The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Chatwin’

Got Those Travel-writing Blues, and Other News

July 23, 2015 | by


From a poster for the 1913 World Esperanto Congress.

  • Explaining the Internet’s Joan Didion obsession is a tricky thing: “In the crossover of feminism, fashion, and literary interests, there is a whole swathe of the internet where Didion is a staple reference. Her borscht recipe can be found on the website Brain Pickings, and her list of items to pack for reporting trips periodically crops up on style blogs … In 1989, she appeared in GAP ads with her twenty-three-year-old daughter, wearing black turtlenecks, and staring defiantly into the camera with only the barest suggestion of a smile. Last year, she wore huge black shades in ads for the French luxury goods brand Céline, which inspired devotion in unexpected places and in-depth analysis from the already devoted.” And yet this obsession seldom seems to extend to her political writing, which accounts for the bulk of her output—they only want her to write about herself. And what of that self? “To be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of,” Pauline Kael once wrote, was the “ultimate princess fantasy.”
  • This is peak road-trip season. If you’re not in a car right now, lighting out for the territories and exuding manifest destiny—well, it’s not too late. But don’t be all Fleetwood Mac about it. You cannot, in fact, go your own way. You can instead follow in the footsteps (tire tracks?) of writers past: Kerouac, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wolfe …
  • On second thought, stay home. It’s more or less impossible to be a good travel writer anyway. You risk falling into two camps: the Elizabeth Gilbert, interior psychodrama, “obnoxious white lady in brown places” camp, or the Bruce Chatwin, indomitable male, “colonialist’s baggage stuffed full with preconceived assumptions” camp. If you’re looking for role models, try Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy: “Stark was in the world with her writing, not above it, not in herself … Her writing restores humanity to people who have otherwise been stripped down to news reports, reduced to death tolls and photos of open-mouthed weeping. The secret to her success was listening to the people she visited and letting them tell the story. This shouldn’t be any secret. It should be what every travel writer does.”
  • A man who speaks hardly a lick of French has triumphed in the Francophone Scrabble Championship having apparently memorized the entire French Scrabble Dictionary in just a few days. Nigel Richards, “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” regards words as “just combinations of letters,” like numbers: “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t.”
  • On James Purdy, who wanted to write stories that “bristled with impossibilities”: “In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel … It’s hard to think of a contemporary writer whose work shares this sensibility, a cool elegance laid over extreme emotion. The most apt comparison may be Wes Anderson, whose films similarly feature casts of eccentrics, dialogue full of non sequiturs, deadpan humor, and unabashed farce.”


Barbarian at the Gates

July 1, 2013 | by


“Going native” is usually the preserve of white travelers. In literature, it’s a genre study, one mastered by the British: Graham Greene, Bruce Chatwin, and Jan Morris wrote more than just potboiler anthropology in distant colonial latitudes. England’s fascination with other cultures led to a certain occupational hazard. For two hundred years, from William Hawkins, the East India Company’s first representative to the Mughal court of Jahangir, to the Indologists William Jones or Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, British men often forgot about conquest and commerce, preferring to sink into the warm bath of India’s manifold charms. In the mid-nineteenth century, the crown took over from the EIC, or John Company, and discouraged social intercourse precisely because it was bad for business. Evangelicals and mortified memsahibs petitioned the authorities and warned that past its jungles, where one could always nab tiger skins or indulge in the shade of the crocodile bark, India was a strange land of disfigured heathens. For some Englishmen, transformation was irreversible.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the international spy, ethnographer, and professed “amateur barbarian,” came to Bombay with high expectations in 1842. At twenty-one, he’d been kicked out of Oxford, reduced to begging his father for a pricey commission in the Indian Army, which was granted under the condition that he go to any lengths to see combat. Burton spent four months at sea sparring with his boorish compatriots, a bunch of “yahoos” whose idea of fun amounted to firing their pistols into the black tide, until he detected that “faint spicy odor crossed with the aroma of drugs” that signaled Bombay. Read More »


In Patagonia in Patagonia

May 14, 2013 | by


While I was traveling in South America, a friend, a writer, heard I was heading down to Patagonia. At the end of an e-mail he broke into all caps: “DRINK LOTS OF WINE FUCK SHIT UP RIDE A HORSE AND READ SOME BRUCE CHATWIN.” Fortunately, my boyfriend and I had been drinking wine and fucking shit up plenty in Argentina already. While I like horses in theory, I haven’t had the desire to get on one since I saw National Velvet as a child. His last command, though, made me curse myself—I’d meant to buy a copy of the Chatwin before leaving the states. I figured it was now unlikely I’d find a copy in English. The next afternoon, we entered a Palermo Viejo bookstore. High on a shelf in the brief English-language section, I excitedly located a shrink-wrapped copy of the Penguin Classics edition of In Patagonia.

In his smart introduction, Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare describes his own experience of reading In Patagonia in Patagonia: “One morning, in a gesture soon to be repeated by a generation of backpackers, I was waiting for a bus in the dusty scrubland west of Trelew when I dug out a book I’d brought with me … I’d never heard of the author, but his was the only contemporary book I could find about my destination. I opened the first page and I read the first paragraph and that, really, was that.” Shakespeare summarizes the oft-told circumstances surrounding the book’s inception: There had been a bit of mangy, ancient hide in Chatwin’s grandmother’s cabinet of curiosities when he was a boy. It was from a brontosaurus, he’d been told, from Patagonia. This scrap—which actually belonged to a Patagonian ancient sloth—ignited a spark that lingered in Chatwin’s imagination. As an adult he’d already been Sotheby’s auctioneer and an archeologist before turning to writing. After years of work on an unsuccessful manuscript, he was reminded of his desire to visit Patagonia by octogenarian designer and architect Eileen Gray. It had long been her dream to visit Patagonia, as well, and she told him to “go on my behalf.” So he did. It is said—perhaps mythically—that he sent a cable to his employer, the London Sunday Times Magazine, stating, “Have gone to Patagonia.” He wasn’t heard from for months.

The manuscript he delivered to his editor, which was published in 1977, was career defining. It has been credited with reviving the moribund “travel writing” genre. It’s also safe to say it birthed intrigue about Patagonia in the minds of his many readers—Shakespeare’s “generation of backpackers.” In a story about hiking in Chilean Patagonia from early this year in the New York Times, Ondine Cohane writes that she’d wanted to travel to Patagonia ever since she’d read In Patagonia twenty years before, in high school. She writes that the book “drew me both to the place and in no small way to the profession of travel writing itself.” While Shakespeare is an exception to this trend—he had visited Patagonia in his youth before returning with Chatwin in tow—he states that of all the authors he’d read on the place, “none had validated my Patagonia as Chatwin had.”

I admittedly didn’t know much about Patagonia before going there; it was my boyfriend’s dream more than it was mine. Back home, I had glanced through some Lonely Planets and Rough Guides and only half-pictured lots of empty space and perhaps some beautiful peaks. By the time I’d finished Shakespeare’s introduction to the Chatwin, I felt convinced I’d never needed a book as badly as I needed In Patagonia in Patagonia. Read More »


Notes from a Bookshop: February, or the Folly of Love

February 12, 2013 | by


Sitting alone in my tiny bookshop on a cold February morning, I have the sensation that I’ve conjured a dream into reality. The light is crisp and blue through the door. A flight of red paper swallows—a Valentine homage to Chaucer’s poem “The Parliament of Fowls”—hangs from the ceiling, fluttering quietly from the heat whooshing out of the floor grate. The room is small, just shy of two hundred fifty square feet, and an old pickled farm table sits squarely in the middle. The top of the table is covered with books, and the shelves lining two of the room’s walls also contain a patchwork of brightly colored spines.

Valentine-themed woodblock prints handmade by my husband line the farm table and a grid of nature-inspired prints hold a wall. We live on an old dairy farm up in northeast Pennsylvania, and instead of cows in our three-bay English barn, we have two etching presses. Mark carves the images into blocks of clear pine, inks them up, and sends them through the press, cranking the smooth silver wheel like a captain on a ship. This is our store together, a kind of celebration of works on paper. We live on Moody Road, and so we call the shop Moody Road Studios.

An artist and a writer, respectively, my husband and I had both been teaching and working in the city for more than a decade, until a little over a year ago. The idea of running a bookshop never entered our consciousness while in New York, mostly because it never could have happened. Space and funding were impossibilities—as one might guess, a writer and an artist in business together don’t quite make for a crack commerce force. But here, on Main Street in the small town of Honesdale, everything clicked into place. Read More »