I thought about giving Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia a proper review — oh, not really, I never review things properly, but I mean as proper as I get — but I just don’t have the energy or interest in it. I didn’t like the book very much. I found myself bored with it, and I only finished it because I’m obsessive that way and it was short, only 200 quick pages.
I think my problem with the book is that I never learned much about Chatwin himself, or his persona, to be more accurate about it. The book’s focus is not on the traveler, but on the people he meets, the places he sees, the stories he comes across, and the history of the land he travels over. Now those things shouldn’t be boring, should they? But I found myself not caring much. The stories he told tended to be short ones, and they tended to focus on externals — what people did and what they looked like. Without some attention paid to internal things — emotions, thoughts — I remain unconnected.
It’s curious that I wouldn’t like this classic of travel literature, since the scholarly work I’ve done is on travel writing. But here’s the thing — I’ve studied “sentimental” travel, meaning travel writing that focuses on emotions and on internal states (see Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey for a prime example). In a way, this is an odd type of travel writing, since one would think the genre is valuable because of what it can tell us about the world, not so much because of what it tells about the traveler (although of course it does both). But, although I like reading about the world, I want to know about the traveler too, or if not the traveler, then I want to know about the people that traveler meets, and I want to know not just brief summaries of their lives, but something about who they are and why they are the way they are. If there’s no emotional element or if there are no ideas, then I’m left cold.
And In Patagonia didn’t have anything in the way of emotions and not much in the way of ideas either. It had a lot of cool facts and some interesting speculations about things like the inspiration of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the Patagonian sources of Darwin’s theories. But this wasn’t enough.
This is not to say that you won’t like the book. You may love it; it’s probably a great book for people who like this kind of book — and I don’t mean to sound judgmental when I say that. In some cases when I don’t like books it’s because I think they are genuinely bad, but in this case, it’s simply that this was not the book for me.
8 responses to “On not liking books”
I had difficulties with “In Patagonia” too — which was why I gave up on it mid-way. And I actually like his stuff.
I liked him better with the collection of his essays like “What Am I Doing Here?”
This does sound a bit off putting actually. I’ve heard of Chatwin, but I’ve never read him. It seems like often travel narratives are first person and you really do get a sense of the traveler and how their voyages change them internally. I like that as well. I really do understand not connecting with a book or the writer and just wanting to get it over with, and feeling that you have to struggle to the end rather than just quitting and setting it aside. Luckily that doesn’t seem to happen too often.
Too bad about the book. And I’ve heard so many great things about Chatwin too and hope to read him someday. Are you going to try another of his books or are you put off him forever?
You know, I think Songlines follows a similar format so you may not want to read it after all. It’s so interesting that you post this now – I have been slogging my way through Pilgrim at Tinker Creek desperately trying to find what it is everybody else adores about the book, but I am miserable doing so. One part of me wants to stop reading, but another says if my 20 year old sister in law found transcendence in it, that darn it, I will too!
I know what you mean about a book not being right for you — but I always feel compelled to finish what I begin, too!
I liked In Patagonia, but I read a biography of Chatwin that made me really dislike him, and have never touched another novel. I think he is difficult – there is something cold about his writing.
Dark Orpheus — I had it in my head that you liked this book; it makes me feel better to know you abandoned it. Do you know what it is that’s different about his other stuff?
Danielle — no, it doesn’t that often for me either, fortunately. And yeah, I have to know something about the narrator or I’m not that interested!
Stefanie — I haven’t decided yet. I’ve heard that The Songlines is good, but it may be that people who like that one would also like In Patagonia. I’m guessing I won’t try again — surely there’s a lot of travel writing out there I will like.
Courtney — if Songlines is similar, perhaps I shouldn’t try it, you’re right. About Dillard, I’ve thought of trying to read that book, but I’m afraid of getting bored — I did teach a short selection from it and liked it a lot, but this may be a book that’s good in very small doses!
Hepzibah — it’s like an illness, I think — why finish something I don’t like? But I do.
Becky — interesting — why didn’t you like him in the bio? I agree about the coldness; that’s the thing I couldn’t stand, that’s exactly it.
I wasn’t reading “In Patagonia” in the most encouraging circumstances. I guess being stuck in a run-down bus terminal in an alien country, Chatwin felt dry and cold. I preferred Robertson Davies’s humour and human warmth amidst the strangeness of Turkey.
I came to Chatwin via “The Songlines.” That book had a lot of dry moments too — but when you reach his journal excerpts — that’s just marvelous. I laughed, I took notes. I wanted to keep a journal as brilliant and insightful as his.
I guess Chatwin is not the kind of writer who can substain a novel. He works in intermittent bursts of dazzle — but to get to the pieces of beauty, you need to plow through the dry stuff. I’m impressed you forced yourself through the book.
I’ve read the two Chatwin biographies by Nicholas Shakespeare and his former editor Susannah Clapp — so I’m guessing Becky read the Shakespeare bio?
Shakespeare is more thorough, and he’s also more critical of what a cad Chatwin was. He was cheating on his wife throughout their marriage. He just took what he wanted from people — mining them for stories, rewriting stories about their lives when it suited him. A lot of the people he wrote about “In Patagonia” were outraged when the book came out.
But Chatwin was a charmer, someone who could chatter brilliantly and dominated the limelight — but at the end of the conversation you realise he shared nothing of himself, while lulling you into false confidence and taking what he wanted.
There was a story of how he met W. Somerset Maugham. Chatwin allowed Maugham to keep stroking his beautiful blond hair, just so that he could charm the aging writer out of some artwork he wanted to acquire for Sotheby.
With Chatwin, it’s all about the stories and the lies.