David Stephen Calonne: A biographer of skill, humour and insight

by dollydelightly


“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.

In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure,  providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.

Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.

Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.

Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with  “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ –  Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781780230238

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