Having immersed myself in the world of shepherding with James Rebanks' book The Shepherd's Life and then scouting around my shelves for the book he mentions by W.H.Hudson A Shepherd's Tale, I stumbled across On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, and in this tennis-elbow-foot world that reading can become, I felt a little surge of enthusiasm for the writing of Bruce as well as some fictional shepherding.
Bruce Chatwin, some would argue (oh alright...me included) arrestingly handsome with those piercing blue eyes, exuding boyish charm, and with the floppy blond hair that looked like it would never do what it was told...in fact Bruce looked like he would never do what he was told either. A man with a spell-binding gift for telling stories and with a relentless intellectual energy according to a commentary by Nicholas Murray which also happened to be on my shelves. And there was the untimely death at the age of forty-nine in 1989, supposedly from a mystery illness contracted from eating a thousand-year old Chinese egg or something when in fact Bruce Chatwin was one of the early casualties of HIV and AIDS. Yes indeed, Bruce Chatwin felt like an on-trend contemporary author to read back in the 1990s, in the midst of my child-rearing and working years when reading time was scarce and what I read needed to enthuse.
And I was enthused by Bruce Chatwin.
I bought all the books, even that large oblong book of photos which to this day has never fitted comfortably on any bookshelf and I never know where to put it...
...but it had me dashing off to buy Moleskinne notebooks just because Bruce had used them.
And as I opened the books a sheaf of newspaper and magazine snippets fell out, I had clearly been a fan.I had first read On the Black Hill in 1995. It had become something of a cult book in the 1980s according to Nicholas Murray, and I remember loving it so hopes were high for a re-read. In fact I thought perhaps I might have a bit of a ChatFest on here and read a few more because his name seems to have vanished from the literary radar, or that might be because I don't get out much or read the right publications.
To begin with that is...
Eighty-year-old twins Lewis and Benjamin Jones, the former tall and stringy who works the farm, the latter shorter and pinker, the cook and the accountant and the one who does the lambing on their hill farm, The Vision on the Welsh borders.
The brothers share the bed that they were born in...
'The bedstead an oak four-poster, came from their mother's home at Bryn-Draenog when she married in 1899. Its faded cretonne hangings, printed with a design of larkspur and roses....calloused heels had worn holes in the linen sheets, and parts of the patchwork quilt had frayed...'
With their identical shocks of white hair, 'even whiter than the pillowcases,' and their daily routine of rising at six, tapping the barometer, lighting the fire and boiling the kettle I settled down comfortably into the world and the lives of Benjamin and Lewis.
The meeting and marriage of their parents, their childhood lives as twins, all was fascinating; the shared language, the secrets, the united inseparable lives, two boys spiritually and emotionally conjoined and self-sufficient, never alone, never lonely. I was reminded of the brothers in Kent Haruf's Eventide, and I am sure there must be more, this is rich and fertile territory for an author after all.
Now maybe this was more about me and my reading mood, but everything was going swimmingly for the first two thirds of the book and then something seemed to shift and I was no longer interested. The book seemed to stray into very strange territory and ultimately felt dour and miserable, the characters became caricatures, there were flashes of humour but the magic stopped working, no depths were plumbed, maybe even a surfeit of Bruce showing off bit seemed to nip through the cracks.
Truth is I was bored and proceeded on the fatal skimming of the final chapters, which I confess gives me no right to even comment on a book that I haven't read properly. And of course reading the rest of Nicholas Murray's commentary I now know that everything just passed me by..the Cain and Abel imagery, the religious allegory, maybe even the affinity with the rural novels of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. I confess to being slightly more in tune with the critic of the time who labelled Bruce Chatwin's literary country as Chatwinshire, classing the book as a fairy tale of twins and travellers. The critic goes on to describe Bruce Chatwin as 'a gifted writer with access to an admiring public,' so no shortage of axes being firmly ground there, and none of which detracted from the book's enormous prize-winning success.
'The country is better than the town, the novel seems to convey: but the country is terrible. Where, if not in heaven are we to live?'
argues the critic ( Karl Miller in the London Review of Books October 1982) suggesting that the book was 'well-received by sophisticated readers,' which, I'll rather embarrassingly admit, I was definitely trying to be back in 1995.
So I'll stop there and I wonder about your thoughts.
If you have read On the Black Hill what did you think...
Were you a Bruce Chatwin fan...
Should I persevere and re-read some more...
If you skim a book rather than cast it aside unfinished how does it leave you feeling..
I always feel slightly disappointed with myself for not staying the course mixed with relief that I can finally put the book down.
I don't often write about reading disappointments but this one felt significant, and goodness what a difference thirty years can make.