Bruce Chatwin: Writing, Movement, and Identity


19 January 2018 marked the 29th anniversary of the death of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin. To mark the occasion, I read some old articles and reviews relating to his life and work, and came across an interesting profile of the writer by American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. Writing for The New York Times, Yanagihara reflects on the meaning of identity for a travel writer like Chatwin:

“This kind of writer is certain that his identity has resulted not from where he was raised, but in spite of it. We think of travelers as people who have no attachment to things, but true travelers are people who really have no attachment to place. Home is not a beloved memory or something to yearn for and fetishize, but merely a matter of circumstance: a piece of land (sometimes large, but usually small) on which one eats and sleeps, sometimes for a lifetime, and sometimes for a day. Home, therefore, is anywhere, and yet nowhere as well. Chatwin was powerfully attracted to nomadism, and you might view his collective writings as a struggle to discard this idea of home as a kind of heaven, and to replace it with the radical notion that the person who found himself adrift, in perpetual motion, might already be at home — that movement itself might be the ideal human state.”

— The New York Times

She also recognises something special in Chatwin’s fictional work:

“His three novels are remarkable for the distinctiveness of their styles, but also for their special uncanniness, their relentless omniscience. The reader senses a dedication to honesty in these works, as if in them are the most astonishing, the most haunting of the anecdotes that Chatwin had heard on his travels and, thinking them too improbable for nonfiction, saved them for a realm in which they might be taken more seriously, or might be allowed to chime most loudly.”

— The New York Times

And she singles out Chatwin’s On the Black Hill for special praise:

“But of all his books, it is perhaps ‘‘On the Black Hill’’ that displays Chatwin at his finest and most surprising. Certainly it is the most disciplined of his novels, the least dazzling in setting or circumstance, but told with an economy and elegance of language and, most strikingly, a deep tenderness. Here, the location is not some impossible land, but a farm in rural Wales. Here, the people are not eccentric collectors or sadistic potentates, but twin brothers, farmers and sons of a farmer, who, through first the Great War and then the next, never leave home for any significant period of time. The world moves into modernity but Lewis and Benjamin largely remain behind, sometimes scrabbling forward to catch it, but mostly just clinging to its tail, being dragged reluctantly forward. Though they too are Chatwinesque oddities, their lives are not sources of irony, but instead of wonder.”

— The New York Times

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