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||Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) - alter ego: Henry Chinaski|
American author of the second wave Beat Generation, noted for his stories of survival and heavy drinking on the fringe of society. Before starting his career as a writer, Bukowski worked in menial jobs and as a journalist at Harlequin and Laugh Literature. He was described by Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre as America's 'greatest poet'. However, the author refused to meet Sartre - he had his bottle to take care of.
"There are so many," she said, "who go by the name of poet. But they have no training, no feeling for their craft. The savages have taken over the castle. There's no workmanship, no care, simply a demand to be accepted. And these new poet all seem to admire one another. It worries me and I've talked about it to a lot of my poet friends. All a young poet seems to think he needs is a typewriter and a few pieces of paper. They aren't prepared, they have had no preparation at all." (from Hot Water Music, 1995)
Heinrich Karl (Henry Charles) Bukowski, Jr. was born in Andernach in Germany, the son of Henry Bukowski, a US soldier, and Katharina Fett, a German woman. His family emigrated to the United States in 1922, and settled in Los Angeles, where Bukowski spent most of his life. The city became an integral part of his writing. Bukowski's father was in and out of work during the Depression years, regularly beating the boy. "I had to sleep on my belly at night because of the pain."
Bukowski depicted his childhood in Ham on Rye (1982), portarying his father as a cruel, shiny bastard with bad breath. He died in 1958. To shield himself, Bukowski began his life-long occupation with alcohol in his youth. He also suffered from acne – the boils were "the size of apples" – which left scars on his face. At school years Bukowski read widely, he was especially impressed by Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Carson McCullers, and D.H. Lawrence.
After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski
a year at Los Angeles City College, taking courses in journalism and
literature. He left home in 1941 – his father had read his stories and
threw his possessions onto the lawn. However, Bukowski still returned
to his parents' house when he was totally broke. Originally he hoped to
work for a newspaper, but as he said in Longshot Poems for Broke Players
(1962), "the closest I ever got to being a reporter was as an errand
boy in the composing room of the New
During the war years, Bukowski lived the life of a wondering
and skid row alcoholic. He travelled across America, working in odd
jobs: petrol station attendant, lift operator, lorry driver, and an
overman in a dog biscuit factory. At night he gambled and drank. Bukowski's story 'Aftermath of a
Lengthy Rejection Slip' (1944), a portrait of the quixotic young
artist, was published in the prestigious Story,
edited by Whit
Burnett and Martha Foley. He then stopped writing and concentrated on
drinking. In the poem 'Ants crawl my drunken arm' (circa 1961) he
wrote: "and the ants crawl down my throat / and into my mouth, / and I
wash them down with wine / and pull up the shades / and they are on the
screen / and on the streets / climbing church towers".
the age of thirty-five Bukowski began to write poetry. 'Hello,' his first
published poem, appeared in the Summer 1946 issue of Matrix.
"I don't think I could do a novel – I haven't the urge, though I have
thought about it, and someday I might try it," he wrote in 1947 in a
letter to Burnett. (Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground: From Obscurity to Literary Icon by Abel Debritto, 2013, p. 72) After returning to Los
Angeles, he met Janet Cooney Baker, with whom he lived the next decade;
she died in 1962. Janet was ten years older than Bukowski and also
Bukowski started to work at a post office in 1952 – this
period lasted three years. He was then hospitalized with an
alcohol-induced bleeding ulcer and came close to death. "If you are
going to write, you have to have something to write about," Bukowski
once said. "The gods were good. They kept me on the street." Bukowski
also claimed that ninety-three per cent of his writings were
autobiographical. Like Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson, he blurred
the lines between fact and fiction in his journalism.
Bukowski's marriage with Barbara Frye, the rich publisher of a small poetry magazine, lasted two years; she divorced him when she concluded that her husband was "an irredeemable bum." (The Hunchback of East Hollywood by Aubrey Malone, 2003, p. 125) Barbara published in her Harlequin magazine Bukowski's poems and he wrote several poems about her. To support himself, Bukowski worked as a Post Office clerk for twelve years. The salary was bad but Bukowski needed the money. For some years he lived with Frances Smith; they had one daughter, Marina Louise.
Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, which came out in 1959, was 30 pages long and the print run was only 200. From the 1960s, Bukowski published books of poetry almost annually. The early poems have much in common with the work of Robinson Jeffers. Bukowski admired strength and endurance, and featured violent and sexual confrontations between men and women. Bukowski's first volume of prose was All Assholes in the World and Mine (1966). One of his publishers in the 1960s was Jon Edgar Webb from The Outsider magazine, which featured such writers as Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs. Gradually Bukowski established a loyal following for his depictions of down-and-out people. "A persistent rumor for many years declared that those gusty poems signed with his name were actually written by a nasty old lady with hairy armpits," said Arnold Kaye in Literary Times (1963).
In the late 1960s, Bukowski shifted in poetry from introspection to more expressionistic writing, as seen in At Terror Street and Agony Away (1968) and The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hill (1969). His columns, "The Notes of a Dirty Old Man" appeared in Open City and Los Angeles Free Press. The texts were later collected in a book (1969). In 1970 Bukowski left his job after the publisher John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press had offered him $100 a month for life to write full time. In the same year Linda King entered Bukowski's life; she was 20 years younger, raised as a Mormon in Utah. "I'll never get mixed up with a man again who doesn't like to eat pussy," she said and Bukowski had to confess that he never had done that. The tumultuous relationship ended in the mid-1970s.
"Everything you own must be able to fit inside one suitcase; then your mind might be free," was Bukowski's advice to all counterculture revolutionaries. As his social situation changed, Bukowski's poems no longer engaged the adventures of an outcast, but became meditative and sarcastic comments on his surroundings, trips to the race track or his daily routines. Although prolific, Bukowski remained a literary outsider who published his works with small presses, primarily on the West Coast. In 1973 Bukowski gained a wider audience when an award-winning television documentary by Taylor Hackford was shown.
Bukowski's alter ego in the books, Henry Chinaski, has his literary roots in Dostoyevsky's underground man, Nietzsche's hero, who is completely autonomous, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline's protagonist-narrators. Chinaski is a tough, hard-drinking womanizer, a kind of Mike Hammer-ish narrator, who lives with the bums and criminals, sometimes also visiting high society. The character was introduced in the autobiographical Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with the Beasts (1965). Chinaski's adventures were further chronicled in the novels Post Office (1971), in which he survives the tyrannical nature of paid labor, Factotum (1975), Women (1978), and Ham on Rye (1982), in which Chinaski returns to his childhood and youth.
Bukowski married in 1985 Linda Lee Beighle, a health food
twenty-five years his junior. They had met in 1976. This also started a
more balanced period of his life. Towards the end of his days, the
author lived in a house with a swimming pool, drove a black BMW, wrote
on a computer, and listened to records of his favorites: Sibelius,
Mahler, and Rossini.
"I don't want to draw / like Mondrian, / I want to draw like a sparrow eaten by a cat." (On Cats by Charles Bukowski, edited by Abel Debritto, 2015, p. 5) A real cat lover, Bukowski always found room for a stray in his home. Bukowski especially took care of felines who had been through tough times. Their relaxed nature delighted him and inspired him to write his first
cat poem, 'An Animal Poem' (1984).
Like William Burroughs, he had a bunch of cats. The one-eared tomcat
Butch Van Gogh and the white tailless Manx were perhaps those that were
the most dear to him. Manx was the subject of the poem 'The History Of
A Tough Motherfucker' (written in 1983). "The more cats you have, the
longer you live," Bukowski said to the actor Sean Penn. "If you have a
hundred cats, you'll live ten times longer than if you have ten." (Writers and Their Cats by Alison Nastasi, 2018, p. 31)
A longstanding friend of Raymond Carver, Bukowski was numbered among the original 'dirty realists'. The Last Night of the Earth Poem (1992) was one of Bukowski's final books before his death. It consisted of reflections of people who have passed from his life, and forward visions of his death. Bukowski died of leukemia on March 9, 1994 in Los Angeles.
Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981) was the first film
adaptation of Bukowski's stories. Directed by Marco Ferreri and
starring Ben Gazarra and Ornella Muti, it depicted a drunken poet who
is obsessed by sex but can't find a happy relationship with his women.
The script drew material from Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and
General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972). Another film, Barfly
(1987), directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Mickey Rourke and
Faye Dunaway, was about a writer, who meets a lush who takes him under
her wings. Bukowski documented the making of the movie in his novel Hollywood (1989).
Crazy Love / Love is a Dog from Hell (1989) was based on 'The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, Calif.', collected in Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness and later published in The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories (2001). The film was directed by Dominique Deruddere, starring Josse de Pauw, Geert Hunaerts, Michael Pas, Gene Bervoets. In the story a frustrated boy, full of romantic longing, grows up to be a necrophiliac. Lune Froinde (1991), directed by Patrick Bouchitey, starring Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Francois Stévenin, Laura Favali, was based on Bukowski's stories from the same collection. The actor and director Sean Penn dedicated his film The Crossing Guard (1995) to Bukowski.
For further reading: Charles Bukowski: A Critical and Bibliographical Study by Hugh Fox (1969); A Bibliography of Charles Bukowski by Sanford Dorbin (1969); Bukowski: Friendship, Fame, and Bestial Myth by Jory Sherman (1982); A Chales Bukowski Checklist, ed. by Jeffrey Weinberg; Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski by Neeli Cherkovski (1991); Against the American Dream by R. Harrison (1994); A Sure Bet by G. Locklin (1995); Charles Bukowski by G. Brewer (1997); Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes, Charles Bukowski (1999); The Hunchback of East Hollywood by Aubrey Malone (2003); Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters, 1963-1993 by Charles Bukowski, David Stephen Calonne (2003); Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes (2007); The Dirty Old Man Of American Literature: A Biography of Charles Bukowski by Paul Brody (2013); Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground: From Obscurity to Literary Icon by Abel Debritto (2013); 'Charles Bukowski,' in Writers and Their Cats by Alison Nastasi (2018)