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Bruce Chatwin's bestselling novel traces the fortunes of the enigmatic and unconventional hero, Kaspar Utz. Despite the restrictions of Cold War Czechoslovakia, Utz asserts his individuality through his devotion to his precious collection of Meissen porcelain. Although Utz is permitted to leave the country each year, and considers defecting each time, he is not allowed to take his porcelain with him and so he always returns to his Czech home, a prisoner both of the Communist state and of his collection.

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Product details

  • Paperback | 144 pages
  • 128 x 192 x 14mm | 120g
  • Vintage Publishing
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 0099770016
  • 9780099770015
  • 127,512

Review Text

Wispier than any of Chatwin's previous books (In Patagonia, The Songlines), this new "novel" attempts to twirl an anecdotal sliver of biographical journalism into a psycho-social meditation on art-collecting. . .with mildly intriguing, rather precious results. Chatwin, in 1967 Prague to research the subject of"compulsive" collecting, eagerly goes to meet Kaspar Joachim Utz, owner of a spectacular hoarding of Meissen porcelain. Talking to the old collector, and to mutual acquaintances, Chatwin assembles the basic Utz bio: semi-aristocratic background (Czech-German-Jewish); a childhood porcelain obsession, which consoled him after his father's heroic death in WW I; an adulthood of asexual eccentricity, Nazi collaboration (saving Jewish friends by helping Goering's art-looting squad), and constant collecting. The postwar years, under Communist rule, are sketched in somewhat more detail: Utz vacationed annually in Vichy during the Fifties, yearning to defect, but was always pulled back to Prague - by homesickness, by his odd attachment to longtime housekeeper Marta. Also embedded in Chatwin's chats with Utz are digressions into related history: the Jewish legends of golem-making (like art-collecting, a "sinful" form of "idolatry"); the 1710 invention of porcelain by an alchemist. And finally, after Utz's death in 1974, Chatwin returns to Prague, learns more about the collector's private life (his real relationship with Marta), and wonders what happened to that vast collection, now mysteriously vanished. (Smuggled abroad? Destroyed? "Is there, alongside the tendency to worship images - which Baudelaire called 'my unique, my primitive passion' - a counter-tendency to smash them to bits?") Chatwin pokes half-heartedly at some provocative notions here: the relationship between loving art and loving people; the role of an art-lover in a repressive state; collecting as psychopathology. But the themes are far less richly developed than were the ones in The Songlines or even The Viceroy of Ouidah. And Utz's skeletal life-story never takes on either the texture of full-blooded fiction or the resonant bounce of fable. Overall, then: a magazine-article masquerading as a novella, stylishly done up but awfully thin. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Review quote

"Not a word is wasted in the telling of this tale. Each sentence is fashioned, polished, and put into place with microscopic care" Daily Telegraph "This shiny little novel is not just about pretty porcelain figurines but about dirty great issues of life and creativity" The Times "With Chatwin, the real excitement derives from an intellectual drama, in dialogues about art as a surrogate creation, a robbery of divine power, and art collecting as idolatry...For Chatwin, ideas are the supreme fictions" Observer "Bruce Chatwin at his most erudite and evocative" New York Times

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About Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin was born in Sheffield in 1940. After attending Marlborough School he began work as a porter at Sotheby's. Eight years later, having become one of Sotheby's youngest directors, he abandoned his job to pursue his passion for world travel. Between 1972 and 1975 he worked for the Sunday Times, before announcing his next departure in a telegram: 'Gone to Patagonia for six months.' This trip inspired the first of Chatwin's books, In Patagonia, which won the Hawthornden Prize and the E.M.Forster Award and launched his writing career. Two of his books have been made into feature films: The Viceroy of Ouidah (retitled Cobra Verde), directed by Werner Herzog, and Andrew Grieve's On the Black Hill. On publication The Songlines went straight to No.1 in the Sunday Times bestseller list and remained in the top ten for nine months. On the Black Hill won the Whitbread First Novel award while his novel Utz was nominated for the 1988 Booker prize. He died in January 1989, aged forty-eight.

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