18 February 2008

Bruce Chatwin. In Patagonia, 1977.

"One never knows how to classify his books...Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques , adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial, and personal confession - they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mold of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end." W.G. Sebald on Bruce Chatwin.

Bruce Chatwin. IN PATAGONIA. Cape, London, 1977.

Current Selling Prices
$550-$800 /£280-£400

Cult travel book that used to be worth more than it is now. It is still highly rated and much collected and the cult of Chatwin shows no signs of settling down. The problem is that there are too many copies around; the print run of the first edition was 3000. It used to be a 'sleeper' high on the lookout list- often found for £2 to £3 in the travel section of provincial second hand book shops that had never heard of the great wanderer. The net has stopped that happening. Some critics have found his books somewhat overrated - he was known to physically attack critics who had given him bad reviews. Other writers known to set about critics include Stephen Berkoff, Richard Ford, Norman Mailer, Craig Raine and Stanley Crouch (who he?).

At a party given by the old Borneo hand Redmond O'Hanlon, Chatwin pushed and shoved a young critic and novelist who had written that 'On the Black Hill' was a lousy book. He was known to have little sense of humour, and is said to have had the slightly sad and spiteful air of one who had been bullied at school. Jan Morris said of him - "...as a person, he was decidedly too much for me. Snobbism, equally camp and genuine; showy connoisseurship of a quirky kind; the deadly energy of a raconteur; the insensitivity of the tuft-hunter; a gift for mimicry; sexual ambiguity of the Strength Through Joy kind (I can see him now, riding his bicycle blond and barebacked through Powys, for all the world like a Hitler Youth) - all these characteristics, distilled into one very clever, exuberant and apparently ageless being, made all too rich a mixture for an unsophisticated provincial." A copy of the book presented to her sits on the web at a considered £7150--at first glance a ridiculous sum but it is not totally unthinkable that it might sell, such is the strength of the Chatwin legend. This same copy went through Bloomsbury Book Auctions at £2600 (in 'creased, stained & sunned d/j') in April 2007. About 4 years ago we had a spectacular copy of 'Patagonia' which we catalogued thus:-
'8vo. pp 204. Map endpapers, frontis map and 8 pages of photos. Signed presentation copy to Prunella Clough. Chatwin has crossed out his printed name and written out his name in sepia toned ink and added ‘for Prunella with love B.C. 5 April ‘78.’ Prunella Clough who died in 1999 was a distinguished British School painter and the niece of the cult designer Eileen Gray. It was Eileen Gray who had given Chatwin the idea to travel to Patagonia at a meeting in Paris 1972 when she was 93. She died in 1976 and it is presumably through her that Chatwin knew Prunella Clough. $2800.'
Oddly enough this book is still to be found for sale at the online book malls (at $8000) but merely sold as a presentation copy to a 'Prunella' without any of our learned banter about Eileen Gray as the original inspiration. A shame, such is the power of Eileen Gray's name we were able to sell prayer books and children's books with her ownership signature. Put her with Chatwin and you have a win double.

VALUE? A copy made about £600, unsigned and in faded jacket last year but copies fine in jacket can usually be picked up at ABE at less than £400. A few years ago it was selling at book fairs for £700+. The spine has a tendency to fading so copies with unfaded, unsunned jackets can go for a premium. Outlook? It is just possible that Chatwin will be seen in the future as some sort of combinaton of Richard Burton and Robert Byron, in which case keep your copy in a closed and curtained cabinet.

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