Blurring Distinctions: Autobiography and Identity in Bruce Chatwin's the Songlines
Smith, Thomas R., Bucknell Review
MANY commentators on The Songlines (1987) have expressed reservations about the disparity between the book's ambitious intellectual aims and its form as a travel narrative. Unlike most travel writing, The Songlines has a thesis--that all humans are by nature migrators or nomads--a claim more appropriate to a scholarly work of anthropology than a travel narrative. One of Chatwin's editors, Susannah Clapp, has written that The Songlines "creaks in trying to make its large statements." (1) She feels that when entries from Chatwin's notebooks on nomadism first appear in chapter 30, "the narrative of the book comes apart and is never put together again in an entirely satisfactory way." (2) And she is severe on Chatwin's generalizing about the universality of nomadism: "His larger statements--continent-spanning, epoch-hopping--have the ring of conversations held at midnight." (3)
Although not writing specifically of The Songlines, Sallie Tisdale, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, has expressed similar doubts about Chatwin as a travel writer: "Chatwin's books are, in places, fragmented to the point of inscrutability, and the reader is lost in Chatwin's peculiar, unmapped space. I don't know where he's going, because I don't know who he is or who he hopes to become, or even how he'll know he's arrived." (4) Tisdale's complaint, like Clapp's in part, is that Chatwin's attention is on something else besides moving his travel narrative along. Tisdale feels the lack of a focused narrative voice guiding the reader on a journey, while Clapp thinks that Chatwin's ideas fatally disrupt his travel narrative and finds the ideas themselves unconvincing. Jeremy Swift, an economic anthropologist who met Chatwin in the early 1970s, compared his efforts to write on nomadism, in the words of Chatwin's biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, "to a brilliant attempt at an out-of-date form, a grand synthesis by an extraordinarily well-read amateur in the tradition of Francis Bacon, Gilbert White and Arnold Toynbee." (5) To be sure, The Songlines is a nonprofessional's effort to bring many disparate ideas together to support an ambitious theory of the origins of human nature and culture. Readers' problems with the book may result from Chatwin's lack of a generic model for it, unlike his earlier In Patagonia (1977), which he termed "a modern WONDER VOYAGE," a Renaissance traveler's tale of mysterious people in exotic places. (6)
Chatwin insisted on calling The Songlines a novel, and much of it is fictional. (7) But the book has been widely read as travel writing, and chapters 1-20 and 37-39--its first half and the last three chapters--do little to dissuade one from categorizing it as such. Conventional autobiography--the self-written narrative history of one's life does appear in a limited way in The Songlines, but autobiography more broadly understood as a mode of self-representation underlies the travel narrative and the notebook material as well. Seeing the entire book as self-representational allows for an appreciation of the kind of integration of ideas, experience, and self-understanding that Chatwin was aiming for.
I would argue that, in the case of The Songlines, Tisdale's sense of a "peculiar, unmapped space" is in fact mapped, filled with Chatwin's ideas about nomadism that he had obsessively elaborated since his first visit to the Sudan in the late 1960s and had collected in the early 1970s in a manuscript titled The Nomadic Alternative that his publisher rejected. (8) These ideas, clustered mainly in what Nicholas Murray aptly calls an "epigrammatic mosaic" in the last haft of the book, represent the self that he usually keeps hidden from view in his travel writing. (9) Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan describe travel writing as "chart[ing] the tension between the writers' compulsion to report the world they see and their often repressed desire to make the world conform to their preconception of it." (10) In The Songlines, Chatwin had no need to repress his desire to make the world fit his ideas of it. …