Under the Sun: the Letters of Bruce Chatwin

It is sometimes suggested that the travel writer Bruce Chatwin was excessively preoccupied with surface, which makes it rather satisfying that this vast collection of letters should contain his recipe for the production of a perfect surface. The trick, apparently, is to cover a painted wall with a very thin layer of coloured wax glaze; the result is "a slightly transparent look". There is a similarly magical, lacquered quality to much of Chatwin's prose, and one of the pleasures of this volume is in discovering how it was produced.

Chatwin didn't start out as a writer. He took sorties first through the art world, working his way up from an initial post at Sotheby's as a numbering porter to become a partner, before leaving the work that had almost blinded him in favour of studying archaeology at Edinburgh. Both ventures were begun with feverish enthusiasm, both abandoned despite evident talent and success, victims to the same nomadic urge that would make Chatwin the most revered travel writer of his generation. "What does this boy want?" his neighbour James Lees-Milne wrote in his diary. "He is extremely restless . . . When the 'or' has worn off his 'jeunesse', how much substance will be left?"

What Chatwin wanted is a good question. On the evidence of these letters, love does not appear to have been a motivating force. His most constant correspondent was his wife, Elizabeth Chanler, an American who developed a passion for sheep breeding and whose presence formed the still centre of his peripatetic life. His missives to her, which are affectionate rather than romantic, tend to be stuffed with frantic travel plans and elaborate lists of objects to be transported around the world ("Enclosed please find the AIRWAY BILL for a sack which I have sent air freight today. It contains . . . a number of highly precious possessions, including a dried chameleon and the eardrum of a lion"). Running parallel with this sustained conversation is a handful of letters concerning various homosexual affairs, including several to an early lover, the film-maker James Ivory. But the real passion of his life was objects and their production, first works of art and, later, books.

His career as a writer began with a spell at the Sunday Times in the early 1970s, inevitably ditched in favour of the trip to Patagonia that would fuel his first book. But before that, he had worked for years on what his wife describes as an "unpublishable" work on nomads, and it is the logging of this process - to such correspondents as his publisher Tom Maschler and the novelist Francis Wyndham - that affords the strongest sense of a writer in the process of self-creation. Not all his innovations were successful ("I have . . . abandoned the confining institution of the paragraph in favour of a more militant SLOGAN"), but their seriousness and breadth serve to do away entirely with the myth that he was a writer capable of superficial effects only.

Though Chatwin's voice - gossipy, attentive, energetic, occasionally slightly camp - is the strongest here, he is not alone on the page. Elizabeth, as co-editor of the collection, is a font of slyly undercutting footnotes that expose her husband's tendency to self-mythologise. "Nonsense," she adds sternly to the suggestion that the couple took a "beautiful and obscene" coco de mer to bed. The decision to append the letters with occasional commentary from friends also gives rise to a faintly Lawrentian episode that occurred while Chatwin was staying at Ivory's holiday house, where he was observed by the caretaker "back in the woods a ways, hiking. And the son-of-a-bitch was stark naked, except for his big hiking boots . . . I shouted Hey you! and he turned round . . . And you won't believe this, but he'd tied some flowers round his pecker."

As success began to buoy him up, the letters lost a little of their early sheen. The act of writing no longer needed to be interrogated, replaced with carping about its attendant irritants. And then, just as he completed The Songlines, Chatwin became sick. He was a lifelong hypochondriac, and his worries about his health (and a fixation with the colour of his phlegm) were a periodic theme of his correspondence. But this time he really was ill. After nearly dying on a plane home from Switzerland, he was rushed to hospital in Oxford, where he was diagnosed HIV-positive, a condition he never made public. He was 46. In the two years that remained to him, he completed his final novel, Utz, before plunging into hypomania, the result of a fungal infection of the brain.

The letters of this period are both exultant and terribly sad, for Chatwin's essential qualities - his generosity, his enthusiasm, his relentless drive - seem to boil over into something more sinister and disturbed. But although his grip on reality was slackening, his creativity never faltered. At the end of his life he was brimming with plans for more work; and it was from this haul of now-impossible books that his editors salvaged the title Under the Sun for this collection, which should be cherished not least because it is his last.

Under the Sun: the Letters of Bruce Chatwin
Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin
and Nicholas Shakespeare
Jonathan Cape, 554pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial