BOOKS / Travails with his precious moleskins: Since his death four years ago, Bruce Chatwin has become a cult figure. Now even his friends are having their doubts. John Ryle reports

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The Independent Culture
IN The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin's vagarious book about Aboriginal metaphysics and the origin of human culture, the reader is introduced, midway in the narrative, to the author's hoard of moleskin notebooks, carnets moleskines, a treasure trove that contains the record of his journeys and researches - the raw material of the work in hand.

'Moleskine', Chatwin tells us, refers to the black oilcloth used for the binding of these notebooks, which he habitually obtained from a certain papeterie in the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie in Paris. (Whoever called it moleskin can never have been very close to a mole.) On his most recent visit, however, Chatwin discovers that the supplier in Tours has gone out of business. 'Le vrai moleskine,' the stationer informs the writer, 'n'est plus.' The order Chatwin was planning to make for a hundred notebooks - enough to last him the rest of his life - could not be filled. His existing collection, crammed with notes, becomes a kind of limited edition, a one-off word-hoard.

Many writers are stationery fetishists. The pencil of a certain hardness, the paper of a special weight feint-ruled in a particular shade, the hallowed portable typewriter, the customised keyboard, the selection of the font on the printer - such things may come to form a necessary part of the ritual of composition, a way of entering the writerly trance. But there is something egregious about Chatwin's moleskin notebooks. They just couldn't be ordinary, could they? Notebooks with covers of vinyl or cardboard, as obtained from Ryman's in the High Street? No, they had to be unique.

The exclusivity of the notebooks is an analogue of Chatwin's mannered style - self-conscious, precise to the point of preciosity, rare, laconic but luxurious, a style where jewelled sentences drift in genres of dubious provenance. And the invocation of the notebooks, the foregrounding of the act of writing they represent, serves a particular purpose in the structure of The Songlines, enabling Chatwin to segue from travel narrative into a still baggier genre, the commonplace book.

The notebooks, we learn, have travelled with him for years, from Paris to Australia via countries in every continent. In 20 years he has lost two, one on an Afghan bus and the other in Brazil, where the secret police, according to him, imagined that the lines he had written about the wounds of a baroque Christ were a description in code of what they were doing to political prisoners. He has the notebooks stacked on the plywood desk in the caravan where he is marooned near Alice Springs; they are ranged alongside his pencils and his Swiss Army knife in the spirit of 'obsessive neatness that goes with the start of a project'. In his travels, losing, say, a passport has been less of a worry than losing a notebook, because the notebooks contain his documentation on the nomad question, on the idea that natural selection has fitted the human race for wandering, not for a sedentary life. This nomadic bent, he remarks elsewhere - ironically in view of his travails with the notebooks - is the reason why 'possessions exhaust us'.

In subsequent chapters of The Songlines the notebooks disgorge a series of fragmentary questions and quotations, anecdotes, etymologies and proverbs. These bits and pieces form the anthology that is inserted in the narrative of the author's sojourn in the Outback; beside Chatwin's own observations, there are citations from many other authors: Baudelaire, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Wordsworth, Meister Eckhart and, above all, Rimbaud, whose not-so-novel question, 'What am I doing here?', later became the title of a posthumous collection of Chatwin's essays and journalism. The notebooks provide both the kernel of The Songlines and an umbrella term for Chatwin's more ephemeral pieces; they were also quarried, it seems, for his four other books.

Now we have a further selection, interspersed with Chatwin's photographs. Judging by these extracts, though, Chatwin was already scraping the barrel when The Songlines was published. It's not that they are without interest, but it seems there wasn't much to write home about: most of them read like out-takes, bits that didn't fit or make the grade, which is presumably more or less what they are. They cover expeditions to Mauretania (a country 'nobody seems to have heard of'), Dahomey and Afghanistan. Chatwin notes that he 'likes lands that are sucked dry. They suit me. We complement each other.' There are paeans to camel turds, expressions of longing for hotel rooms and champagne, and the occasional iffy gust of verse:

O Niger, River of Slaves and Malaria

And Mungo Park

You are the most horrible green

Most of the entries record visual impressions. The editor, Francis Wyndham, states that he has omitted the kind of intellectual observations that Chatwin used in The Songlines. Wyndham's introduction is a thoughtful and affectionate portrait of the author that wisely makes no high claims for the notebooks. The book, it should be said, is tastefully and generously produced, but the photographs are mostly unexciting details of interiors or exteriors of buildings. Some show a sense of colour that confirms the polychrome shine of Chatwin's prose, but there is nothing here as haunting as the black and white photograph reproduced on the back cover of the Viceroy of Ouidah, where a half-naked Dahomean boy gazes from beneath the portrait of his slave-trading ancestor.

The most arresting photographs in the present book are those of the celebrated notebooks themselves. But what is the meaning of these photographs? Are they a sort of secondary fetishisation, the text itself inserted in a cabinet de curiosites, then reduced in its turn to the kind of object Chatwin loved to describe?

The notebooks have recently been the subject of some additional myth-mongering of a kind that Chatwin would surely have approved. One of his executors, Redmond O'Hanlon, a writer whose vision of reality is as exotic as Chatwin's, announced the existence of a secret diary written in code and deposited - of course - with the antiquarian bookseller Bertram Rota. According to Chatwin's widow, there is no code: the writing is merely illegible. So perhaps there is more to come and perhaps there isn't. The episode is recounted in Nicholas Murray's Bruce Chatwin, a thin but handy biographical essay published earlier this year.

Francis Wyndham is worried, though, about the growth of a Chatwin cult. His early death and the quality of his books have turned Chatwin into 'a legend, a myth'. Wyndham fears that the inflation of his reputation will result in a reaction. He is right to worry. For signs of this reaction we need look no further than Granta, a magazine that has done more than any other to promote Chatwin's reputation.

Here in the current issue is Paul Theroux, trashing Chatwin's reputation - and all in the name of friendship. He begins with a description of Chatwin at a Royal Geographical Society dinner blithely recounting to Chris Bonington and Lord Hunt, the world's most celebrated mountaineers, climbing exploits he could not possibly have performed. Chatwin is portrayed as a pseud and a braggart, a name-dropper who 'could get two or three boasts into a single statement'. Theroux cites two examples: 'Werner Herzog and I just hiked two hundred miles in Dahomey', and 'David Hockney told me that his favourite painter is Liotard, a 17th-century Swiss. He's brilliant. I often go to the Rijksmuseum just to look at his work'.

Unlike Theroux, we are told, Chatwin was in a state of permanent crisis over his writing - and busy telling Theroux all about it. But when Chatwin appeared to bemoan his writer's block, Theroux says, he was not really bemoaning it at all; it was rather a way of boasting about the subtlety of his writing gift, with the implication that it was more fine-tuned and delicate than Theroux's own. Chatwin, says Theroux, also boasted about his command of French; he was a bad listener, and a bore who repeated his own stories, 'shrieking each predictable thing and looking eager and hopeful'.

Following this catalogue of failings, interspersed with assurances of his regard for Chatwin, Theroux moves on to his subject's private life. 'We had met his wife,' he writes 'but the very fact of Bruce having a wife was so improbable that no one quite believed it.' Chatwin was in fact homosexual, says Theroux, and his marriage, a mutual friend informs him 'with pursed lips', was a marriage blanc. (Chatwin did not confide any of this to Theroux. One wonders what kind of friendship it can have been.)

Before giving us the low-down, Theroux tells us that he does not think it should matter one way or the other. A few lines later, he says: 'I wanted to know more about his homosexual life, not because I am prurient but because if I like someone I want to know everything.' 'That he was homosexual bothered no one,' he continues, but the fact that Chatwin never spoke about it 'was rather disturbing'. It disturbed Theroux, apparently, because it showed that Chatwin lacked the courage to embrace the confessional mode - unlike Theroux himself. As he puts it (my italics): 'He never wrote about his sexuality, and some of us have laid our souls bare.'

It's news to me that Chatwin was exclusively homosexual: 'Both sexes are irresistible,' he writes from Senegal. And it's questionable whether the fact that Theroux has chosen to write about his own sex life has any bearing on Chatwin's right not to talk about his. Coyness, it may be argued, is no crime, especially when, like Chatwin, you are actually in the grave. Having revealed all, though, Theroux shuffles off the responsibility with the absence of self- regard that we have by now come to expect. He refers to an 'ungracious' memoir by David Plante, a writer who 'refused to see Bruce's sense of fun', singling out Plante's account of a visit with Chatwin to 'a gay disco called 'Heaven' '. The piece, says Theroux, is full of 'dark hints and hypocrisy' in which Plante 'never discloses his own motive for going to the gay hangout'.

I guess it must have been Moleskin Night at Heaven. All one can say to Theroux, really, is hypocrite lecteur] Perhaps he should be asked to dislose his own motive for this attack on the character and reputation of his dead friend. Surely it couldn't be envy? Envy of the dead? Odd indeed.

There is certainly a critique to be made of Chatwin's work. Such a critique would note the limits of his much lauded style; would acknowledge that his writing is diverting rather than affecting, dazzling rather than moving; would examine the ethical dilemma posed by the use of real people and events in narratives with ambiguous claims to facticity. It might legitimately be argued that these limitations and avoidances correspond to areas of silence in Chatwin's own life. But Chatwin and the high style he invented - let us call it the moleskin style - remain a presence to reckon with. Whatever his limitations, whatever his vices of style, he deserves better than a Greek gift from a soi-disant friend. If this is the current alternative, let me join the Chatwin cult immediately.

'Bruce Chatwin: Photographs and Notebooks', eds David King and Francis Wyndham, Cape pounds 20; 'Bruce Chatwin' by Nicholas Murray, Seren Books pounds 11.95; 'Granta 44: The Last Place on Earth', Penguin pounds 7.99

(Photograph omitted)