatwin went with Robert Erskine to Afghanistan. It would be the first of three visits.
Aside from Erskine, Sotheby’s enabled Chatwin to meet a network of aesthetically minded, rich, enquiring young dealers and collectors like Christopher Gibbs, John Kasmin, Teddy Millington-Drake, Edward Lucie-Smith, George Ortiz, Simon Sainsbury and Cary Welch.
Plus it introduced him to his wife.
On 16 and 17 November 1964, Sotheby’s auctioned the Ernest Brummer collection of Egyptian and Near Eastern Antiquities, which Chatwin had catalogued with Elizabeth Chanler, Peter Wilson’s American assistant. He also helped catalogue 540 works for the Impressionist sale four days later, including Cézanne’s Grandes Baigneuses, acquired by the National Gallery for a record sum of £500,000. By his own account, he went blind after these sales. The symptoms seem to have been a flare-up of his 1955 complaint.
On 31 December 1964, he went to see the eye specialist Patrick Trevor-Roper who advised him to give up concentrated work and get away from the office for a few months. "‘You’ve been looking too closely at works of art. I suggest long horizons. Where do you want to go?’ ‘Africa,’ I said."
On 5 February 1965, Chatwin set off for the Sudan where he was the guest of a former girlfriend; Gloria Taylor had married Tahir El-Fadil el Mahdi, the Cambridge-educated grandson of Siddig el Mahdi, who had won Sudan’s independence from Britain. After a week in Khartoum, Chatwin met a geologist who was leaving on an expedition to the Red Sea Hills to look for kaolin deposits. "I asked if I could come along and he said I could." Here, on a short camel trek in the Eastern Sudan, Chatwin experienced his first taste of nomadic life.
Chatwin made an important decision in the Sudanese desert. Encouraged by Cary Welch, instead of going to Rhodes for Easter he invited Elizabeth Chanler to Paris. There, in the Cabinet de Medailles in the Louvre, he proposed. Elizabeth was a practising Catholic. After taking religious instruction, he was married to Elizabeth on 21 August 1965 at a Nuptial Mass in the Chanler family chapel at Sweet Briar Farm, Geneseo.
The Chatwins returned to London in October and started house-hunting. Not until February 1966 would they find Holwell Farm, a pink seventeenth century house set in 47 acres near Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire. Elizabeth’s mother advanced £17,000 as a wedding present for them to buy it.
In January 1966, Chatwin took Elizabeth as his secretary to Paris to catalogue the Helena Rubinstein collection. This would be his last major sale for Sotheby’s, where he had become a junior partner. Since his return from the Sudan, Chatwin had been unable to focus on his work. His disillusion over the degraded terms of his partnership, as he saw it, added to his growing frustration with antiquities. As well, he found himself becoming tangled in a plot to disperse the Pitt-Rivers collection. This unique collection of ethnographic art, including 240 works from Benin retrieved as bounty by British troops during an expedition in 1897, was stored at the Farnham Museum in Dorset (the more famous part of this collection had been given to the University of Oxford by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, and is housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum which opened in 1884). Still mired in secrecy, the deal which saw their dispersal involved the tight circle of gentlemanly rogues who were Chatwin’s immediate bosses. Six months before he died, Chatwin focussed his rage against the Sotheby’s chairman: Chatwin claimed that he left Sotheby’s because he was being forced to sell the Pitt-Rivers collection "fraudulently" to American and other collectors.
In June 1966, Chatwin shocked colleagues at Sotheby’s by announcing his resignation to read archaeology at Edinburgh. Archaeology had interested him since his schooldays when his great-uncle, Philip Chatwin, a force behind the Birmingham Archaeological Society, had taken Chatwin on his excavations at Weoley Castle. From Sotheby’s, Chatwin would visit Hugh at Marlborough, especially to revisit West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill and the Avebury stone circle. The idea to study archaeology had been simmering ever since he had decided not to go up to Oxford. It had presented itself again in December 1965 on a visit to the Hermitage when he stood before the embalmed body of a Pasyryk chieftain who had been brought back to Leningrad in 1933 by the archaeologist Rudenko. On his return to London, Chatwin had borrowed Rudenko’s report from Robert Erskine, once an archaeologist at Cambridge, and began to look into archaeology degrees.
Cary Welch agreed to write to Stuart Piggott, Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Edinburgh. Their meeting at the end of May decided Chatwin.
He arrived in Edinburgh in high spirits. He was Scottish and coming back to his roots, the land of his forebears, the Bruces; and of his maternal grandmother, the gipsy-like Gaggie from Aberdeen. He was enrolled to study the discipline of his great-uncle Philip; the profession claimed by Robert Byron when he had sought admission to Mount Athos.
Archaeology was a 4-year course. It was arduous work. Bruce attended from ten to fifteen lectures a week, which went on till 7 in the evening; and was expected to write a weekly essay. Prescribed texts for his first term covered eighteen subjects, from the barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe to the uncertain frontiers of the Mongol horsemen. He also chose to learn Sanskrit.
But as at Sotheby’s, disillusionment set in. He was away from the bright lights; he had to work hard; and as an older student he did not fit in. Nor was archaeology the discipline he thought it was. As his friend Robert Erskine put it: "He went into archaeology thinking he’d be the next Howard Carter, walking into a room of Egyptian antiquities – and not spending his time with his bottom in the air, in the mud, groping around a megalithic site."
He would last two and a half of the four years; he described his period here as his "saison en enfer".
On November 1, Chatwin took a three-year lease on an apartment in the Royal Mile. While he studied, Elizabeth rented Lower Lodge at Ozleworth Park in order to oversee the renovations at Holwell Farm. In June 1967, after sitting his first year exams, Chatwin spent his long vacation excavating at Zàvist, south of Prague; from Czechoslovakia, he moved on to digs in Hungary, Rumania and Turkey.
He started his second year as the lone male on his course, which had slimmed from 41 students to 7. Also, a favourite lecturer, Charles Thomas, had left.
In the winter of 1967, Cary Welch recommended Chatwin to curate an Exhibition at the Asia House Gallery in New York devoted to the Nomadic Art of the Asian Steppes to be called "The Animal Style". The Exhibition was not to open until January 1970. Until that time Chatwin was expected to use his Sotheby’s training to contact museums and collectors and to gather the best examples of nomadic art. This was where he now directed his energies.
The Chatwins spent Christmas 1968 in Geneseo, but Chatwin did not reappear in Edinburgh. On 9 January, 1969, Piggott wrote: "Absolutely no news of Bruce Chatwin. He came to me in a great state last term saying he was £6,000 in debt owing to buying the Glos. house, wouldn’t take money from Elizabeth’s family & simply had to take a job… Shot off to London to investigate & hasn’t been heard of since." He did not return to Edinburgh.
Chatwin, "a compass without a needle" as one friend called him at this time, now replaced Piggott with a new guru. Peter Levi, the Jesuit priest and poet whom he known since Sotheby’s, was teaching in Oxford. A main topic of discussion was the introductory essay on nomadic art that Chatwin was contributing to the catalogue for the Asia House exhibition. Another topic was Afghanistan: Levi had been commissioned to write a travel book on the Greek influence in Afghanistan. He suggested that Chatwin come with him and take the photographs.
Fired by Levi’s example, Chatwin fastened on expanding his Asia House essay into a book: his proposed subject – "nomads here, there, past and present." He hoped that the book would shed light "on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness." Through the poet Edward Lucie-Smith, he met the literary agent Deborah Rogers in London and she agreed to act for him. On 26 February 1969, Rogers submitted Chatwin’s proposal to Tom Maschler at Cape. On 13 March 1969, Maschler wrote to Chatwin: "I do just want to put into writing that I am convinced it will be an important book. Important in the way The Naked Ape was important..."
Chatwin had been writing The Nomadic Alternative, as the book was to be called, for almost three years and kept thinking that it was about to be done. But the end of the book was unreachable, "a Sysephean job" in Elizabeth’s words. He interrupted work on it to make research trips to Mauretania, Niger and Dahomey.
In the summer of 1972, Chatwin had a call from Francis Wyndham at the Sunday Times magazine and was offered a position, which he accepted, as adviser on Art. The job would start in November. On 25 July, he abandoned London for America, where the director James Ivory had lent him a clapboard cabin in Oregon. Here, goaded by the publication of Peter Levi’s account of their journey to Afghanistan, Chatwin determined to finish his nomad book once and for all.
On his return to England early in November, he delivered his manuscript to Deborah Rogers, who waded conscientiously through it. She found the writing leaden, the content plodding. She nevertheless sent it to Tom Maschler who read 50 or 60 pages and stopped. "They were completely sterile." Maschler told Chatwin his verdict face to face, saying maybe he should not be doing this. "I remember Bruce saying as he left: ‘I’ll think about it.’ I hoped I’d put him off."
Chatwin began work at the Sunday Times on 1 November, 1972. After three years of tussling with his nomad book, the magazine offered him a deadline and an audience. As a journalist, he would file from Paris (on the couturier Madeleine Vionnet, the artist Sonia Delaunay, the writer André Malraux); New York (on the Guggenheims); Moscow (on the collector George Costakis, the architect Konstantin Melnikov, the poet Osip Mandestam’s widow, Nadezhda); Vienna (on the animal psychologist Konrad Lorenz, the "Nazi-hunter" Simon Weisenthal); Upper Swabia (on the aesthete Ernst Jünger); Marseilles and Algeria (on Algerian migrant workers); Peru (on Maria Reiche and the Nazca Lines); India (on Mrs Gandhi, Shamdev the Wolf Boy). Many of these pieces would appear in his posthumous collection What Am I Doing Here. But he soon felt at the end of his tether with the magazine – "which we all felt was being wrecked from ‘above’."
On 1 October, 1974 Elizabeth’s father died. Chatwin flew out for the funeral in Geneseo. He had $3,500 expenses from the Sunday Times and was supposed to be writing a story on the Guggenheim family. On 2 November, "on the spur of the moment", he made a break for it and flew to South America. He wrote to Wyndham: "I am doing a story there for myself, something I have always wanted to write up."
In Lima, Chatwin stayed with his cousin Monica Barnett, the daughter of Charles Amherst Milward, a "spectacular adventurer" who ran away to sea and by 1897 had circumnavigated the world 49 times, before settling in the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world, where he worked both as British and German consul. It was Milward who had sent back a salted scrap of giant sloth skin to his cousin, Chatwin’s grandmother, in Birmingham.
Already when in New York, at the instigation of the literary agent Gillon Aitken, Chatwin had outlined Milward’s story in a proposal for a book to be called "O Patagonia". The book Chatwin wanted to write would be "on Patagonia – and a lot more besides... The form of the book must be dictated by the journey itself. As it will be – to say the least – unpredictable, there is no point in even trying to guess what it will hold."
In Patagonia was published in England on 14 October, 1977 with an initial print run of 4,000 copies. Paul Theroux was one of the first enthusiastic reviewers, writing in The Times: "He has fulfilled the desire of all real travellers, of having found a place that is far and strange and seldom visited like the Land where the Jumblies live." Following publication in America, it won the 1979 E.M.Forster Award.
Chatwin’s next book was conceived as the biography of a nineteenth-century Brazilian slave-trader Francisco de Souza, who became rich from shipping Africans from Dahomey to his native port of Bahia. Chatwin’s struggle to write it took place against the background of his attempts to escape the binds of domesticity – during this period he became involved with an Australian, Donald Richards, a former stock-broker. After struggling with the historical narrative, "I decided to write a work of the imagination." The Viceroy of Ouidah was published on 23 October, 1980. Maschler sent a telegram to Chatwin: NO LIVING WRITERS WORK MEANS MORE TO ME THAN YOURS STOP EVERY GOOD WISH ON PUBLICATION DAY TOM. Overall the reception was one of rather qualified rapture, a feeling that Chatwin’s fascination with the grotesque had run away with him. The disappointing response accounted for the direction Chatwin now took: to retreat into the Hardy-like solidity of a story about "a pair of Welsh hill farmers, identical twins who have slept in their mother’s bed for the past 43 years."
In May 1980, Elizabeth ejected Chatwin from Holwell Farm. Their separation had become a fait accompli without any discussion, but as a Catholic she refused to divorce him. While his relationship with Elizabeth continued to disintegrate, Chatwin assembled material for his new book, returning to the area he loved best: the Welsh border country which he had discovered on school and family holidays. "The Welsh border I regard as one of the emotional centres of my life... It’s what Proust calls the soil on which I still may build." On the Black Hill would also draw on his country childhood at Brown’s Green Farm. Its publication in the autumn of 1982 was accompanied by a television programme on ITV’s South Bank Show. In November 1982, it won the Whitbread Prize in the first novel category, the judges appearing to overlook The Viceroy of Ouidah as a work of fiction.
Still fragile after an operation in St Thomas’s Hospital, Chatwin chose to recuperate as far as possible from England. On 19 December 1982 he gathered up the card index of The Nomadic Alternative and flew to Sydney. "... I planned to hole up somewhere in the desert, away from libraries and other men’s work, and take a fresh look at what they contained." His interest in nomads was revitalised by a meeting in Adelaide with the widow of the anthropologist Theodor Strehlow, who had lived and worked with Aboriginals in Central Australia. On 28 January, 1983, Chatwin turned up at her house wishing to purchase a copy of Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia, a difficult book, long-ignored and virtually impossible to get hold of.
Kath Strehlow sold Chatwin an unbound proof. She also produced her husband’s daybooks and diaries for him to read. The next couple of hours defined Chatwin’s next three years. "I sat down, only for a morning," he said, "and I suddenly realised everything that I rather hoped these songlines would be, just were." He then flew to Alice Springs to study Strehlow’s book in situ and to test his theory. "I wanted to find how it worked."
On their visit to Ayer’s Rock a year later, Chatwin would tell Salman Rushdie: "I’ve been very unhappy lately and for a long time I couldn’t work out why, and then I suddenly realised it was because I missed my wife." In March 1983, he flew from Australia to Java, to meet the couturier Jaspar Conran, who had replaced Richards in his affections. On his return to Sydney, he telephoned Elizabeth from Sydney at her new house, Homer End, near Oxford, to say that Esquire magazine had offered him a commission "to go anywhere I want" – and asked her to suggest a place. She chose Nepal ("I’d never been there"). He paid for his airfare to Kathmandu by reading In Patagonia in six instalments for ABC radio.
Their month in the Himalayas marked the beginning of his rapprochement with Elizabeth. There was no further talk of separation. Chatwin used Homer End as a base and treated it as home.
Invited back to Australia for the 1994 Adelaide Festival, Chatwin stopped off in Pretoria to visit the palaeontologist Bob Brain. On 2 February, 1984, he accompanied Brain to the cave at Swartkrans in the Sterkfontein valley near Johannesburg. Brain’s classic text on early human behaviour was based on his excavations here. What happened on that day would reverberate in Chatwin’s mind for the remainder of his life. He wrote in his notebook: "Around 3.30 Bob came back from the dig with a piece of bone which he said was ‘highly suggestive’. Antelope long bone: which layered beige white on the exterior and black on the inside, broken in 2. With it were some flecked fragments – speckled with manganese staining. He had, he said, so often searched for use of fire… had so many false alarms, that one must always expect the worst. At the same time he was visibly excited." Brain’s discovery, which featured on the cover of Nature magazine, confirmed that Chatwin had been present at the discovery of man’s earliest use of fire.
After the Adelaide Festival, Chatwin and Salman Rushdie flew to Alice Springs where Chatwin introduced Rushdie to the characters who would reappear, without much disguise, in The Songlines. In November 1985, still suffering from a mysterious illness, he flew with Elizabeth back to Nepal, from there travelling to China and India. He continued to work hard on the book in a red sandstone fort 20 miles from Jodhpur. He determined to finish it before finding out what his illness was. He finally did so at Homer End, in August 1986, 17 years and 3 months after signing the initial contract.
The following week, while editing the manuscript in Zurich with his American editor, Elisabeth Sifton, Chatwin collapsed and was admitted to a clinic in Muhlebachstrasse "constantly coughing up and with acute diarrhoea", according to the report of the Swiss doctor who treated him. On 12 September, he was flown back to England and admitted to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. On 26 September, the biopsy was taken and sent to the Radcliffe laboratory where it was identified as Penicillium marneffei, a mould fungus that is a natural pathogen of the bamboo rat in South Asia. The fungus is now known to be an AIDS defining illness, but in 1986, as Dr Richard Bull wrote in his report, it "has only been reported in Thai and Chinese farmers." The discovery cheered Chatwin, who metabolised his illness into something rich and strange.
From December 1986, he based himself when abroad at the Chateau de Seillans, an eleventh-century fort at the edge of a 60-foot cliff, belonging to Shirley Conran, the best-selling author and mother of Jasper.
On 28 May 1987, Tom Maschler sent a finished copy of The Songlines to Chatwin at Seillans. "Dear Bruce, Here it is. This is a fabulous book. Your best to date and that is saying something." It was published on 25 June 1987 and dedicated to Elizabeth. On 20 July, The Songlines reached Number 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. In October, Tom Maschler wrote to Bruce’s new agent Gillon Aitken: "You will not be surprised to hear that SL is, for me, one of the most wonderful books I have ever published and for it to have been at number one (ahead of the newly published Douglas Adams) is a high point in my publishing career."
During a miraculous period of remission Chatwin managed to complete Utz, but in March 1988 the fungus returned with new virulence, this time for good. Seventeen months after the possibility was first raised, a skin biopsy indicated that the spots on his face were "highly suspicious" of Kaposi sarcoma. On 29 April, one of the specialists at the Churchill Hospital described Chatwin as a "very nice 47-year old travel writer with AIDS." It had taken twenty months to establish once and for all what the clinic had initially suspected.
The fungus infected his brain. He was suffering from a toxic brain syndrome which began to manifest itself in hypomania. His non-stop talk, his grandiose schemes, his unrestrained buying sprees (which would require him to be sectioned), his wish to convert to the Greek Orthodox faith, his charitable trusts, threw those around him into turmoil. At the same time, his hypomania made him a concentrate of himself: someone funny, private, romantic, persuasive who believed fiercely in his own stories.
Utz was published on 22 September 1988. The novel was one of six shortlisted for the 1988 Booker Prize, along with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The prize was awarded to Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
On 20 November 1988, Chatwin left England for the last time, returning to the Chateau de Seillans. He started making notes for his "Russian novel", but he was becoming daily more resistant to remedies. Among visitors were Werner Herzog, to whom he bequeathed his rucksack, and the composer Kevin Volans who played him the Songlines string quartet which had premiered at the Lincoln Centre in New York in November. The white fungus in Chatwin’s mouth made speaking difficult. He was incontinent, thin, exhausted by coughing. All he could say was: "Lovely."
He deteriorated fast. On 16 January, 1989 he was taken by ambulance to the state hospital in Nice where he died at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday 18 January, four months short of his forty-ninth birthday.
On 20 January 1989, Elizabeth arranged for Chatwin to be cremated in Nice. "I had a Greek service at the crematorium and a service at my church in Watlington and a memorial service at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Santa Sophia in Bayswater, which everybody came to."
The papers are arranged chronologically.
The papers were in the possession of Bruce and Elizabeth Chatwin with the exception of MSS. Eng. c. 7876-7877, d. 4000-4002 and e. 3744 which were given by Bruce Chatwin to Justine Tomlinson, c.1980. These papers formed lot 165 of the Sotheby's sale, July 1989, and were bought by Elizabeth Chatwin.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Deposited by Elizabeth Chatwin, Sept. 1991; MSS. Eng. c. 7876-7877; d. 4000-4002; e. 3744. were deposited, Oct. 1991; given, Dec. 2009.
- Catalogue of the archive of (Charles) Bruce Chatwin, 1963-1989
- Finding aid prepared by Matthew Neely
- Language of description
- Script of description