Paperback Writers: Between sea and sky
Bruce Chatwin, the brilliant English writer and stylish nomad, died from AIDS in late 1989. His memorial service, held in a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London on the day that Ayatollah Khomeini handed a death sentence to Chatwin’s friend Salman Rushdie, was a legendary event, mobbed by fans, celebrities and hundreds of journalists. Chatwin was by then a cult — admired as much for his self-mythologizing persona and the values of independent scholarship and lonely questing that he seemed to represent as for his clipped, lapidary prose. With Chatwin, everything had to be the best: the writing, the conversation, the trip, the clothes, the Mont Blanc pens, the Aspreys ink, the notebooks that were only available from certain little Paris papeterie.
Since then those Moleskine notebooks have become a global brand, while Chatwin’s reputation has dwindled. The irony might have amused him or prompted a Chatwinesque riff on how writers flourish and vanish but wait for history’s archaeologists to find them again.
One of Chatwin’s best books, “On the Black Hill” (Penguin: $16), has now been reissued with a gorgeous jacket by tattoo artist Daniel Obrigo. It tells the story of twin boys, Lewis and Benjamin Taylor, who spend their entire lives on a small farm in the Black Mountains, a rural hinterland that straddles the border between England and Wales. The novel begins in the late 1800s and skips brightly through decades, while Lewis and Benjamin do the same job, sleep in the same bed, see the same land. World events, and advancing technology, inevitably impinge, but this is really a story about the mystery of time: how it changes people and how it doesn’t. Here Chatwin describes the moment preceding the twins’ birth:
“On the 8th of August the weather broke. Stacks of smoky, silver-lidded clouds piled behind the hill. At six in the evening, Amos and Dai Morgan were scything the last of the oats. All the birds were silent in the stillness that precedes a storm. Thistledown floated upwards, and a shriek tore out across the valley. The labour pains had begun.”
This passage is typical. Chatwin slows down time, evoking the indelible atmosphere of a moment, before dancing forward again. Entire chapters of “On the Black Hill” are sometimes devoted to a single day, while years hurtle by in the sub-clause of a sentence. The effect is mesmerizing. At the still center of the book are Lewis and Benjamin, who literally share sensations. Their earliest memories are identical, and sometimes they dream the same dream. The relationship is telepathic, almost incestuous, and Benjamin, while apparently the less powerful of the two, manages to prevent Lewis from ever marrying. Lewis keeps a scrapbook of airplane disasters; Benjamin shrewdly acquires neighboring properties. Wars wash over them without disturbing their solitude: “Now and then, the drone of an enemy bomber, or some niggling wartime restriction, reminded them of the fighting beyond the Malvern Hills. But the Battle of Britain was too big for Lewis’s scrapbook.”
Eventually the brothers cease talking to each other, symbiosis creating its own form of loneliness; but even death can’t part them, and the novel ends with Benjamin roosting on Lewis’ grave, staring at his own reflection in “a block of shiny black granite, one half with an inscription, the other left blank.”
Chatwin went into the remoter reaches of South America and the wilds of the Australian outback, real journeys that he transformed into explorations of his intellect and related in “In Patagonia” and “The Songlines.” Here, in “On the Black Hill,” he found the wonderful much closer to home. This novel is very much based, like all of Chatwin’s work, on research he did, places he went, people he met. Yet the book’s true source lies in the literary peaks to which this most driven and ambitious of writers aspired: Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Flaubert, Hemingway, Mandelstam. He aimed high … and hit the target often enough. “On the Black Hill” can feel worked at, but it remains, more than 25 years after its first publication, beautiful and haunting.
Erskine Childers was born in London in 1870 and educated at Cambridge; he married an American, fell in love with Ireland and served with distinction on the English side during World War I. Later he joined the Irish Republican Army, running guns and fighting against the British — offences for which he was arrested, sentenced, and swiftly executed in the Irish Civil War of 1922.
His was a life of tragic gallantry and compromised loyalties, issues very much at the heart of his sole novel, “The Riddle of the Sands” (Penguin: $16), first published in 1903 and this month reissued, enshrined indeed, with the shiny black spine of a Penguin Classic. The story features two young Englishmen who, while sailing among the treacherous waters and shifting sands of the Frisian Islands, stumble across secret German plans to invade England.
“The Riddle of the Sands” has been described by John le Carré as the foundation stone of the contemporary novel of espionage and the creation of an archetype — the smart, resourceful loner who finds himself in danger but manages to cope. The book does indeed predict not only le Carré’s Smiley but also John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, the best heroes of Eric Ambler’s wonderful books … and even James Bond.
Childers’ central character, Carruthers (how English can you get?), enters the story as little more than a peevish dandy but evolves into an agent of daring. The transformation, believably handled, takes place against a background of changing tides, freezing winds, a maze of dangerous shoals. Atmosphere becomes metaphor: “It was a cold, vaporous dawn, the glass rising, and the wind fallen to a light air still from the north-east. Our creased and sodden sails scarcely answered to it as we crept across the oily swell to Langeoog.” The novel’s climax, a fog-bound journey in a dingy, goes on for 50 pages and more, working as a masterful exercise in suspense because Childers makes his readers really feel that any one of many fateful moments of chance might indeed halt his heroes’ escape and lead to their death.
Like Chatwin, Childers lived a somehow very English life of risk and high romantic adventure. For Chatwin, though, everything he did served the work he created. “The Riddle of the Sands,” on the other hand, retains its ability to thrill and surprise almost precisely because it’s a one-off, penned by a gifted amateur, a man who was only beginning to suspect how history might, like wind gusting along an estuary, change the course of his own honor and loyalty.
Rayner is the author of many books, including “A Bright and Guilty Place.” Paperback Writers appears at https://www.latimes.com/books.
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