Books: The odd life of two warm rabbits

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Bruce Chatwin

by Nicholas Shakespeare

Harvill pounds 20

`The Noblest workes and Foundations have proceeded from childlesse men," said Francis Bacon, a claim which the career of (who quoted the remark in one of his notebooks) does plenty to bear out. Perpetual youth, exquisite writing, a life spent on the move: the Chatwin trademarks seem bound up with childlessness. Over the years, as if in self-vindication, he began to associate infertility with intelligence. To be a sage, or shaman, he thought, it helped to be sterile.

Whether Chatwin was sterile isn't known - he never had tests - but one of the surprises of Nicholas Shakespeare's biography is to find that when he married at 25 he planned to start a family ("Life is empty without children," he wrote) and became depressed when he and his wife Elizabeth couldn't conceive. Elizabeth was herself a surprise to Chatwin's friends, who had assumed he was too gay or footloose to marry. But the marriage survived until his death at 48, and in making sense of the central relationship in his life ("the anchor" as he called it), this book, written with Elizabeth's co-operation, sheds light on parts of Chatwin's life to which previous memoirs, including Susannah Clapp's exemplary With Chatwin, haven't had access.

With his golden hair, hiking boots and fondness for short trousers, the adult Chatwin looked like a child. He often behaved like one too, startling those in whose houses he crashed with his lack of domestication. "He lived for two winters with me," says Stella Wilkinson, one of several people who put him up while he was writing On the Black Hill, "and he did not once lift his plate from the kitchen table to the sink". Elizabeth said she didn't see him wash up in 23 years.

It didn't matter. He had the licence of a Romantic poet. He believed that talking was the mark of humanity - telling stories round the campfire had enabled early man to keep savage beasts at bay - and he charmed everyone he met with his jewel-bright eyes, buccaneering spirit, ingenu curiosity. You never knew what he would do next, or where the next postcard would come from. His prose was like this too, grasshoppering around and flinging out peremptory non-sequiturs. He hated the idea of being ordinary.

His childhood had been more ordinary than he'd have wished, and he preferred not to talk about it. There had been one exotic scandal: his great-grandfather had been a notorious conman, and as a writer who filched from others Bruce inherited the gene. But the norm was solidly Birmingham and bourgeois. Smothered by female relations during the war, while his solicitor-father sailed with the Navy, Bruce found solace in his grandmother's dining-room cabinet of curiosities, which became a kind of Narnia for him, and in his grandfather's enthusiasm for long walks. For the rest of his life he'd be torn between collecting objects and striding away from them, between binge and purge.

As a man he looked like a child, but as a child he didn't stand out. Fellow pupils at his first boarding school and later at Marlborough remarked on his head, which was square, "like an Oxo cube", and too large for his body. But otherwise, there was little to notice. He chatted a lot. He was better at games than he later made out. He put in some good acting performances, not least in female roles. But there was no hint of intellectual precocity, or sexual rapacity, and the stories of a Wunderkind with a fabulous eye outwitting the local antique dealers seem to be apocryphal. His nickname was Charlie, which he hated because it made him sound Chaplinesque, not Chatwinesque. He also hated Bruce, a name he thought fit only for Aussies and dogs.

Thanks in part to his father's discouragement, he missed out on university, a lack he later regretted and which briefly drove him to Edinburgh to read archaeology as a mature student. Instead, he went straight from school to Sotheby's, where he quickly covered his provincial traces and transformed himself into a metropolitan Smootherboy. His rise in the firm (at 23, he was being talked of as a future chairman) owed much to his flirtatiousness, to which elderly clients of both sexes fell prey - as did the then chairman Peter Wilson (if Wilson wasn't in his office, so the joke went, he could always be found "behind the tallboy", namely Chatwin). The self-abasement and corruption his job seemed to require eventually disgusted Chatwin. "All those lovely things passing through your hands," people would say, but he began to to feel like Lady Macbeth - and developed sores on his palms, like stigmata. He did learn one important novelistic skill at Sotheby's, though: those of a cataloguer, able to describe objects in minute physical detail.

Sexually, he was a bit of mystery, even to himself. If a man or woman pressed him to go to bed with them, he'd do so, but only the once - he wasn't driven and remained highly discreet. His best-kept secret was Elizabeth Chanler, a high-born American working at Sotheby's: they fell into the sack together "like two warm rabbits". When after two years he presented her with a Greek ring, circa 500 BC, and asked if she'd like to keep it, she realised this was a marriage proposal. "I will always want to go off by myself," he warned. But she came from a line of women accustomed to letting husbands roam. And she knew he'd always return to mummy.

He did keep returning, but less and less as the novelty of their ice- cold Gloucester farmhouse wore off and his affairs (especially with men) grew more numerous and, in two cases, genuinely intense. Desperate to establish a name for himself by the age of 30, he spent five years on the Sunday Times Magazine (under Francis Wyndham's tutelage) and almost as long writing a book intended to prove that man's natural state was nomadic. Though that book proved unpublishably muddled and sententious, Chatwin's next work, In Patagonia, which came out when he was 37, made him internationally famous. Nor was his work on nomads wasted: The Songlines couldn't have been written without it.

Increasingly, the place Chatwin needed to be was somewhere else: New York, Nepal, Namibia, Alice Springs. Elizabeth was a doughty traveller, and sometimes she'd get the call to join him. But at home, and in front of others, he could be cruel, denying her claims on him and carelessly disrupting her plans. In time they were so little together that one acquaintance likened them to a weather cottage: "When one comes out, the other goes in." Friends urged her to be tougher with him. After 15 years of marriage, she asked for a separation, and sold the farmhouse.

But towards the end of Chatwin's life, the relationship resumed. As Nicholas Shakespeare puts it, "Without Elizabeth, he was liberated. Liberated, he was lonely. Lonely, he was a little boy who had to be tucked up." He had been diagnosed HIV-positive by this point, and - a cynic would say - needed Elizabeth as a nurse, not as a wife. Reconciliation with her may also have been part of the frenzy of denial which made him attribute his illness to a fungus picked up in a bat-cave, to bathing in the South Seas, or to eating a slice of raw Cantonese whale - anything rather than say Aids. The gay lobby would have liked Chatwin to come out and say it. But he had never been a political creature, felt ashamed of his sexuality, and wanted to protect his parents, who didn't know. As the illness made him ever more manic, hundreds of thousands of pounds he didn't have were spent on objets d'art which Elizabeth, behind his back, would quietly return to the shops whence they came. But he could also be sweet and generous as never before - especially to her.

Though it runs to 550 pages, Nicholas Shakespeare's biography feels concise: comprehensively researched, elegantly written, perfectly balanced between the life, the books and the ideas. Almost everyone he has talked to has something insightful to say about the paradoxical nature of Chatwin: the clubbable loner with a need for gurus; the deeply English adventurer who felt at home only when abroad; the philosopher who could think only in images; the fake-detector who was himself a fabulist and poseur. The only over-protectiveness comes when Shakespeare considers Chatwin's capacity for lying, but even here he redeems himself with a bon mot: "He tells not a half-truth, but a truth-and-a-half." It's hard to imagine the Life being better done - or that, Chatwin's books being few, and so much having been written since his death 10 years ago, there is anything now left to say.