Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chatwin in Australia Part 2...

I have posted previously about The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Even if you didn't read that post, you may still be thinking that this book sounds familiar. That's probably because it is mentioned in "The history of a legendary notebook", the pamphlet included inside every Moleskine notebook. So it is only appropriate that last night when I started my new journal I read that little pamphlet and more of the Chatwin book.

I had commented previously that it felt like the film Crocodile Dundee wasn't far from Chatwin's mind when he was writing this travelogue come fiction. I am now over half way through and whilst Chatwin still seems drawn to barbeque's and tongs (as in footwear not underwear), and every new character is generally either really tall, really short,or really thin or really fat, and has some quirk or defect (scar on face from snake bite, calloused buttocks, scarlet face and stumpy legs), it is very engaging. He keeps meeting these "diamonds in the rough" characters, people who read classics, speak several languages, and are living in the middle of nowhere in caravans filled with books with names like Rolf and Red (the police man who loves Spinoza). Human beings are remarkable things, but it is hard to tell how much of these experiences are real and how much imagined. Then again, I am always dubious of long quotes of "remembered" conversation in non-fiction(ish) books. This book is based upon Chatwin's travels here in the land of Oz, but reviewers write of the "character Bruce", suggestive of the fictionalised elements of the book.

But it is enjoyable, following him on his adventure, and there hasn't really been anymore racist language, but his descriptions of some of the aboriginal women can be hard to read. The book has now taken a turn from his adventures to him reviewing (in a caravan in the middle of nowhere) his Paris notebooks, where he has been recording observations, conversations and literary quotations associated with travel from his adventures all over the world. This chapter is uniquely disjointed as is wanders from Proust to Rimbaud, London to China, and the Bible to Blake. I am really enjoying this section, but just before you get there, we are given the infamous Moleskine story, a story that has helped build a notebook empire. So I quote Bruce (the character and the writer) writing to us from his caravan in The Songlines:

...I made three neat stacks of my 'Paris' notebooks.
In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: 'moleskine', in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had a number of them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one's worries: to lose a notebook was catastrophe. 
... Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine were getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were slow in answering letters.
'I'd like to order a hundred,' I said to Madame. 'A hundred to last me a lifetime.'
She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon. 
I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and, almost with an air of mourning, said, 'Le vrai moleskine n'est plus.' ('The real moleskine is no more')

Bruce Chatwin's wife speaking about his notebooks, with some footage of his notebooks. 


  1. this is such a fantastic post, I think I'll have to come back and read it again so I can soak it in properly.

  2. How I wish these notebooks, which I scribble in compulsively, still had the black oilcloth binding.

  3. I always love the idea of keeping notebooks but I do it in a very ad hoc way. Anyhow lovely post ... but you know, I think I heard just the other day that Chatwin himself called it fiction. Actually, it was on an old First Tuesday Book CLub special that I was catching up on. Here is the exchange:

    "JENNIFER BYRNE: What about if you're reading Bruce Chatwin or Ryszard Kapuscinski, both of whom have had the beam of truth lit upon them and failed.

    CLAIRE SCOBIE: But Bruce Chatwin actually referred to Songlines as a novel, didn't he?"

    And the link: I haven't checked though to see whether Scobie got it right.


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