January 18, 2008

January 18 | Bruce Chatwin

May 13, 1940 - January 18, 1989: Age 48

Bruce Chatwin wrote the best first paragraph in the history of essay writing. It goes like this:
"The Emperor Wu-ti (145-87 BC) was the most spectacular horse-rustler in history. He craved the possession of a few mares and stallions which belonged to an obscure ruler at the end of the known world, and in getting them he nearly engineered the collapse of China."

When I first encountered this paragraph, I was awestruck by its raw power to fill me with an intense desire to know more about a man, a place and time in which, 5 minutes before, I had no interest whatsoever. I also wanted to hear more from Bruce Chatwin. He had that effect on people.

(That first paragraph is from an essay in a book called What Am I Doing Here?, a collection of essays about Chatwin's travels. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and indeed any of his books, to you.)

Chatwin started out working as a porter in the art department at Sotheby's in London in 1958. He developed very sharp eye for visual detail in general, and fine art in particular; a sensitivity that greatly enhances his writing. His eyes, however, began to fail in the mid-1960s, and a doctor recommended a rest, suggesting that travel might be a good distraction. The subsequent trip to Africa changed Chatwin's life.

From 1966, when he resigned from Sotheby's, to his death in 1989, Chatwin travelled the world, supporting himself by writing about his experiences. He had a talent for finding and connecting with interesting people, both famous and obscure, and conveying his passionate interest in their worlds through his essays.

In the late 1980s he contracted AIDS. At the time the disease was "the gay plague", and public knowledge of it would have quickly ruined him, so he pretended that his symptoms were the result of fungal infections, or the effect of the bite of a Chinese bat. The very odd thing is, he seemed to actually believe the lie. Even in his final months, he would say things like, "I don't understand why I'm not getting better." The word "AIDS" was never mentioned in his household or among his friends. His symptoms included periods of mania during which he toured the auction houses of London, making extravagant purchases which his wife then quietly returned.

When his condition became worse, they moved to the south of France, where they spent his final months living in the house of a friend. At the very end, his denial, combined with the intolerance and ignorance in France at the time, greatly added to his suffering, as it was difficult to get medical care and although Chatwin was bisexual he refused to draw on the resources of the gay community, who knew a lot about caring for AIDS patients.

He was afraid of dying, but in his lucid moments was aware that it was at hand. He lost consciousness for the last time on January 15, reduced to a skeleton, unable to speak clearly because of the fungus in his mouth, in great pain. When his nails started turning blue, his wife and friends took him to hospital in Nice, where he was kept alive a few more days by machines. On January 18, his wife ordered that he be taken off life support. He died a few hours later.

Sources: Wikipedia; Shakespeare, Nicholas, Bruce Chatwin, The Harvill Press, London, 1999.

1 comment:

Daap said...

I cannot understand his ignorance in refusing the cause and the help.