During the winter of 1969, Bruce Chatwin wrote an exceptionally long letter to Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape. "You asked me to write you a letter about my proposed book on nomads," he wrote. "The question I will try to answer is, 'Why do men wander rather than sit still?'" It was a question that preoccupied the author for his entire life, from his prep-school days in the 1940s to his slow fade out to Aids-related illness on the Côte d'Azur four decades later, and one that peppers his collected letters, Under the Sun, like the catechism of a restless spirit.
In her preface to this fascinating volume, his widow Elizabeth asks whether, by dying at the dry-nib end of the time when writing letters was an everyday act, Chatwin represents the last great writer for whom such a collection will exist. Perhaps. What is clear is how they illuminate a life that, for most readers, seemed shaded in misdirection and embellishment. I had, until reading his correspondence, suspected Chatwin to be both emotionally cold and undermined by his wanderlust. This, these letters show, is far from the truth. They radiate kindness, generosity, insecurity and consistency. His marriage, far from the mercenary sham many have judged it, emerges like the "checkmate" of two like-minded, inquisitive minds. And no, it wasn't celibate.
It is often said that Bruce Chatwin self-mythologised. Well, these letters debunk much of the puff with which others shrouded his legacy. The image of the walker of Patagonia and the Australian outback, perpetuated by makers of backpacks and Moleskine diaries, is here shown doing the rounds of the great and good, staying for long stretches with the Betjemans, the Mellys and the Leigh Fermors. "Escorting Mrs Onassis to the opera next Thursday," Chatwin wrote to his wife from New York in 1979. "My god, she's fly." His networking flourishes lend him a Woosterish air that is as likeable as it is unexpected. He was, his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare admits, a bit of a "castle creeper".
I met Shakespeare in Oxford's Jericho Café and asked what he thinks the compendium of postcards, business notes and personal missives provides. "The letters," he claims, "are the closest thing we have to his voice."
Can a book of letters selected by a writer's widow and his biographer remain objective? For instance, there are no letters from Chatwin's gay lovers here. "You're chasing the wrong hare," says Shakespeare. "You've got his madness there, his unfaithfulness. There simply weren't letters to his lovers. Curiously, he's the most intimate with people he meets at the other end of the earth, people he didn't know very well."
One of the recipients closer to home was the publisher Christopher Maclehose, who, many years later, commissioned this collection. Asked how the writer may have adapted to these online times, he believes that, "Chatwin in the age of the internet would have been a blizzard of ideas and news and helpless prayers and hopes."
"What on earth will the archives of publishing houses look like five years from now?" asks Maclehose. "Very few writers that I know of write emails as they would have written letters. I knew PG Wodehouse as well as any child editor could know a great writer in his late eighties. He answered every single letter he ever had from a 'fan'. That was in part, it turned out, because the local Post Office was the only place where his wife allowed him to have an account, and he used it to generous effect. But it was also because he had impeccable manners."
Old-school manners are indeed important. Chatwin's letters begin with his weekly post-Chapel reports home from his Shropshire dormitory at The Old Hall School. It is a practice that the school, now a non-boarding establishment, no longer maintains. However, its new headmaster reassures me that its English curriculum "includes aspects of letter-writing, including persuasive writing and descriptive narrative".
At the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer, the bestselling Icelandic novelist Jó*Kalman Stefánssan claimed that we are living "in a blank age". Records, he believes, will dissipate into the mists of history: documents will corrupt and images evaporate as technology, with its perpetual motion, fails the test of time.
Yet the potential obsolescence of hard-drives and email hoards hasn't deterred some writers from cashing in their digital chips. "A number of archives that have been sold recently have included a digital component, most notably, perhaps, the Salman Rushdie archive," notes Gabriel Heaton, head of manuscripts at Chatwin's old employer, Sotheby's. "We should not underestimate how differently the next generation will interact with the written world. Might the ability to browse through the directory of a writer's computer bring a similar frisson to holding their papers?"
The public might embrace new technology, but it is also unremittingly nostalgic. The current publishing demand for important writers' letters has illustrated a public appetite for fine examples of this waning medium. In Tearing Haste, the tally-ho post between the last Mitford sister, Deborah Devonshire, and the adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor, is on its sixth reprint in two years. This autumn sees the publication of the selected letters of Saul Bellow (Viking), Boris Pasternak (Hoover Institution Press), Tomasi di Lampedusa (Alma Books) and JG Farrell (Cork University Press), along with Philip Larkin's letters to his lover and confidante Monica Jones (Faber). If it is a dying art, letter writing appears to be penning its own positive postscript.
Yet, perhaps the demise of the conventional letter, watermarked, first-class and in one's best hand, isn't entirely a negative development. Following a trekking expedition in 1983, Chatwin wrote to his mountain guide in despair over his domestic chores. "It's hard to write this letter because I have a deep physical ache to be back in Nepal," he states. "I already feel my knuckles whitening with impotent rage, and my guts twisting into knots. I had to write 75 letters. I had to cope with VAT." n
Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, By Bruce Chatwin (Jonathan Cape £25)
To Francis Wyndham, 11 December 1974: '...I have done what I threatened. I suddenly got fed up with NY. And ran away to South America. I have been staying with a cousin in Lima for the past week and am going tonight to Buenos Aires. I intend to spend Christmas in the middle of Patagonia. I am doing a story there for myself, something I have always wanted to write up'
Epistles at dawn
Is receiving a letter in the morning post still a joy?
"I honestly can't remember the last time anyone actually wrote to me using a pen and a bit of paper. These days the only things that come through my letterbox are bills and advertising bumph: more spam lands on my doormat than my Inbox. (Why can't I fit a spam filter to my postman?) And I don't write to anyone, either. But, then, why would I? I can barely read my own handwriting, so how's anyone else going to cope? With email I can reach anyone in the world in a fraction of a second and it doesn't matter that I haven't remembered to buy any stamps."
"I have a lovely mail correspondence with a friend in America, where I used to live. Emails are more instant, obviously, but with a letter you tend to find a quiet time and place to sit down and really think about what you want to say about your week, so they are far more meditative. And I keep all my friend's letters. When I was 16, I got a letter saying I had won a writing competition run by the bookshop Dillons; I remember screaming. I wasn't expecting it at all, having sent off the application months earlier. That letter is definitely still somewhere in the house."
"I do keep my correspondence; 95 per cent is from young children and I answer as many fan letters as I can. I am the last person in the world who doesn't email, so I do send letters and postcards to friends and family. Ever since my daughter left home at 18 – she is now 40 – we have been in daily correspondence. I couldn't bear to throw her letters away. When I was 17, I wrote a short story for a magazine and got a typed letter back from the editor telling me they liked it. It was the first time anyone had taken my writing seriously; it meant a great deal and I've certainly kept that letter."
"There is something about the smell of a letter that brings back where you were when you opened it and the feeling it prompted. I keep those that really mean something either to me or the sender. I have lots of letters from my husband, who was my boyfriend when I was 16. We went out when we were at secondary school, then went our separate ways until we met again on a train years later. He was living in France, and we commuted for six months between London and Paris. These were the days before email, so we wrote to each other. The letter from my husband saying that he was moving back to England was probably the best I have ever been sent."
"I keep any letters that contain even a smidgen of praise. I tend to have kept letters from women on the rare occasions that woman have deigned to write to me. I think people are less likely to keep emails than letters. I do keep some, but not with much enthusiasm. I don't think they are written in the same spirit as letters; emails are quicker and seem more egalitarian. The letter I received in the early 1970s from the Royal Court inviting me to see them was special. I had sent them a play and they gave me a job. It was that letter that opened the door to the future for me."
"I am a retentive old fogey and I sometimes look back over the letters I keep. The most amazing I've received actually came in an email from my second-cousin in the US. He'd found a letter sent by my great-uncle from a place in France called Niort to my other great-uncle, his brother in America, pleading for help. He was a refugee from eastern France and the letter showed he was in western France. This is the first time we knew he had fled there. My cousin found it in my uncle's estate; it was extraordinary to see. He sent it as a PDF so I could see it exactly as written almost 70 years ago."
"I used to write letters a lot when I was in my late teens and early twenties and vainly imagined they would one day be published in several volumes. Of all that I've received, the one that gave me most pleasure was from John Cleese. He wrote to tell me that a friend of his had urged him to read The Modern Review , which I was editing, as an example of everything most loathsome about contemporary journalism. He had done so and found it to be witty and intelligent. The letter ended with a request for a subscription, and I found a cheque for £15 in the envelope. I was chuffed to bits."
"I have a picnic basket full of letters in my wardrobe. They bring back the excitement, travels, and loves of the past with a bang. But I'm an enthusiastic convert to email. My written style's got very stilted, probably because of that playful way of writing you learn on a computer: try a few words, chop, change, cut, paste – it lets you lose your false starts, and ends up sounding effortlessly elegant. Which is why I don't think we'll be impoverished by the loss of letter-writing. Some people write so beautifully about the most ordinary things on email that it would be a crime not to hang on to what they've sent."
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