Left: ‘Charles Bukowski’ by David Stephen Calonne [Reaktion Books]. Right: Wonderful Robert Crumb drawing of Bukowski at work.
Bukowski is someone I’ve known about since the 1970s, having read his ‘Dirty Old Man’ columns in the New Orleans-based underground newspaper ‘Nola Express’. Have also read his great novels and some of his poetry but this is the first time I’ve read his life story, which is remarkable. There are already at least five other biographies on the market which I haven’t read so am not in a position to compare and contrast. Calonne’s book is part of a series entitled ‘Critical Lives’ so it blends the biographical material with a literary analysis of his writings - lightly done and generally insightful. The book as a whole moves at a brisk pace and is very readable. Full of fascinating detail and tantalising references it has taught me a lot about this remarkable literary outsider.
He was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, on August 16th, 1920. His father was of German extraction but born in Pasadena, California. During WWI, he was a GI and was stationed in Germany where he met seamstress Katharina Fett. The family returned to the States when Bukowski was two. He would not return to the country until 1978 but Calonne points out the strong influence German culture had on his work.
Bukowski’s father was a brute and his childhood, both at home and at school, was a nightmare. He says he was ‘held in slavery’ in a ‘house of horrors’. In his struggle to undo the damage and childhood abuse, he became distant, alienated and anti-authoritarian. Calonne makes an interesting parallel with William Burroughs ‘a writer with whom he felt himself to have nothing in common.’
Bukowski was hanging out on the streets from adolescence and it was at this time he discovered alcohol which he greeted as a salvation andwith which. says Calonne, he began a ‘life-long love affair’ in his struggle to overcome the damage to his spiritual and mental well-being.
He also discovered the magic of literature. His great hero was John Fante who he considered his Master. Fante’s world of cheap boarding houses, torrid and violent love affairs and low-life drinking haunts became his own. He also loved the Armenian writer William Saroyan, Turgenev, Gorky, Celine and Kafka. His other passion was classical music which he listened to throughout his life, his favourite composer being Sibelius.
He started work in 1939 and also enrolled at the Los Angeles City College where he studied journalism and English; he left two years later without taking a degree. To pay for this, he scrubbed trains by day and gambled and drank at night with the aircraft workers and pimps. It is not clear what effect this period had on his writing or exactly what he was writing at this point but it seems the pattern of his life was already set.
A bear of a man, face scarred by acne, he affected a tough guy persona, a sarcastic and roughhouse demeanour, speckled with courtly charm and a ribald sense of humour.In time he would became Charles not Henry Bukowski and begin a lifetime of autobiographical writing, much of it featuring his fictional alter ego Chinaski.
He was to spend the rest of his life in Los Angeles but before that came an extraordinary period, from 1942-1947, when he set off on his wunderjahre, criss-crossing America, barely surviving through a string of blue-collar low-paid jobs, often starving. He needed, it seems, to create distance from his childhood traumas. His experiences were to provide a wealth of material for his writings.
Calonne says ‘it is difficult to determine Bukowski’s whereabouts during the 1940s: the primary evidence is his own memory, which was not always reliable.’ He points out that his journey could not be more different than Jack Kerouac’s. Bukowski did not go on the road for spiritual illumination, says Calonne, ‘he had nowhere to go so he went everywhere.’
Yet somehow he survived and began a writing life that was to lead him to fame and prosperity. His first story was published in 1944 – the same year he got arrested by the FBI for draft dodging - in ‘Story’, at that time one of the premier literary magazines in America.
Between 1946 and 1956 he began obsessively writing, largely at night listening to classical music, fuelled by alcohol. His work was never confined to one form. Over the next 40 years he was to produce poems, stories, essays, novels, book reviews and journalism – a remarkable ouevre that continues to entertain and inspire.
The market for his writings were the literally hundreds of small magazines, chapbooks, broadsides and underground newspapers that were published during this period and later, mainly produced on mimeograph machines. Before reading Calonne’s book I was completely unaware of this phenomenon, an interesting precursor to the Underground Press movement of the 6o’s and 70’s.
It was a world perfect for Bukowski’s purposes and he wrote copiously for numerous outlets, earning the soubriquet ‘King of the Littles.’ His voluminous and lengthy correspondence with them provides a wonderful window into this lost world.
Some idea of his productivity is the fact that, between 1960 and 1965 he produced seven volumes of poetry. It was during this period that he also hooked up with John Martin of the publishing company Black Sparrow, who became the central figure in Bukowski’s professional writing life and in his rise to world fame.
It was Martin who, in 1970, suggested to Bukowski that he write a novel. Bukowski had for many years worked at the US Post Office to supplement his writing income and this provided him with his subject. He wrote the book in 19 days and its one of his greatest works.
Bukowski died in 1994. He had survived a lifetime of alcoholic abuse, numerous torrid and violent love affairs, and a lifestyle and living conditions that would have killed a weaker man. He lived to see his work celebrated,eulogised and published internationally. In the last part of his life, he also found comfort and love. Like Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs, his work continues to exert a profound influence on much of modern culture.
Bukowski never aligned himself with the Beat writers. Calonne say he was a ‘heroic individualist’ who was ‘wary of their vanity and posturing’. Yet they admired him and one of their number, poet Gary Snyder, memorably said of him that he ‘never shies away from the fact that human beings possess bodies.’ A blue-collar poet of the streets, Bukowski’s gave voice to the underprivileged and the dispossessed, to the underbelly of America. His work has special and continued relevance in these benighted times.