Wednesday, May 13, 2009


People change. Authors dress differently and stop eating in the same restaurants after they hit the bestseller lists. Hemingway's second wife was rich and he began wintering in Gstaad instead of Schruns. Ballplayers reach a sweet spot in their careers and decline from there, becoming clubhouse sages and managers and posing in ads for Interwoven socks. Rock stars continue on and on, always wealthy, always attractive, because they sell their souls to the devil. This is why lives are interesting to read. Writing A Book of Ages it was these transformations I jotted down. When did Robert Benchley have his first drink? When did Julia Child discover French cuisine? When did the prophet receive wisdom? When did Ty Cobb invest in Coca Cola and make himself a millionaire?

May 13th is the birthday of the writer Bruce Chatwin, born in 1940 in England's industrial midlands. He was an attractive and ingratiating youth, beginning his working life as a lowly usher at Sotheby's, the auction house. His job was to schlep the artworks around. But he had a magic quality that caught the eye of his upperclass bosses. More importantly he had an eye for good art, a nose for the "genuine article." And he spoke his mind. He rose quickly, becoming one of the directors of the firm, a recognized art expert. Then he quit to become a nomad. He wrote articles about places he visited, and published in top London newspapers. He also became what friends describe as a professional houseguest. Then he wrote a novel, and another, metamorphosing into a bestselling novelist. He was charming and charmed, attractive, enigmatic––and everywhere. Then he contracted a rare disease and died in a matter of months. He described his disease as something he'd picked up in central Asia or Africa, depending on who he was speaking to. But it was AIDS. He died a relatively young 48, a decade and a half older than Byron but rather Byronic. Bruce Chatwin appears on pages 46, 117, 136 and 185 in A Book of Ages.

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