The myth of Bruce Chatwin - raconteur, adventurer, visionary prose stylist - is still potent. But does the first memoir answer the question: was he any good?
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Afew pages into The Songlines, as the first fine details of his investigation into Aboriginal culture began to glow, Bruce Chatwin casually let slip an admission. On the loose in the dead centre of the Australian desert, the great innovator of contemporary travel writing had no clear idea what he was doing. "Obviously, I was not going to get to the heart of the matter," he wrote, "Nor would I want to."

Chatwin's readers did not seem to mind: The Songlines remained in the bestseller lists for much of 1987 and 1988. But its early declaration of intent, both old-fashioned in its languor - as if Chatwin did not want to dirty his famously precious canvas boots - and quite modern in its scepticism about quests and heroic explorers, rendered his reputation forever slippery. Chatwin was the last of the gentleman travellers, coolly noting flashes of fauna, sun-creased natives of Benin and Patagonia; he was also the outflanker of that tradition, drifting rather than journeying, adding memoir and speculation, and, when he felt the need, simply making it all up.

Chatwin's death, eight years ago, left five ambiguous books. Their brevity - barely 1,000 pages in all - was as beguiling as their precise use of words for mysterious purposes. Then there was the manner of their writing: in a rush from Chatwin's mid-thirties to his late forties, a rush as abruptly halted as any fated rock star's. Posthumous compilations of old articles and out-takes followed, just like they did for Jimi Hendrix. And then, most publicly memorable of all perhaps, there was the manner of their writer.

"If Bruce Chatwin had been portly, myopic and mouse-haired," writes Susannah Clapp, an old friend, in With Chatwin, her long-publicised and finally published biography, "his life and reputation would have been different." Chatwin was blond and rangy with pools for eyes - a 14-year- old at 40. And from this boarding-school ideal poured forth, according to Clapp, bewitching streams of talk: "striding up a Welsh hill, telling stories in different voices ... a publisher in mid-hype, an art-dealer in mid-salvation ... fiery dramatic monologues ... musing explanations which unwound through an evening ..."

Most writers sit in rooms; Chatwin strode across infinite plains, and remembered the terrain for the retelling. When he published In Patagonia in 1977, his first and most adventuring book, he reawakened an appetite for laconic words about distant lands. There were anxieties, of course, about literary imperialism, about the old condescensions of empire re- established by descriptive means, but the lure of the strange and foreign was stronger.

In Patagonia won prizes; the following decade, the creation of Granta gave Chatwin and his dust-cloud of imitators a new arena. Until 1989, he charmed and was championed by Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Michael Ignatieff; he said "Islington" in italics; slept with many men and women; had friends with names like Teddy Millington-Drake; was rumoured to have kept a secret diary and deposited it in the Bodleian Library at Oxford for safe-keeping until 2010. Clapp captures the flounce of this life - part mercurial, part self-mythologised - in a glitter of anecdote: "They had a brief affair, borrowing a house in Wiltshire for a weekend, and being driven to Paris by a friend in an old Rolls-Royce ..."

Not everyone has been so impressed. During Chatwin's life, some book critics saw a charlatan, not an alchemist, in his meanders and fictions. His death, from an Aids infection he concealed - it became, in his letters and conversations, a Chinese lung-fungus or the bite of a rare bat - stirred a few sceptics to malice. His promiscuity became a public sin: Chatwin was called "a casual cottager" with "gilded groupies" by the Evening Standard; a beater of boys, last year, by the Sunday Times.

Susannah Clapp scorns these accusations. Chatwin merely found both sexes "irresistible", he said. But her biography is too shiny and brief, too much of a memoir, to answer the less morally-overbearing, perhaps more interesting question about Chatwin and his work: how good was he, really?

CHATWIN'S way with a sentence came early to him as a writer, but relatively late in his life. By the time he joined the Sunday Times Magazine, in 1972, aged 32, he had acquired craft and material: an itinerant wartime childhood, a schooling to react against at Marlborough, where he sang Noel Coward and wore a silk dressing gown, and, most importantly, a young adulthood honing his author's eye, first as a valuer at Sotheby's, then as an itinerant in Africa and Asia. Chatwin could discern paint by layers, and pick his way through thornscrub; to the magazine, in its well-funded heyday, he had only to come up with a decent subject.

Chatwin tracked down a snarling wolf-boy in India, lingered with a German lady who guarded the Nazca Lines in Peru, alone but for her bed of stones - he knew what editors and readers wanted back in Heath's drizzly Britain. And he compressed his travels into a cool, glassy prose: no metaphors, no similes, just one-line sentences of assertively simple words, quietly propelled by "there is" or "there was" as his eye flicked back and forth. This tone was tricky - days of paring-down preceded Chatwin's final drafts, and their spareness came close at times to banality - but for three years he was a journalist.

Then, legend claims, he sent a telegram to the Sunday Times: "Gone to Patagonia". Susannah Clapp is sceptical. Chatwin may have embroidered a simple sacking. Either way, the blasted plains of southernmost Chile and Argentina gave him his first great subject. As an idea, In Patagonia was rugged enough: a journey to the cold edge of a continent, a search for the lost people and mythical beasts who inhabited it. Its execution, however, was more delicately challenging. Chatwin caught the region's drama and melancholy - the waters of Cape Horn "boiling and slavering"; its squinting farmers, unable to grow crops and cut down by a meat-feaster's stomach cancer - in a stream of short, cinematic fragments. Their perspectives constantly shifted: he was a Cubist, not a chronicler. And the people Chatwin painted were the opposite of noble savages. They were Welshmen and Germans, Arab gauchos and Persian missionaries, a sediment of immigrants, settling and shifting and intermingling. There may also have been - he speculated - Wild West exiles, marooned Nazis. Chatwin's Patagonia, far from being some sanctuary for ancient certainties, was as provisional as the rest of the world.

The author who emerged from its dry paragraphs was a hybrid too: a travel writer with a novelist's devices, a walker of dusty roads equally at home in a mansion block in Paris or Buenos Aires. As In Patagonia touched off a boom in experimental travel books, Chatwin swerved away on the first of his career's several tangents. He would write a novel, a historical epic in fact. And he would do it in less than 100 pages.

The Viceroy Of Ouidah (1980) did not quite work. Written on a Greek island, in an Andalucian hilltown, and in a borrowed Pimlico mews house, it presented the life of a Brazilian slaver in 19th-century Africa as a series of luxurious tableaux. The book did not avoid cruelties but it was more memorable for its textures: turkey buzzards drifting "in a milky sky", "an etruscan couch of jacaranda wood carved with anarcardiums and passion flowers". The Sotheby's graduate seemed less interested in interior lives. Description stood in for dialogue, and the Viceroy, for all his struggle and triumph and slow decline, remained an exotic, caged in Chatwin's gleaming scenes.

A whiff of Wilbur Smith did Chatwin's reputation no harm. Auberon Waugh thought the novel "a masterpiece"; Werner Herzog swelled it into a film. But by 1982 Chatwin's interests had shifted again. He wanted to write about drizzle. On The Black Hill was the mirror-image of In Patagonia: a book about two Welsh brothers so fixed in their lives that they shared a bed for 42 years and, almost trembling, made rare expeditions to Hereford.

Chatwin has always been accused of coldness, of looking and then looking away; here, the charge stumbled. On The Black Hill was a novel of details bursting with emotional resonance. Near the start, the brothers' future parents met in chapel: "She felt his baritone murmuring like a bumblebee round the nape of her neck. All through the Lord's Prayer he stared at her long, white, tapering fingers." They parted without a word, in the manner of Victorian sagas; two pages later they met again, him clattering down a hillside towards her, birds wheeling overhead, the sun lighting the meadows below, in a flashing epiphany straight out of Thomas Hardy.

Chatwin seemed ready to become a traditional writer. He found metaphor in the Monmouthshire landscape - clouds building over the Black Hill, a farmhouse called "The Vision". He thundered through rites of passage, crowd scenes, grand historical context of world war and cultural revolution. The brothers fought, grew fond, then obsessively attached. For the climax, they soared over their valley, a pair of disbelieving pensioners in a relative's light aeroplane. On The Black Hill became, the jackets of its later editions proclaimed, "a sensational film".

AND Chatwin disappeared into the Australian desert. Since his Sotheby's days, he had oscillated between an urban life of fizzing parties and a nomadic one - equally theatrical - of chill, solitary dawns. A similar cycle governed his writing: from extravagance to minimalism, melodrama to obliqueness. What all these shifts indicated - and Chatwin's life and work were self-consciously the same - was an unresolved personal choice between wandering and staying elegantly put.

The Songlines was an extended argument for the former, just as its two predecessors had been explorations of the latter. It began as travelogue, the straightest and sharpest he had written. Chatwin noted "the drawn- in lips of so many white Australians in the Outback", the sad scatterings of broken bottle-glass around the Aboriginal reservations. Then he branched out. Songlines, he discovered, were the Aboriginals' way of mapping their world, "melodic contours" of song, each section known and performed by the traveller of a particular nomadic trail. They were trade routes, means of communication, ethereal substitutes for property. What if all cultures had them? Chatwin plunged into an ocean of possibilities. His argument eddied around: quotes praising nomadism from Rimbaud and Baudelaire, shoals of Bedouin proverbs, Chatwin's old travel diaries, rising in undigested bubbles.

There were brilliant flickers, lots of white space, and confusion. His sentences, for the first time, grew baggy with vague phrases: "as a general rule", "one is tempted to ask". Some critics noticed. Secretly, Chatwin was seriously ill. He had first noticed a deterioration at the end of 1985; by the publication of The Songlines, he was growing feverish with further great schemes. There was a ballet, an opera, a Russian novel, a book about Aids.

Chatwin wrote none of them. Instead, the year before he died, he produced a tiny novel called Utz. It was set in Prague, concerned porcelain collecting, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Kafka would have thrilled to its dark rooms, bitter jokes and small deceptions, its waxy-faced collector hero, who lived with his bourgeois obsessions away from the sun and long horizons of every other Chatwin volume. Utz's end came in a cosy village. With that, Chatwin, now finally making his breakthrough, slid from anybody's certain grasp.

! 'With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer' by Susannah Clapp is published by Cape at pounds 15.99