Books: Was he a genuine article?

Snob, liar, layabout - and a great writer. Sara Wheeler detests the man but still loves the books; Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare Harvill, pounds 20, 591pp
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This is the first full biography of a hugely influential modern writer, now published in 27 languages, who famously blurred the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. As a writer, and as a human being, Bruce Chatwin was a maverick. One of his lovers, Miranda Rothschild, said that "He's out to seduce everybody, it doesn't matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy".

Chatwin presents a particular challenge to the biographer, as he worked ferociously hard to create a mythical persona only distantly related to himself. Under the circumstances, Nicholas Shakespeare has done a splendid job. An accomplished writer himself, he tells a gripping story - like his subject.

Adroitly manipulating the threads of Chatwin's life - "the uncanny good luck, the speedy in-and-out, the all-suggestive fragment, the speculative theory, the fascination with provenance and the origin of things" - Shakespeare describes books "cooking" in the writer's head, and conjures sentences like this one to portray Chatwin's prep school: "After the war, the shortage of well-trained teachers explained the presence of some characters who would have found a comfortable billet in Evelyn Waugh's Llanaba."

The text rattles along, its emotional highs and lows magnified by the author's eye for the dramatic moment. One chapter opens: "A little after 9.30pm on 15 October 1958, Sotheby's new chairman Peter Wilson raised his gavel to auction seven Impressionist masterpieces. He had staked his career on this moment...".

Often, though, I caught the whiff of the laundry list in these 550 pages of text. There are too many interpolated comments from the garrulous cast of walk-on parts who knew Chatwin, as if Shakespeare were determined to move as far as possible from his subject's elliptical, pared-down prose.

He is similarly heavy-handed with the background material: I was deeply uninterested in the brothers of Chatwin's prep school headmaster. I think this would have been a more successful book if, after the years of diligent research, Shakespeare had distilled the material down and down and down until Bruce Chatwin were half its present length.

Born in 1940 in a suburb of Sheffield to a middle-class family, his father "a wise old sailor and a sound lawyer", Charles Bruce Chatwin "was a typical war baby, coddled by an anxious mother, fussed over by a team of elderly, mostly female, relatives for whom he was the hope of the tribe." After public school, he became a bright star at Sotheby's, enrolled late at university to read archaeology and flunked out, became another star at The Sunday Times, abandoned that too and then wrote some very, very good books.

Chatwin was an uneasy bisexual, married once ("to stop myself going mad"). He had no children although he wanted to, and went to absurd lengths to conceal the fact that he had Aids. He never settled anywhere and had unusual habits, like sitting on the toilet and defecating with the door open, no matter who might already be in the bathroom. At the end of his life, he converted to Greek Orthodoxy.

What an unattractive creature Bruce Chatwin was! We learn that he "never tolerated being teased", that he liked posh people, that he never washed up in 23 years of marriage and that once, when he and his wife arrived at a restaurant with Sunday Times cronies to discover there wasn't a table big enough for them, Chatwin told his wife to clear off. (She did.)

His lover Jasper Conran said, "Probably there was no one Bruce loved more than himself." He was horribly affected. At Sotheby's, he liked to go around pronouncing this and that to be a fake. Many of his colleagues thought Bruce Chatwin himself was a bit of a fake; and Anthony Powell wrote in his diary that "I always feel there was something a bit phoney about Chatwin".

He worked fantastically hard at the myth-making, desperate to make himself fascinating. The individual details are trivial. Who cares if he told people that his dad had to sell a Stradivarius to pay the school fees? But they add up to a failed person. As Shakespeare's chapters unfurled, I was so repelled by this handsome man that I began, irrationally, to wonder if the books can really be that good after all.

So I re-read his first travel book, In Patagonia, went straight on to the novel Utz, and reassured myself. He was a great writer, and his stories put a torch to the imagination. His prose is cold; knuckle-hard. "In the complete works of Bruce Chatwin," comments Salman Rushdie, "there is not a loving fuck." Yet the warm person whom Rushdie perceived behind this sepulchral prose does not leap from Shakespeare's pages. Chatwin charmed many people, but it is difficult to convey charm on a page. Words are too coarse a medium.

Did the biographer succumb to the myth? He opens the very first chapter with the Chatwin quotation: "He was all things". Well, so are we all, in our way. Shakespeare regurgitates some pretty unpalatable comments. Professor Zampini, for example, who knew Chatwin when he was in Patagonia, says that the writer was "in the tradition of Drake, Cavendish, Darwin, Bridges. For a long time the only way to be universal was to be English." Manifest bollocks.

"He was a Rupert Brooke," says James Ivory. I don't think so. But, at other moments, Chatwin springs to life like a mosaic splashed with water.

Shakespeare does not recoil from the personal failures, and he tries to decipher the man behind the masks. He thinks that Chatwin's ambivalence about his sexuality and his fear of Aids were bound up in the same energies which drove him to travel and to write: "a case, perhaps, of a deficiency on one side of the balance producing the fruit of the other". (Others have called Chatwin a moral coward.)

It is so difficult to have any sense of another person's inner life, but in this vastly enjoyable book Shakespeare successfully shines the beams of his torch onto a psychic landscape peopled by the fearful monsters that Chatwin kept mostly at bay by continually moving and reinventing himself. His brother Hugh reckons that about 60 per cent of the content of the books is true. "It was the story that counted," he told Shakespeare.

Sara Wheeler is the author of `Terra Incognita' (Vintage)