3,5 stars, rounded up. I consider teaching Songlines
, and, unwilling to spend money on Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Chatwin, picked up this collection instead. It turned out to be a good resource, tracing the development of Chatwin's ideas, especially On the Black Hill
(the latter was, as it turns out, an incarnation of Chatwin's earlier unpublished project on nomadism).
Since my first exposure to Chatwin, I have failed to see the romance in nomadic lifestyle - one I found easy to champion by a bisexual, childless male. Yet Chatwin's letters told me he also frequently professed hatred for England, didn't want to come out as a bisexual to his parents and brother, and seemed to suffer genuine discomfort whenever he stayed anywhere longer than a month - a condition that could have been traced back to his wartime childhood.
On the whole, I was surprised by how the letters, with their natural dramaturgy, affected me: Chatwin's descriptions of the art world, which, in the seventies, looked positively like Wild West to me; his puzzling approach to art objects, especially towards the end of his life, when his health declined, due to a rare fungal infection AIDS, and his behaviour grew increasingly erratic; his unorthodox, long-distance marriage to his wife, Elizabeth (they would meet for brief spells of time in remote corners of the world - and he would try to postpone these meetings most of the time).
I wasn't bothered by the things which irritated other readers: the selection could have been more careful, I admit, as Chatwin, responding to his letters in batches, frequently used the same phrases to refer to the same situations, but I think this was natural. Shakespeare's commentary provided the much-needed background. I know people some readers referred to Elizabeth's comments as resentful - but she would have to be an oblivious saint in order to feel none.