09 September 2010


The cold winds are coming down hard from Alaska and the Yukon. If I have not answered your recent query as quickly as you would have hoped it is because I have been rather busy the last several days compiling a list of autumn reads. These are books for the coming season.

I look forward to it. Like you I have a specific routine for the chilly weather. After a long day at the orifice I light a fire, settle in to a leather chair, pull up a Pendleton tartan wool blanket, open a bottle of whisky, and rip into a book. I typically acquire a pile of titles only to have them sit on the antique Peruvian blackwood tea table in the middle of the room for months on end until I get around to finishing them.

For the coming months I have already identified a few key choices. As usual I consult reviews before purchase to determine suitability; I am an inveterate reader of book reviews. I see one of my favourite authors, V.S. Naipaul, is under intense fire from the usual establishment apologists in the UK media for his study on African belief systems, Masque of Africa. But the gem for me this season is the Bruce Chatwin book, Under The Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin. More on this in a moment. I suspect both books will be ignored or trashed by the provincial Noo Yawk literary establishment in this country. I hope I am wrong. But never mind.

Something about the Chatwin book immediately struck me as unique. And then I understood. How many major authors in recent years wrote actual letters using pen, ink, and paper? Chatwin was probably the last one. As Chatwin's biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, says: "These constitute possibly the last letters by a contemporary author, from seven years old to shortly before his death, that are written on card and paper and not on Microsoft Word."

And Christian House writes in The Independent: "In her preface to this fascinating volume, [Chatwin's] widow Elizabeth asks whether, by dying at the dry-nib end of the time when writing letters was an everyday act, Chatwin represents the last great writer for whom such a collection will exist."

Good question. I do not know about you, but I used to write letters every week. Hidden away amongst several parcels recently sent to me by my uncle in Connecticut that had been in storage for 15+ years was a small collection of personal correspondence. In the photograph (at left) is a biscuit tin full of letters received by me more than 20 years ago, mainly from girlfriends but also from chums, family, and various school and university officials from England. I was a much greater presence in these peoples' lives then, but over the course of decades they have dropped away and we have become isolated from one another. Not that I mind. A cache of personal love-letters is a reminder that you were once loved. You were loved once, in other words, before you turned into a monster. And that is enough.

Times have changed. Today the bitter-sweet track-record of recent relationships and love affairs can be obliterated simply by pushing a button. And it often is. But can it be removed from one's memory? Not very easily. Unless one consumes consistently vast amounts of wine and codeine. And even then, I can report, it is not so effective. God knows I am trying. With the actual matter in front of you it is harder to get rid of the evidence, at least for a homesick cretin like me. So the love-letters sit in a side drawer or in the back of a changing room closet.

One of the advantages of the anonymity afforded by the electronic newspaper column format is the freedom to be candid. In person, if I were to discuss it, I would probably turn scarlet and mumble something and turn away. So with that in mind I will reveal to you, in an Admiral Cod exclusive, that in one of the piles of letters here is a small lavender envelope containing the last letter written to me by my first love and a lock of her light auburn hair from England in the late 1980s. Silly? Not to a 17-year old. But at my age? I dare not look. In fact I do not plan to read any of these letters ever again. Once or twice is enough, I think.

In a recent review of his friend's book of letters, the French author Paul Theroux said: "But with each passing year I am more convinced that [Chatwin] was the real thing, an original in all his work, and Rimbaudesque in acting on his belief that life is elsewhere."

Yes, indeed, both life and love, Theroux might have added, are elsewhere. It is a belief to which I have adhered for years. The future is provisional.


Belle de Ville said...

Lovely post. I too have a box of handwritten letters, hidden away somewhere in a closet, that were sent to me decades ago.
My favorite is a group of beautifully written letters, subject wise and stylistically, from a young PhD student in Classics that I dated during my first year in college. Another thing in the cache of letters is a book of poetry written for me by another beau from my sophomore year. Bad poetry to be sure, but poetry nonetheless.
I haven't looked at the letters or poetry in years, yet I keep them to remind me that I was once young and loved.
I haven't read any Bruce Chatwin since the 1980s. Perhaps it is time for me to reread his books.

K.S. Anthony said...

"A cache of personal love-letters is a reminder that you were once loved. You were loved once, in other words, before you turned into a monster. And that is enough."

Yes. This.

A few years ago, I destroyed every single photograph, every letter and every journal connected with my old life. Burned it to ash: a total holocaust. A sacrifice of myself to myself.

I am always a little surprised when I find some tiny ember remains a-flicker, somewhere in the back of my mind, waiting to spring into flame when I least expect it.

Steve said...

I enjoy your blog and like you am a fan of Chatwin. I'm also a fan of Paul Theroux. Theroux is an American writer, born in Massachusets and, I believe, presently lives on Cape Cod.

A Super Dilettante said...

I can't wait to read his letters. What Am I Doing Here? by Chatwin is my favourite book. I fell in love with the book as much as the most beautiful book cover. I read a good review of the letters by Robin Lane Fox in the FT weekend. Also, I read the review in the Sunday Time by Paul Theroux. It sounds like it's going to be very interesting. Lytton Strachey once said, "The Masterpiece is in the hand of the postman". I really couldn't agree with him more.

The Ancient said...

Bruce Chatwin was a one-off -- a great writer, madly reckless, wildly uneven. But at his best, he was as good as anyone, and much more curious about the strangeness of the worlds he encountered.

(Comparing Chatwin to Paul Theroux is a bit like comparing Hemingway to George Plimpton.)

TSBosché said...

Please continue your literary references - many I have read, some yet remain to be discovered. They inspire ...

Anonymous said...

Letters: I'm thinking Laguna Beach Trad uses very distinctive correspondence cards. Won't you show us or describe them?

A.E.F. said...

Admiral, Until circumstances (in the provisional and quintessentially elusive future) prove me wrong, I too am quite convinced life and love are elsewhere.
When my husband died aged 35 almost exactly seven years ago I found a box of handwritten letters and diaries. Not long after, but several re-readings later I took them back to England and left them in the attic of a house near a ruined Cistercian Abbey. The depth and breadth of the Atlantic Ocean is as close to them as I can bear to get.

Hilton said...

Have you read the biography of Mr. Naipaul written by Patrick French?


I'm really looking forward to when Mr. Naipaul will be in Washington during his book tour.


Paul Theroux is an American as he was born in Massachusetts.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

Hilton ~ He may have been born in Massachusetts, which makes him an American citizen, but he is still French (and Italian, i.e. European). There is a difference. Being born in a stable does not make one a horse, as Wellington is supposed to have said.

Anonymous said...

But Paul Theroux is not European; he is American.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand. Theroux may hold American citizenship, but he is European.

Anonymous said...

Only recently I destroyed all of my old love letters. I kept them thinking I would read them in my dotage and remember that I was loved but I don't give a toss about any of them now, so who cares? I found a lock of blond hair, quiet ghastly isn;t it? it's like finding a dessicated rats tail.

Anonymous said...

Oh oh and...I have the Chatwin book on my bed side table - I'm on page 1, I'll let you know what I think.
Talking of letters two great and recent collections, make that a trio are the letters of Ted Hughes, Graham Greene and my favourite, Martha Gelhorn, a volume which triumphs over Caroline Moorhead's excellent biography of this inspiring woman.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

Tabitha ~ Gellhorn, really? Gellhorn was a committed Communist, Zionist, feminist, and (anti-white) racist.

Anonymous said...

After we were married, my husband and I threw away letters from former lovers. My husband enjoys writing to me. I have a large "love" basket where I keep all of his special notes and cards to me. As a wedding gift to each other, he suggested that we keep journals during our engagement period. We read them to each other on our honeymoon when we were taking a break from 'other' things. I am aware that this sounds mushy gushy.