June 20, 2015
A Phlit subscriber in Ohio, Sean Pendleton, recently introduced me to a contemporary American writer named Charles Bukowski (1920-1994). Perhaps the best introduction to Bukowski is this one-minute video of him reading his poem “Bluebird.” Bukowski has been called “the laureate of American lowlife.” He often writes about his own experiences — cigarettes, alcohol, bars, brawls, menial jobs, etc. He has the vitality, the passion, the honesty that’s characteristic of genius.
I first became interested in Bukowski after reading this poem:
so you want to be a writer?
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
Bukowski’s gravestone reads “Don’t Try,”
Bukowski writes about the plethora of writers:
I thought Nietzsche had written eloquently about solitude, but Bukowski may surpass him:
Unlike most poets, Bukowski took both pleasure and pride in fist-fights. He said that the local bartender called him “a good duker,” which he regarded as a high compliment. “For a long time,” Bukowski said, “I had a heavy suicide complex. I went to bars to try to fight, try to get killed.”1 Once someone pulled a gun on him, and threatened to shoot him. Bukowski calmly explained that he was suicidal anyway, and murder would lead to a long jail term. The man dropped his gun and left hastily.
Bukowski moves easily between the sordid and the sublime. Some of his aphorisms are immortal. “The free soul is rare,” Bukowski wrote, “but you know it when you see it — basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.”
Bukowski’s childhood wasn’t a happy one. He said that his father beat him regularly with a razor strop. (When Hemingway was asked, What’s the best early training for a writer? he responded, “An unhappy childhood.”) Bukowski was the right age to serve in World War II, but when he had a psychological evaluation, he was declared unfit to serve. Perhaps, like many geniuses, he was on the border of sanity and insanity.
The young Bukowski had severe acne, which left him permanently scarred. He discovered alcohol in his early teens, and seemed to think that it was the best way to cope with life. He was a heavy drinker, and a smoker, for most of his life.
Bukowski spent most of his life in Los Angeles, and knew it thoroughly. For many years, he worked at the post office, and his first novel was called Post Office. “I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop in letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes.”2 He wrote both poetry and fiction. His poetry is probably more popular than that of any contemporary American poet. He’s popular abroad as well as in the U.S. Perhaps one reason for his popularity is that he isn’t obscure. As he himself said, “My writing is very simple. Maybe clarity is a better word.”3
The magazine New Yorker published an essay on Bukowski, calling him
In several respects, Bukowski reminds me of Eric Hoffer — the rough life, the California setting, the genius, the celebrity. “In the 1980s [Bukowski] collaborated with illustrator Robert Crumb on a series of comic books, with Bukowski supplying the writing and Crumb providing the artwork.”4 Bukowski was a fan of Schopenhauer; perhaps Schopenhauer’s pessimism struck a chord with him.
Crumb’s drawing of Bukowski
An interview with Bukowski (cartoon by Crumb)
In 1969, Bukowski left the post office because a man named John Martin offered him $100 a month for the rest of his life, if he would publish his works with him (they settled on $100 a month because that’s what Bukowski thought he needed to live on). Martin thought that Bukowski was the Whitman of our time. Bukowski’s books sold well, and the partnership between Bukowski and Martin became profitable for both men.
To make money, Bukowski gave many public readings. “Drinking was often a featured part of the readings, along with a combative banter with the audience.”5 He didn’t enjoy these readings, and gave them up when he no longer needed the money. Click here for one of Bukowski’s readings.
On the French TV show Apostrophes
Bukowski writes about his own success and fame:
there were these people
I felt like pissing on
such people think
you and I,
Several films are based on Bukowski’s life, and several more films are based on his works. Bono was a fan of Bukowski, Sean Penn was both a fan and a friend. I enjoyed a documentary called Bukowski: Born Into This, which I found on Netflix. Bukowski wrote the screenplay for a movie called Barfly, which deals with his own life. The experience of making this movie prompted Bukowski to write Hollywood, which takes a critical view of the film industry.
There’s a Bukowski-themed bar in Santa Monica called Barkowski.
When I mentioned Bukowski to Elliott Banfield, he responded,
Bukowski writes about the various jobs he’s had:
He often writes about the working-man’s world:
The working life that Bukowski describes is a grim life:
The best job is no job: “Any damn fool can beg up some kind of job; it takes a wise man to make it without working.”
Bukowski’s sentences are always well crafted: “I’m no preacher but I can tell you this — the lives that people lead are driving them crazy and their insanity comes out in the way they drive.”
Bukowski’s writing is vivid and honest, and it often seems to come from hard experience: “Once a woman turns against you, forget it. They can love you, then something turns in them. They can watch you dying in a gutter, run over by a car, and they’ll spit on you.”
On self-deprecation: “If I’m an ass, I should say so. If I don’t, somebody else will. If I say it first, that disarms them.”
The quote closely resembles a passage in Nietzsche
A. I discovered a Scottish writer named Allan Massie. Massie wrote some popular historical novels about Roman leaders — Augustus, Antony, Caligula, etc. Gore Vidal called Massie a “master of the long-ago historical novel.” Massie also wrote books on Scottish cities — Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen. Massie is conservative in both his political opinions and his literary opinions. He’s an admirer of Walter Scott, and past president of the Scott Club.
B. Allan Massie shouldn’t be confused with Robert K. Massie, an American who “devoted much of his career to studying the House of Romanov, Russia’s royal family from 1613 to 1917.” Robert K. Massie is best known for Nicholas and Alexandra, a biography of Nicholas II and Alexandra of Hesse, the last Emperor and Empress of Russia. This book was the basis of an award-winning film of the same title. In 1981, Massie won a Pulitzer Prize for Peter the Great: His Life and World, which inspired a 1986 NBC miniseries, also called Peter the Great. Massie wrote two books about World War I naval history. I strongly recommend Brian Lamb’s one-hour interview with Massie.
C. Ancient Rome has long been a popular subject with novelists. Three of the most popular novels of the 19th century were set in ancient Rome:
D. The Dennis Hastert scandal reminds me of an Ibsen play: a pillar of the community is destroyed when a secret crime from the distant past comes to light. Ibsen was an avid newspaper-reader, and often got plot-ideas from the newspaper. Hastert’s crimes may help to explain why he left a good job, and a respected position in the community: he retired from teaching/coaching because it exposed him to temptations that he could neither resist nor indulge. In an earlier issue, I wrote,
E. I’m obsessed by the recent escape from a prison in upstate New York. The escape has been compared to a movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The two criminals who escaped, Richard Matt and David Sweat, are both products of broken homes. Matt’s father was “a repeat criminal, having been convicted multiple times on charges such as assault, burglary, issuing bad checks and criminal possession of stolen property. He is believed to be dead.”7 As a youngster “[Matt] would terrorize kids on the bus.... Even in elementary, junior high, he had issues.”
Sweat’s father was entirely absent. By the time Sweat turned 9, he was throwing knives at his mother. Matt and Sweat “slid into crime early and stayed with it.” Both Matt and Sweat seem to have considerable charm, and their charm enabled them to escape (they persuaded a prison employee, Joyce Mitchell, to provide them with tools). Matt’s “reputation in school was that he had a high I.Q. He had looks that turned women’s heads.” Both Matt and Sweat had affairs with Joyce Mitchell.
F. Click here for an excellent 16-minute documentary about veterans of the Iran-Iraq War.
G. His love life could be summed up in the words of Abba Eban: He never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
I recommend the documentary Last Days in Vietnam, which is part of the PBS series “American Experience.” Another PBS documentary about Vietnam is Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, which has Vietnam-related clips from old episodes of the “Dick Cavett Show.”
Cavett says that the U.S. wanted North Vietnam to negotiate “on our terms,” but the reality was that North Vietnam didn’t want to negotiate period. They knew that we were eager to negotiate, and eager to leave Vietnam, they knew that time was on their side, and that eventually we would leave as the French had done. They didn’t care about their own casualties. Nixon brought them to the negotiating table by aggressive action. But they had no intention of abiding by the peace treaty once Nixon left office, once Congress cut off funding for the war, and once our troops withdrew.
Why did we get involved in Vietnam in the first place? Truman and Eisenhower had seen China fall to the Communists, and they thought we had to stop the spread of Communism. Nowadays we’re accustomed to thinking of Communism as a spent force, so it’s hard for us to remember that Communism was once a rising force, a threat to take over the world. Kennedy seemed to feel that Vietnam was a test of his strength in the struggle with Communism, and he wanted to pass the test.
Also of interest is a documentary called Dick Cavett’s Watergate. It tells how Nixon tried to manage the Watergate cover-up, how he “couldn’t leave it alone.” Nixon didn’t understand the Zen art of wu-wei, non-doing.
Perhaps there were three factors behind Nixon’s actions:
Thomas was a leading journalist, and also taught journalism at Princeton and Harvard. Now he seems to be concentrating on writing history, but for many years, Thomas wrote history and journalism simultaneously. His first book, published in 1986, was a collaboration with Walter Isaacson; it was called The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Thomas seems to have a special interest in naval matters. He wrote Sea of Thunder: Four Naval Commanders and the Last Sea War: 1941-1945. He also wrote The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire.
Thomas’ father was a prominent publisher/editor, and his grandfather, Norman Thomas, ran for President six times on the Socialist ticket.
|1.|| Roger Ebert’s review of Barfly back|
|2.|| Wikiquote back|
|3.|| Roger Ebert’s review of Barfly back|
|4.|| Wikipedia back|
|5.|| Wikipedia back|
|6.|| Ham on Rye deals with Bukowski’s childhood. The actor James Franco is turning Ham on Rye into a movie.|
Click here for an article on Bukowski in the Los Angeles Times.
Wikipedia speaks of, “one of Bukowski’s best known essays, “Manifesto: A Call for Our Own Critics.” back
|7.||New York Times The next quote is from Randy Szukala, who served on the police force in the town where Matt grew up (North Tonawanda, NY). back|