Thursday, 28 October 2010

Befriending Bruce Chatwin

My best friend and I met at university; or more accurately we met in the bars and clubs of the city where we were supposed to be studying. He cut, as he would later say, quite an extraordinary figure: especially on the dance floor where his exuberance and enthusiasm for everything from Pavement to the Pet Shop Boys was exhausting even to watch. I did not like him; nor he me. We barely ever spoke to each other, and would eye each other suspiciously when in small groups.

It was, however, a lazy enmity: later we would tell the story of our friendship as though in those early years we had hated each other. We didn’t. We circled each other, shared friends and tended to admire the same kind of girls, but we were standoffish rather than rude. My perception of him – loud, attention-seeking, a little childish – was both absolutely on the money and hopelessly off mark. I had rushed to judgement, and regret those years of antipathy: they are lost to us now, and though well over a decade has passed, I do wish that I had got to know him sooner, rather than the later we subsequently found ourselves in.

The experience of this friendship has made me somewhat tardier to make judgements on people I meet; less inclined to form an opinion and stick to it. But in terms of reading, I am stuck – like my nineteen-year-old self – with trenchant beliefs about writers and their works. This I seem unable to shake. There are two pillars to my snap judgements: writers I have read and disliked, and writers I have heard about and feel certain I would dislike.

The first is a difficult one to get over. Like spending a dreadful, soul-sapping evening with a newly found acquaintance, reading an author for the first time and hating their work is hard to forget. My distrust and violent reaction to Martin Amis is forged in my experience of Money – a book that should have come protected in rubber, the amount of times I threw it to the floor. No matter how many people tell me that London Fields or Dead Babies is worth reading, no matter how many times I read one of his essays (particularly his early work) I just can’t get past that first introduction. Money has its moments, but only in the same way that a date seems to be warming to you, or you to them, only for your companion to call you a fat, worthless bellend as the coffee’s poured.

The second category is much the worse however. These are writers whose reputation precedes them and before even touching one of their books, I feel I know what’s going on inside. Hearing academics, critics and writers talk about the genius of Henry James has made it impossible for me to even imagine picking up one of his novels; Howard Jacobson’s public persona has put me off his work so much that I couldn't even get past 40 pages of The Finkler Question; Norman Mailer’s wearying masculinity proved a block to ever getting to grips with Harlot’s Ghost or The Executioner's Song., Hemingway, ditto.

Up until about a month ago, the first name on that list of pre-judged authors would have been Bruce Chatwin: a writer, so it always seemed to me, so linked to his untimely death, so pored over and prodded in biographies and letters, so aesthetically concerned and cold, so full of the privileged musings travel bores inflict on interminable parties, that I could never countenance reading any of his slim output. How that changed is, like the start of all good friendships, hard to pinpoint.

I was having one of those moments where reading had become taxing. There was a stack of new and seemingly interesting books piled up in the living room, but nothing really stood out. I had a debut novel to review, but had plenty of time to file, so I spent a few minutes before setting out for work scanning shelves, picking out titles and putting them back. My bookcases are still confused after a recent move, so things were not aligned as usual. In one of the haphazard piles on the shelf, I noticed Utz, Chatwin’s last novel, published in 1988. It was a Picador copy that I barely remembered owning, and the jacket was old-fashioned and somewhat nicotine stained. But it seemed to fit with what I was looking for: something elegant, slim and hopefully diverting.

I read most of Utz on a steely, rain-suggestive afternoon outside of a pub in Hull. Unlike the northern weather, it came as something as a surprise. This was a novel of rare grace and skill, of precise descriptions, of Jewish folklore, Communist state control and the mania for collecting. There is humour too, a wry eye for the absurdities of people’s lives both hidden and lived in the collective gaze of the world. It was bewitching in a way that I had not expected, effortless in its literary chicanery, and crowned with a conclusion steeped in mystery. There is little in the way of plot – it essentially boils down to the attempted discovery of the location of the eponymous Utz's cache of rare porcelain figurines – but that is immaterial when the quality of the prose is as refined as Chatwin’s.

For so many years, to me Chatwin belonged to a group of writers I just felt were not for me – Naipaul for one, Paul Theroux another. But Utz put me more in mind of Sebald; a sense that the novelistic form just wasn’t quite enough for Chatwin. The first impression was, as with my best friend, the wrong one: but with books, time is more forgiving. They always give you a second chance.