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Tag: Jack Kerouac

Writers On Writers

Anthony Powell_Beryl Bainbridge_Jack Kerouac_Virginia Woolf_William Blake_Ernest Hemingway_William Faulkner_ Rebecca West_William Shakespeare_John Updike

“Important novelists often say that writing a novel is hard. I think Anthony Powell said it was like conducting foreign policy—that you have to be prepared to go and do it every day no matter how you feel.”
James Salter

“Beryl Bainbridge understood the absurdity of life and how humour lurks in even the most tragic situation.”
Deborah Moggach

“Jack Kerouac influenced me quite a bit as a writer . . . in the Arab sense that the enemy of my enemy was my friend.”
Hunter S. Thompson

“There was a period in my early career that was determined by the images of women writers I was exposed to—women writers as genius suicides like Virginia Woolf.”
Margaret Atwood

“Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.”
T. S Eliot

“In writing She Came to Stay, I was certainly influenced by Hemingway insofar as it was he who taught us a certain simplicity of dialogue and the importance of the little things in life.”
Simone de Beauvoir

“I find Faulkner intolerably bad.”
Evelyn Waugh

“Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows taught me a lot.”
Andrea Barrett

“Every year or so I read Shakespeare straight through.”
P.G. Wodehouse

“Updike is a master of effortless motion — between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic.”
Ian McEwan

Sources: Bartleby, The Independent, The Paris Review, Wikiquote

Steve Finbow: Resolutely straight-shooting

Writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke observed that the “little or almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have important and lasting consequences”.  This axiom not only defined but also shaped Allen Ginsberg’s life; a life Steve Finbow examines in his astute new biography. “Madness, poetry, politics and a longing for love – important elements of Allan’s childhood,” writes Finbow, “obsessed him throughout his life and became the subject matter of his greatest poems, Howl and Kadish.”  The long line poems “challenging societal status quo” made the poet’s “private world public” which to Ginsberg meant the very pinnacle of creative achievement. But even for someone like him, someone who appeared so saliently a poet, it took several decades to find the courage to unveil his true voice. The biographer, in writing about these formative years, cites a number of Ginsberg’s early works to illustrate his restraint and reticence. Juxtaposed against his later poems they seem disparate, timorous and coy much like Ginsberg himself at the time. Finbow suggests that Ginsberg’s “ sexual passivity and masochism, his guilt about his mother’s lobotomy and his continuing incestuous fantasies and dreams about his father and his brother caused Allen to theorize that his homosexuality was a sign of insanity.” To counteract this anxiety Ginsberg sought therapy, attempted to become heterosexual and tried to abandon his fledgling literary ambitions, but his efforts to conform only made life more difficult.

As any good biographer, Finbow demystifies rather than promulgates romantic notions about his subject. In fact, he is resolutely straight-shooting about Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities, mentions of which perforate the slender volume throughout, individually as well as in conjunction with Ginsberg’s literary contemporaries. Finbow describes the “jazz loving, poetry quoting” Beatniks as an insular clique riddled with professional backbiting, “soap opera” sexual dynamics and incestuous relationships. Albeit many of the Beats were heterosexual, most dabbled in homosexuality which goes some way to explain how Ginsberg frequently found himself in love with straight men. The worst of these disastrous affairs was with Neal Cassidy, a lubricious sadist and a liar who frequently drove Ginsberg to the brink of suicide. Although, Ginsberg’s suicidal tendencies were in full swing long before Cassidy came on the scene. “For Allen,” writes Finbow, “Nietzsche’s maxim ‘The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort,’ held true, and more so that ‘it helps one through many a dreadful night.” It was, in fact, a lifelong coping mechanism which aided Ginsberg thought chronic loneliness, reoccurring breakdowns, numerous bereavements and fruitless quests for love. All of these themes were later celebrated in Ginsberg’s poetry, combining autobiography, fantasy, psychosexuality and imagination – a complete bouleversement of poetic tradition.

Between spells of travelling, unrequited love, a nascent domestic life with Peter Orlovsky and his role as a makeshift agent for Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg hardly found time to write. But he was also short of inspiration, waiting for some divine afflatus, some booming muse, which eventually came in the form of his breakthrough, Howl.  Ginsberg performed it for the first time at the Six Gallery, on 7th October 1955, which “became a defining moment in Beat history” and “changed the public’s idea of poets and poetry, ignited discussion in universities, bars and newspapers”. Soon after, the work was published in Howl and Other Poems, then famously banned and has subsequently generated more analysis, speculation, outrage and conjecture than any other work of the twentieth century. In reaching this status, and the imprimatur of his peers, it partly achieved Ginsberg’s dream of being “known as the most brilliant man in America”. I say partly because despite finally finding his voice Ginsberg was largely unhappy. Finbow suggest that this perpetual darkness which hung over him may have been a result of manic depression. “Could Allen’s restlessness have been a sign of bipolar disorder?” the biographer asks, “the irritability and euphoria, the self-loathing and inflated self-esteem, the suicidal tendencies and the sexual energy all point to a positive diagnosis.” Whatever his condition, it was made worse by Ginsberg’s extensive experimentation with drugs, altered states of consciousness, compulsive travelling and recreant friends.

Finbow draws on secondary sources as well as first-hand knowledge of Ginsberg to evaluate the poet’s place in American letters. The biographer follows Ginsberg from childhood to college, from Mexico and India back to America, where he thrived and flourished as a poet and as an activist. In 1968, Ginsberg’s fame reached its pinnacle, that same year Cassidy died, Kerouac soon followed, marking the end of an era for the Beats. During this particular time Ginsberg embraced Buddhism, hoping to achieve some cosmic equilibrium but with “Cassidy and Kerouac dead, Orlovsky sliding into mania, Allen was alone, only the illusion of his fame for company”.  Ginsberg’s celebrity meant groupies, experience of which, prompted him to write lines such as: “ – met you in the street you carried my package/Put your hands down to my legs/Touch if it’s there, the prick shaft delicate/Hot in your rounded palm, soft thumb on cockhead”. He no longer had to resort to subterfuge or euphemism, boldly speaking his mind in print, galling the thin-skinned establishment he was eventually to woo.  Following in Walt Whitman’s tradition, Ginsberg fashioned himself into to a unique counterculture figure, a poet laureate of the disenfranchised. But this role was ultimately subsumed by the poet’s ego and his desire for fame. “His notoriety as a counterculture icon,” Finbow writes, “meant media exposure and his poetry reached a large audience. The American literary establishment recognised this influence and the mutual absorption began.”

Commenting on this phenomenon another critic, Charles Bronstein, said that Ginsberg’s success depended largely on “the authenticity of his way of life as much as his positions, a mode of authenticity that he takes, above all, from Whitman.” An authenticity that by the 1980s had become somewhat questionable, both in terms of his work and his personal life. After 25 turbulent years together with Orlovsky, writes Finbow, Allen maintained the pretence that they were a couple  in reality the relationship was “fake, poisonous and detrimental to the mental health (and happiness) of both men.” Finbow notes that for all his faults, Ginsberg was aware of his fraud and yet vanity and fame overshadowed this awareness. His poetry deteriorated as his public appearances increased. The last two chapters of the book read like a travel itinerary with Ginsberg darting all over the globe, giving talks and lectures and making television appearances. The biographer candidly but considerately documents how Ginsberg’s popularity and success facilitated his “slow fade into the system,” which was capped with the poet penning a letter to Bill Clinton “informing the president of his terminal cancer and asking for a medal or an award for services to poetry”. A big ask from someone who set out to champion the disenfranchised. Finbow’s uncompromisingly lucid and thoughtful book evinces great insight into this important cultural figure, whose private life still remains more interesting than his work.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 239 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 978178023017 7

Phil Baker: The skilful biographer

In his eponymous study of William S. Burroughs (published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series) Phil Baker skilfully chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood in Show-Me-State St Louis, Missouri; through to his galliard years in Europe; his days as a junky on the streets of New York; his spell in Mexico City; his nomadic roving in Morocco and South America; to his senescence and eventual death in Kansas in 1997. Burroughs died a cult icon, a figure of worldwide acclaim with a status akin to that of a rock star. And almost two decades after his death, he still remains as fascinating as his auctorial prose, which shifted nebulous boundaries between fact and fiction. The fescennine nature of his work, and the attempts to censor it, has also generated considerable interest in the man himself. Chronicling the early years, Baker notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. Excited by the sight of a maid smoking opiates young Burroughs said to himself: “I will smoke opium when I grow up.” True to his word he first tried drugs (chloral hydrate) while still at school. Burroughs didn’t like school, preferring to spend time on Market Street, “the skid row” of his adolescent youth.

Burroughs’ early experience of “tattoo parlours, novelty stores [and] hock shops” came to constitute the ambiance of much of his prose. But his chief impetus to write was actually literature. Baker notes that aged 13 Burroughs “encountered the book that was to have the greatest effect on his writing… the autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s 1925 You Can’t Win.” Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.” Due to his idiosyncratic interests, Burroughs came to be viewed as an outsider and this sense of exclusion not only characterised his early life but also followed him when he went to Harvard in 1932 to study English Literature. Despite the odds firmly stacked against him, he received “a good education.” Baker explains: “He attended George Lyman Kittredge’s then famous Shakespeare lectures, learned a great deal of Shakespeare by heart, and took a course on Coleridge’s imagination with John Livingstone Lowes, author of the classis study The Road to Xandau.” He even “saw T.S Eliot give one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures”. And yet despite complete immersion in academia, Burroughs felt compelled to explore the underground subculture of New York City, Harlem nightclubs and sex. Burroughs was unpopular at Harvard; he kept a ferret in his room and a “gun, against regulations” once narrowly escaping a lethal accident.

After leaving Harvard in 1936, Burroughs travelled to New York where he was introduced to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer. Burroughs and Vollmer became lovers in 1945 and were soon living together as common-law husband and wife. Joan was later famously a victim of one of Burroughs’ most notorious capers. “I guess it’s about time for out William Tell act,” Burroughs reportedly said to Vollmer after an evening out in Mexico City. “Joan was fairly drunk and she giggled as she balanced a glass on her head,” Baker writes, “Burroughs took aim at the top of the glass and fired, with the shocking sound of the gun indoors. A moment later the glass was one the floor but still unbroken…There was a small blue hole in Joan’s forehead, four or five centremetres to the left of the centre. Joan died on the way to the hospital. Burroughs was detained by the police and later sentenced to two years suspended, minus 13 days. According to Baker “Burroughs never stopped turning the event in his mind. He even thought of trying to write something about it but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid…not so much of finding the ‘unconscious intent’ but something altogether wider.” Burroughs recorded his own feelings in a journal, saying: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.”  This need was indeed evident both in his life and in his work. During this period Burroughs was travelling a lot, he “was changing. His politics were mellowing; he stopped using the word ‘Liberal’ as a term of abuse…His comic talents were sharpening.” Not only that, Burroughs was also experimenting with yage, a drug that made everything “writhe with a peculiar furtive life.” He later recalled that it was like “space-time travel,” something he had longed for but hadn’t previously found.

In 1953, Burroughs returned to Mexico City but unable to settle went back to St Louis and later to stay with Ginsberg in New York. The two became embroiled in a sexual relationship, which ended abruptly and saw Burroughs leave for Tangiers, a place where “fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into real world.”  Burroughs was missing Ginsberg and in a letter to Kerouac wrote that “the withdrawal symptoms are worse than the Marker habit. One letter would fix me.” In absence of the epistolary panacea, Burroughs was getting fixed on Eucodol and a young Spaniard, who was to become his lover for the next several years. Quietly dissatisfied with his new life, lonely and sequestered, Burroughs felt old (now in his 40s) and just as alone as he had done in his teenage years. He saw himself move through the world “like a ghost” who would end up as a “crazy old bore somewhere in a bar”.  Burroughs’ addiction to Eucodol was also spiralling out of control. He was injecting every two hours and “could now spend eight hours staring at his shoe, periodically sticking a needle into his grey fibrous flesh.” These details of an addict’s lifestyle later made it into his work, which had come to a halt until he fled to London in 1956 to seek help. Clean, he went back to Tangiers and began writing, fuelled by inspiration that came like a “great black wind through the bones.”

Two years later, Burroughs followed Ginsberg and his new lover Peter Orlovsky to Paris. By February 1958, Burroughs was once again developing a drug habit by way of Codethyline. While in Paris, Ginsberg and Burroughs went on a pilgrimage to meet Louis-Ferdinand Céline and “walked straight into a Celine novel”. It was from him and his “style telegraphique” that the Beats “took their free use of dots” to capture the spoken word effect. Among other notables, Burroughs also met Jaques Stern, “a millionaire, French junky intellectual, crippled by polio” whose prose fragments were later inosculated with Burroughs’ cut-up prose most notably in The Soft Machine. Burroughs also became better acquainted with Brion Gysin, a “regally smooth artist” whom he first met in Tangiers. His interest in the “irrational occult” deepened due to Gysin, who replaced Ginsberg in Burroughs affections, and the new lover fortified for Burroughs the belief in “super-surreal consolidation of reality and dream.” The following year, Burroughs began to experience numinous visions and “paranormal occurrences were coming so thick and fast he could barely get them down on paper.” At one point he reportedly saw “his own hand turn completely inhuman, thick, black-pink, with white tendrils growing out where the fingertips had been.” He also took to crystal ball gazing and saw “flying saucers like flat fish full of black fuzz”. Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch and Ginsberg was trying to get it published, which he did. The work made Burroughs both famous and infamous. He later recalled seeing a review in which “they had a picture of me in a suit, saying ‘He has the appearance of a Protestant minister or a banker, but actually he’s very subversive, dedicated to subverting all decent values.” Oppugning rather than subverting, perhaps, but Burroughs’ prose is so multidimensional, so full of anacolutha and fragmentations that it is often susceptible to misinterpretation. Naked Lunch is hostile and brutish yet it is also a considered and intricate study of the human condition.

Not long after, Gysin came up with the cut up technique which “would dominate Burroughs’ work for the next decade.” By 1960, the cut up method produced two collaborative efforts. One between the key Beats, Minutes to God, and the other between Burroughs and Gysin called The Exterminator. Around this time Burroughs took to travelling again, and while in Paris met Samuel Beckett. Although interested in Burroughs, Beckett was less enthused about the cut-ups, remarking of the method: “That’s not writing, that’s merely plumbing.” He did, however, compliment Naked Lunch, telling Burroughs: “Our despair is total. Total! That’s what I felt in Naked Lunch and why I like it.” Later, Burroughs travelled to London where he became involved in barmecidal spiritualism and new mind-altering-substances, including pilocybin and DMT which resulted in grotesque visions of “green boys with purple fungoid gills” and “white ovens”. Burroughs was well received in Britain but his reputation and the sales of Naked Lunch were going agley in New York. By 1963, the book was deemed obscene by the courts due to too “many baboons” and insurrectionary ideas. It was perhaps Burroughs’ provocative lifestyle as well as prose – the drugs, the ostentatious degradation, contempt for convention and law – that many middle class Americans found an effrontery. As Baker says, Burroughs’ prose landscape was “an unmistakable place, with its penny arcades and vacant lots, China blue skies, 1920s movies, a smell of woodsmoke and piano music down a city street, train whistles, frayed light from a distant star, rose wallpaper and brass bedsteads, ginger haired boys with red gums, deformed fish snapping lazily at jissom on the surface of a black lagoon, and lesbian agents with penises grafted on to their faces, sitting outside a cafe in white trench coats, drinking spinal fluids from alabaster cups.” That was Burroughs and it was decidedly not America.

By 1966, after a stint in New York Burroughs was back in London. He was growing stranger and more paranoid as the decade went on, becoming increasingly superstitious and developing an interest in Scientology, which he later abandoned for politics. By 1968, Burroughs was metamorphosing into “a revolutionary thinker, dreaming up left-field guerrilla tactics for the overthrow of society.” He became more erratic during his public appearances talking about: killer whistles, camel endorphins as painkillers and the abandonment of one’s biological brain. Burroughs’ time in London was rather troubled and “he hated the licensing laws and the British class system.” For him, London was a grey city full of bad service. Depressed and largely alone except for an occasional “dilly boy,” Burroughs was visited by Ginsberg. Dismayed by the state of affairs, Ginsberg arranged a teaching post for him in New York City Collage and Burroughs left London in 1974. He found New York to be “one of the most polite cities” he had ever inhabited. While there, he met a young man called James Grauerholz. The two became lovers, but soon the affair dissipated and Grauerholz took on a role as Burroughs’ manager, using his experience of “organising rock gigs to give Burroughs a financially viable career in live performances.” By now in his 60s Burroughs was “becoming one of the world’s foremost celebrities, lionised by rock stars,” hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger. But he was also surrounded by parasites and sycophants, and fed up with the lifestyle decided to move to Kansas in 1981.

With London, New York and Paris behind him Burroughs preoccupied himself with his interest in firearms and spent many an afternoon “blasting away at targets and refreshing himself with vodka and Coke.” His emotional coenaesthesis was finally dispelled by a new found love for animals, cats in particular. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” writes Baker, “He felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.” He even had a sticker on his front door in case of emergencies, alerting people that there were cats inside that must be saved. This paints a very different picture of “the sheep killing dog” and the “insane German philosopher in exile” that Burroughs was often portrayed as. Most of his later work revolved around his renewed interest in “occult style astral travel” and mystical devices, documented in Bodies of Light, Western Lands and Education: A Book of Dreams. Some thought the old man was going senile, but Baker says “many of Burroughs’ beliefs are easily paraphrased in psychic terms, but this doesn’t explain their cultural significance or why varieties of the same paranoia were central to the work of several American writers in the same era, including Hunter S Thompson, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K Dick.” Perhaps they were all onto something. In the last couple of decades, Burroughs remained en vogue, appearing on television and in film as “filth flder par excellence”. Highly cherished in his adopted home-town as a lovable “old gink” he trudged on into old age, wryly attributing his longevity to “healthy living.” He also said he no longer felt lonely or unloved because he had “his familiars,” his friends and his cats. So in the end the most unpopular boy from St Louis had actually found something he had been looking all his life, the “most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

Charles Bukowski: A barroom bard who lived the picaresque

Speaking about Charles Bukowski, fellow poet and Open City magazine contributor Jack Micheline simply said that he was “an American postage stamp,” his name as popular as his first novel, Post Office, which has now been translated into 15 languages. A little while ago, I reviewed Bukowski’s collected journalism, published under the blanket title of Notes of a Dirty Old Man. The book, first printed in 1969 by Essex House (or a “porny publisher”, as Bukowski liked to refer to them), brought him a worldwide cult following, but it only contained 40 of the hundreds of pieces he had submitted under the Dirty Old Man rubric. A selection of the previously unpublished Bukowski columns has recently been issued by the San Francisco based publisher, City Lights. More Notes of a Dirty Old Man began as a personal, 15 year-long quest by its brilliant editor (and Bukowski scholar), David Stephen Calonne. Writing about Bukowski’s prose in the Afterword, Colonne posits that it “was a product of years of labour.” And he is right. In the course of over 40 books, Bukowski transformed himself from a drunken losel to an underground litterateur, aligning himself with a literary tradition inauguarated by the likes of Céline, John Fante and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Despite his chronic drinking routine Bukowski’s work ethic was incredibly assiduous and often saw him sit at his typewriter for 10 hours straight; a beer by his side, and frequently a woman languidly convalescing in the booze soaked, smoke infused monochrome phantasmagoria. There was always a woman somewhere in Bukowski’s life and his fiction, and these newly published works are swarming with them. The third piece in the collection opens on this very subject: “I was going over my old Racing Forms, having a beer and a smoke, really hungover, shaky, depressed, gently thinking suicide, but still hoping for a lucky angel when there was a knock on the door…IT WAS A WOMAN and What a woman in that 9p.m rain – long red hair down the back, jesus; tons of red miracle. And the face, open with passion, like a flower ripped open with fingers from the bud, a kind of fire-cheating, and the body was nothing but SEX, sex standing still, jumping, singing, looking, flowing, humming in the 9 p.m rain.” One look at the libidinous redhead and Bukowski could hardly walk, impeded as he was by “enough hose to put out a forest fire of napalm.” In true Bukowski style the story proceeds to relay impassioned “miracle and madness” fucking: “I had her nailed in the centre of the rug”, he says, “And then BANG the walls shook, a man on the street stepped on a grease spot, fell and broke his ankle, and we slid apart like worms going in different directions. Then I had to piss. I went to the bathroom…came out and she was…gone. Fast like that. No goodbye. Nothing.” He continues: “I looked north where I figured she lived with some fine intellectual chap…I took the green earing [she had lost] and threw it north, hard, high in the dark sky, it flew out of sight in the neon mash of lights from sunset Boulevard a block north and I said ‘Here, baby, your earing back and your life and all the rest, baby baby. But thanks for the splendid grade AAA fuck.”

The women who chanced their way into Bukowski’s life had no idea he would use them as material for his work, and he certainly never asked permission, preferring to labour under the aegis of literature. Bukowski frequently dealt with his female characters in a derogatory and near-misogynistic way, but, as the aforementioned shows, this was not always the case. Nor was he any more sympathetic to his male characters, or any less forgiving to his fictionalised self. In Women, for example, while speaking to a lover, he says: “I am more or less a failed drizzling shit with absolutely nothing to offer” – an opinion he upheld most of his life. In another immolation of self-criticism, Bukowski refers to himself as a “peepfreak and a jack-off artist”, but at least one who “has finally grown a little wiser” and realised that women are nothing but trouble – that following that post coital “walk from the bathroom” one starts “sharing a little two person hell”. Yet despite his bawdy outlook, Bukowski loved women: their voluptuous curvature, their allure, even their shortcomings. Recollecting a time he was heading to Valhalla, he bemoans the lack of female company: “There was nobody. Not a cunt under 40 within 400 miles. Life could be bitter. Even for a mindless savage.” Self-deprecation was always one of Bukowski’s strong points. It manifested, in part, from his early life, which was notably atrabilious, and of which he remarked: “A twisted childhood has fucked me up. But that’s the way I am so I’ll just have to go with it.”

And go with it he did – by turning it into semi-fiction. The crucial episodes in his autobiography are reworked time and again in his poems and prose; his oeuvre is, essentially, his story. Bukowski’s parents met in Andernach, Germany, shortly after World War I. His father, Sgt Henry Charles Bukowski, was serving with the US Army. His mother Katharina Felt was a local seamstress. The family immigrated to the US in 1923 following the collapse of German economy. When Bukowski was three, they moved to Los Angeles, the city in which he was to spend the remainder of his life, labouring in its low-rent milieu. According to various personal accounts his upbringing was shaped by The Depression, and his terrifying and sadistic father who took out his frustrations on his wife and son through terrible beatings, brutally inflicted for minor transgressions. The family eventually moved to Longwood Avenue, which Bukowski later referred to as “the house of agony the house where I was almost done in.” His adolescence was defined by isolation, the cruelties of other children and the stark indifference of his parents. It is perhaps, therefore, no wonder that he found it difficult to like people, felt contempt for humanity, preferring a largely solitary existence with intermittent periods of barroom conviviality, fucking, gambling, corpuscular brawls or any permutation thereof. Writing in another column on the subject he says: “I’m crazy. I like solitude. I’ve never been lonely.” But he had often felt like an impostor, and in the same columnhe characterises himself as “a bum, playing the role of Charles Bukowski,” before concluding: “Outside the cats played, the butterflies flew, the sun kept working. The party was over. Charles Bukowski was Hank again. Rent was needed. Food. Gasoline. Luck.”

Throughout his life Bukowski seemed to have just enough luck to sustain his precarious way of living, despite the evictions, the skid-row hotels, the hard-drinking, the desolation, the heartbreaks, the belligerent women, the unrelenting self-destruction – despite even Jane Cooney Baker’s death, after which he was so depressed he felt compelled to hide all the razorblades in his apartment so as not to kill himself. In fact, it seems as if the writing and the beer were the only two things that kept him trudging on. He knew the low-life odyssey, the hardships of the ordinary working class men, and wrote about them with more precognition than any of his contemporaries. Speaking about it in a two page column, he says: “It’s a world, it’s a world of potential suicide, well I speak mostly of the United States, I don’t know the rest, but it’s a place of potential and actual suicides and hundreds and thousands of women, women just aching for companionship, and then there are men, going mad, masturbating, dreaming, hundreds and thousands of men going mad for sex or love or anything, and meanwhile, all these people, the love-lost, the sex-lost, suicide-driven, they’re all working these dull soul-sucking jobs that twist their faces like rotten lemons and pinch their spirits out, out, out…somewhere in the structure of our society it is impossible for these people to contact each other. Churches, dance parties only seem to push them further apart, and the dating clubs, the computer Love Machines only destroy more and more naturalness that should have been a naturalness that has somehow been crushed forever in our present method of living (dying).” Bukowski’s scabrous and sturdy prose about the social and economic subjugation of the urban underclass is matchless: every word is loaded with experience, a badge of authenticity. For Bukowski knew what it was to have led the life of a factotum, drifting from one menial job to another, working graveyard shifts, going hungry, going crazy, before manumitting himself from his personal gehenna by quitting his most stable and long term job at the US post office in order to write. Accordingly, when he writes about the underclass who work eight hours a day doing “an obnoxious thing for their own survival and for somebody else’s profit”, engaged in activity which might see them in madhouses “full of occupationally-destroyed people”, his judgements carry the weight of direct experience.

But it’s not the mere fact that Bukowski has the ability to deliver his words like welcomed backhand blows; it’s the fact that his canon has a personal philosophy running through it which encourages liberation from the drudgery and oppression of modern living. And it is delivered by a simple, common man who happened to be an authentic and genuine barfly bard. Elsewhere in the collection, Bukowski elaborates on this philosophy: “If there is any secret to life”, he says, “that secret is not to try. Let it come to you: women, dogs, death and creation.” And so it was with writing, which he remarks upon in a poem called So You Think You Want to Be A Writer: “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/in spite of everything/don’t do it/unless it comes unasked out of your/heart and your mind and your mouth/and your gut/don’t do it” concluding: “when it is truly time/and if you have been chosen/it will do it by/itself and it will keep on doing it/until you die or it dies in you/there is no other way/and there never was”. It certainly seems to have worked for him. Today, Bukowski stands alone in the history of American literature as someone who actually lived the picaresque – for as he admitted, his work was 93 per cent autobiography and the remainder merely “improved upon.” He produced a substantial, distinctive, widely admired body of work. And in a testament to his popularity, at a time when most books can’t be given away, his are perennially ranked among the titles most frequently stolen from bookshops. Bukowski once said that he wrote largely for himself in a bid to try and understand this “godamn life”, to avoid “going crazy”. In writing this way, and in living as he lived, he more than justified his own assertion that “brilliant men are created from desperate circumstance.” More Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a worthy edition which completes the legacy. And “there is something in it for everybody, the touts, the nuns, the grocery clerks and YOU.”

Charles Bukowski: A scuzzy rhymester with some dirty stories

Sitting inertly in the mid-afternoon sun, after a night of hellish revelry, I tried to shut out my companion’s comical cooing by losing myself in a book. I have been a little slack with my reading lately, thus needed a metaphorical kick up the posterior to propel me out of the lethargy. Earlier in the day, I had chanced upon A.A. Gill’s review, of some trendy eatery or other, replete with customary witticisms about the victuals and the somewhat unexpected topic of misogyny. I cannot recall the theoretical imperative which prompted Gill’s spiel but it got me thinking. There have been many writers throughout history accused of being less than favourable in their treatment of women, and more often than not Charles Bukowski has featured on the list. I personally don’t see it, but then perhaps I’m somewhat biased due to my unwavering love for the man. Inspired by the above thought, I picked up Notes of a Dirty Old Man and spent the remainder of Sunday devouring the collection of Bukowski’s newspaper columns for Open City, which by Bukowski’s own definition was, at the time, “the liveliest rag in the US”.

The “liveliest rag” in the land was a perfect match for the liveliest writer of his generation, who infiltrated the somniferous rodomontade of the literary world with his own brand of irreverent penmanship. The snapshots of Bukowski’s life, gathered in the book, cover a multitude of sins from “fucking up to, fucking out” from dying to live to living to die. Pondering the contentious topic of suicide Bukowski, says: “Suicide seems incomprehensible unless you yourself are thinking about it…I think it was in 1954 that I last tried suicide. I closed all the windows and turned on the oven and the gas jets…I stretched out on the bed. I went to sleep. It would have worked too, only inhaling the gas game me such a headache that the headache awakened me. I got up off the bed, laughing and saying to myself ‘You damned fool, you don’t want to kill yourself…some hangover, some column”. Some column, indeed. Unfortunately, there aren’t many columnists like Bukowski nowadays, fewer still labouring in the tenebrous brume of a hangover like some of their readers. It is a bit of a shame that modern day papers are filled with anesthetised and insular expositions about organic rhubarb compote, the dimensions of one’s carbon footprint, psychologically contented chickens and other suchlike middle-brow fixations.  And, don’t even get me started on the credentials of the excerebrose scriveners and pseudo-intellectuals churning this bullocks out.

But, perhaps everyone is indeed entitled to their opinion like the doctors at the county general hospital who told Bukowski “one more drink and you’re dead”. That didn’t stop him, not for a long while. He continued living “surrounded by full and empty beer cans, writing poems, smoking cheap cigars…and waiting for the final wall to fall.” That didn’t happen for a while either, at least not before he got hitched – on a whim. She sent him gnathonic letters bewailing her impending fate as a spinster; Bukowski took pity and prompted by some eleemosynary instinct proposed. He remembers: “I met her at the bus station, that is I sat there drunk waiting for a woman I had never met, spoken to, to marry. I was insane. I didn’t belong on the streets.” Luckily, she turned out to be “a cute sexy blonde…all ass and bounce”. A quick round-trip to Vegas and the two were wed-locked and bound for her home town in some smoggy part of Texas. She was a millionaires and a self-confessed nymphomaniac, he “the city slicker who had hooked the rich girl,” with nothing but a “very tired cock and a suitcase full of poems.” Eventually, the two went back to LA to live in a dingy bedsit, Bukowski recollects, very candidly: “When we fucked the bed would shake the walls and the walls would shake the shelves, and then I’d hear it: the slow volcano sound of the shelves giving way and then I’d stop. ‘No, don’t stop, oh Jesus, don’t stop.’ And then I’d catch the stroke again and down the selves would come, down on my back and my ass and head and legs and arms and she’d laugh and scream and MAKE IT.” Unfortunately, being a nymphomaniac she would also “make it” with others. “Every man believes he can tame a nympho but it only leads to the grave,” in Bukowski’s case, however, it led to a divorce. She later remarried a fisherman, or as Bukowski put it: “I once lost a million dollars to a Japanese fisherman.” There’s always humour in Bukowski’s sadness, and an admirable resignation to take the knockbacks with a drink, because “the waste and the terror, the sadness and the failure, the stage play, the horseplay, falling down, getting up, pretending it’s ok, grinning, sobbing”  is all part of the “grandiose romanticism” and politics of life.

In another column Bukowski relays meeting “[Jack] Kerouac’s boy Neal C[assidy] shortly before he went down to lay along those Mexican railroad tracks to die.” Neal was berserk like a girandole “jogging, bouncing, ogling” and singing like a cranky “cuckoo bird”. Bukowski recalls: “He never sat down. He kept moving around the floor. He was a little punchy with the action but there wasn’t any hatred in him.” There’s a sense of melancholy in Bukowski’s tone, and one gets the distinct impression that Neal was already too loaded on the “Eternal High” and  too quick on the pedal in the drag race towards death. Upon hearing news of Neal’s passing, shortly after their first and only meeting, Bukowski turned his column into a eulogy for the last of the Beats, saying: “All those rides, all those pages of Kerouac, all that jail time” and for what? To “die alone under a frozen Mexican moon,” like his life meant nothing to anybody, not even himself. And yet, it did mean something, in part, thanks to the “dirty old man” who wrote about it in his column, and felt the loss. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Bukowski ploughs through a phantasmagoria  of topics from the erosion of democracy to the aching of scraped knuckles, from psychotraumatic childhood memories to the “tragicomedy of fucking”, but always in a unique argot of a scuzzy rhymester and in a style entirely his own. Fucking features heavily throughout Bukowski’s work, but as he says: “I don’t write about it as an instrument of obsession. I write about it as a stage play laugh where you have to cry about it, a bit, between acts.” And he sticks to his word, crying and laughing intermittently in the subtext of every page while regaling the reader with some botched tryst with a whore and her interfering elephantine lesbian pimp. He does that, he cries and laughs, and then pours himself a drink before falling unconscious and letting the “world go by”. But not for long as there’s far too much loving, boozing, fighting and writing to do.

Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a bawdy, intense and candid book, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the tearfully funny and the heart-breaking without holding back. And one soon gets sucked into the frenzied coprolalia of Bukowski’s prose written with a recognisably dark sense of humour throughout. The collection offers a sublime insight into Bukowski’s psyche and the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life. Bukowski surmises it himself in the introduction by simply saying: “I am just an old guy with some dirty stories.” And he’s right, but he is also someone who writes about the “upside down, romantic, explosive things that seem to give chance to no chance,” and someone who loaded with an arsenal of beer cans and women power-drilled through minds and column inches affronting, offending and galling thin skinned Middle America because “sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.” 

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