That hunger for change, and an enormous aesthetic and intellectual avidity, led Chatwin away from the more conventional career paths. His first ambition was to go on the stage but his father, a lawyer, wouldn’t allow him to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He soon developed a passionate interest in French furniture. A position at Sotheby’s was an option acceptable to both father and son, and Bruce went to work for the auction house while still in his teens, starting as a numbering porter in the Works of Art Department at £6 a week. He rose very rapidly in the firm: By the time he left, at the age of 26, he was head of Impressionist and modern art and one of the company’s youngest directors. But the art business had come to disgust him. Later he would remember with a shudder “the nervous anxiety of the bidder’s face as he or she waits to see if she can afford to take some desirable thing home to play with. Like old men in nightclubs deciding whether they can really afford to pay that much for a whore.” In any case, Chatwin’s deep distaste for institutional rules and regulations was already evident. It is probably what put an end, too, to his next professional venture, the attempt to qualify as an archaeologist. He quit the four-year course at the University of Edinburgh halfway through because, as he claimed, he didn’t like disturbing the dead — an unlikely rationale, considering the interest he took in the subject throughout his life. The truth is probably that academic protocol was simply too constraining.
But what he took away with him from Sotheby’s and Edinburgh inspired and enriched his travels, and by the time he was 30 he had attained a level of erudition almost impossible to credit. His letters are full of this sort of commentary:
Some of that later Seljuk architecture can be appalling. Never cared one bit for that elaborate portal at Sivas, but have never been to Divrigi or Malatya. I don’t quite agree with you over Hittite art. I think that Yazilikiya is most remarkable. It’s very tough and solid, and requires a bouleversement of all one’s ideas as to what is beautiful. I like it all the same in the time of the Old and early New Kingdoms. You’re not, I suppose, going to Nimrud Dagh.
Chatwin had not originally considered putting his restless intelligence and numberless interests at the service of a literary career, but a gig curating a show of nomadic art of the Asian steppes brought him in touch with what was to be his great subject, and he began a long struggle — Sisyphean, according to Elizabeth Chatwin — with a book on nomads and the nomadic instinct. In the end he was defeated by the vastness of the subject and his own inexperience, and after three years he was stuck with an unpublishable manuscript. (He did complete an article for Vogue, which the editors, to his humiliation, titled “It’s a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World.”) The project would unexpectedly reach fruition 20 years later when Chatwin returned to the theme with “The Songlines,” a wildly successful book that turned the author from cult favorite to bestseller. But his early letters to his publisher and others give us fascinating insights into his thinking on the subject.