Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Dreaming of the open road

I'm sitting here on this rainy foggy day with the aforementioned books of letters before me. I am lucky to live within easy driving distance of several independent bookstores, and so had them in hand quickly. Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare (Viking 2011) came first, and it took me three days last week to read through. It would have taken me two but I couldn't bear to come to the end, so I hedged for an evening to postpone the inevitable, and read the last thirty pages the next day. Then, In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley (New York Review Books 2010). I began these a day after finishing the Chatwin letters. And how different they are.

A word about the physical differences, first. The NYRB book is bound in full cloth and printed on acid-free paper which feels like Mohawk Superfine. A lovely, heavy, solid, well-designed real book-book. Such a pleasure to hold and read. The Viking book, now, is almost twice as thick yet feels much too light for its size. Bound in paper-covered boards, and printed on pulpy paper which I suspect will yellow quickly. I wish for something more lovely and with greater longevity. But I do like the dust jacket. (Reading this over later, please feel free to consider this paragraph a general metaphor for the authors in question.)

On to content. As a schoolboy, Chatwin writes to his parents and asks for a few books, among them Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, and The Open Road: A Little Book for Wayfarers, an anthology of prose and poetry collected and edited by E.V. Lucas: "With a green buckram binding 'and a flight of gilded swallows on the cover', it was Chatwin's most cherished travel book..." (p.24) This sent me to my bookshelves. Here is my own much-loved copy, a reprint from 1926:

I suppose after this I will always equate Chatwin with swallows - migrating long distances, nesting in difficult and borrowed places for short seasons, thin and quick, beautiful both in flight and in repose. Common yet still rara avis. I read his letters with great pleasure and some distress, as he seems to spend his entire life seeking something he can't ever find, and running from he knows not what. I don't know what else to say about the letters themselves - here goes nothing - they are very vivid yet often impersonal and businesslike, they deal with money woes, and writing and publishing, and odd travel logistics. He regularly fires off impossible lists of commands to his wife, from several countries away. His lovers of both sexes are strangely absent, barely even mentioned by himself. He denies his fatal illness, AIDS. The letters are impersonally personal. Thankfully, they do also offer insight into how his books came about. After finishing, I spent some time with another book of his, Far Journeys: Photographs and Notebooks (Viking 1993), and found this quotation from one of his famous little moleskines. It refers to the 'nomad book' he spent his life working on and never brought to completion (p.13):

"This book is written in answer to a need to explain my own restlessness - coupled with a morbid preoccupation with roots. No fixed home till I was five and thereafter battling, desperate attempts on my part to escape - if not physically, then by the invention of mystical paradises. The book should be read with this in mind."

There is his story in a nutshell. His mystical paradises become Patagonia, Noakchoatt, Mount Athos. In his relentless seeking, he comes across as an impetuous, precocious child, and as he ages, a child pretending to be a man. One you love for his intelligence and adventurous spirit, but one who could also infuriate.

Several reviews of this volume gave Elizabeth Chatwin a hard time for some of her editorial comments in the footnotes. After reading the book through, I can't see why. She offers welcome clarification throughout, and despite some dry rejoinders here and there (only a very few, in hundreds of pages), they are factual and expository. She's not the only one, either, his brother Hugh Chatwin frequently clarifies points, and many other friends do so as well. So why pick on her, I wonder? Because she is the one left holding the bag of his legacy? Because he flew so high during his lifetime that the literary powers that be felt he had to be shot down afterwards? I suspect and then speculate but actually know nothing.

To continue on to Patrick Leigh Fermor's book, I must first quote Elizabeth Chatwin in these same footnotes. She mentions Leigh Fermor's travel book (p.446):

"...A Time of Gifts (1977) had come out at the same time as In Patagonia. E.C.: 'Paddy said to me, "It's very good, but he ought to let himself rip." Bruce said to me, almost simultaneously, of Paddy's book, "It's very good, but it's too baroque and overflowing; he should tone it down."'"

There again is the case in a nutshell. If Chatwin was a child pretending to be a man, Leigh Fermor in his letters to Deborah Devonshire is a man pretending, from time to time only, to be a child. He has the same enthusiasm and need for travel, the same love of remote places, as Chatwin. And many of the same friends. And a similarly huge intellect and spirit. But he was a war hero early in life, and never seems to be running from anything. In these letters he matches his tone to hers, pitch perfect, for decades, and the correspondence is completely delightful throughout. In the Editor's Note in the beginning of the book, Charlotte Mosley sums up the situation perfectly (p.xii):

"Much of the charm of the letters lies in their authors' particular outlook on life. Both are acutely observant and clear-sighted about human failings, but their lack of cynicism and gift for looking on the bright side bear out the maxim that the world tends to treat you as you find it. On the whole, the people they meet are good to them, the places they visit enchant them and they succeed splendidly in all they set out to do. This light-heartedness - a trait that attracted many, often less sunny, people towards them - gives their letters an irresistible fizz and sparkle."

I'm no longer a drinker of alcohol, but this is champagne indeed, as one of the back-of-the-book blurbs makes note of, something to be endlessly sipped and enjoyed, which leaves you refreshed. (Compared to Chatwin, more like an rare old scotch that burns as it goes down, and then leaves you hungover?) The letters span the years 1954 to 2007, and long-standing jokes run through them, particularly Deborah Devonshire's famous aversion to books and reading. For example:

DD to PLF: "Bother it all - how I HATE books. The marvellous thing about yours is that they never appear, such a good thing. And if by any chance one does (a) read & (b) like a book it's so awful when it's finished." (p.146)

She repeatedly calls Chatsworth "...this old dump." (such as on p.249) And he refers to it as "Dingley Dell" - "...after the snug Christmas retreat in the Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens." (p.326) He usually spells out every literary reference, one suspects as an in-joke, as he teases her about her supposed lack of common bookish knowledge. Their gentle camaraderie grows as the letters progress in time and encompass world events, royalty and the famous, acquaintances in common, the building of houses and raising of livestock, the publishing of books, and finally the passing away of old friends, husbands, and wives. A few of the final letters caught me with tears in my eyes. I have misjudged Deborah Devonshire, having read no other books of hers (yet). She doesn't exhibit the thorny, sometimes cruel gossip that some of her older sisters do in their letters. Both sides of the correspondence are utterly charming and funny. One fascinating thing is the views the letters present of some of the same people in the Chatwin letters, read back-to-back they work together to bring a certain circle of friends to life again.

I see this review has become overly long. But these authors, themselves friends in life (in fact Chatwin's ashes are buried near Leigh Fermor's home in Greece), and two of my very favorite writers ever, fully warrant such treatment. No better way to spend a rainy day than inside, with such fine books to hand, mulling over the lives of these extraordinary people, dreaming of the open road.

Wait For Me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
by Deborah Devonshire (John Murray), 2010.
A lovely book by the 90-year old Duchess. I feared a posh and foreign feeling memoir but Debo thoughtfully and fairly fills in many gaps about her family, the financial struggles of inheriting one of England's finest homes(and making it sustainable), as well as being a wife and mother. It sent me running back to Nancy's books as I felt I "knew" the characters so much better.
Sara K.
Hi Sara - I do love "The Pursuit of Love" and "Love in a Cold Climate" by Nancy. I would like to read Deborah's memoirs, and her book on the restoration of Chatsworth. One of these days I will get my hands on them. I'm glad to hear the former is good, thanks for the recommendation!
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