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Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

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UNDER THE SUN: THE LETTERS OF BRUCE CHATWIN

Edited by: Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare.

Publisher: Viking, 554 pages, $35.

Review: A fitfully interesting behind-the-scenes foray into a renowned travel writer's life, with explanatory notes by his wife.

Letters - lots of 'em - from travel writer Chatwin

  • Article by: CARL ROLLYSON
  • March 5, 2011 - 2:08 PM

The best introduction to Bruce Chatwin's beguiling travel writing is still Nicholas Shakespeare's biography. As Shakespeare acknowledges in the introduction to "Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin," collections of letters tend to be zigzags, messy and repetitive, no matter how brilliant the writer. Although Shakespeare does his best to introduce Chatwin in this collection, a newcomer to Chatwin's prose might form an impression of a rather smug and snobbish chap -- a literary traveler trying to shine for fellow writers like Susan Sontag.

Shakespeare deems it a great boon to his book that four letters and a postcard to Sontag were discovered in time to be included in this bloated collection -- but what to make of Chatwin's brief notes to her if you are not already a member of the club, contemptuous of most governments and convinced of your own probity?

Fortunately, the range of Chatwin's correspondents, including his parents and close friends in art and archaeology -- not to mention film director James Ivory and prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie -- helps to provide the kind of informal, chatty feel and sense of a deeply engrossing life that most biographers are hard put to reproduce.

Chatwin's reputation has suffered in recent years, as Shakespeare admits. And so this collection is, in part, a reclamation project -- one that would have been better served, perhaps, if letters had been more selectively chosen to show the writer in top form, focusing on his travels and not so much on impressing others.

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