by Stefan Havlik
America, at the bottom – for the 100th birthday of Charles Bukowski
Paris, 1978: A 58-year-old American author, scarred by life, is the guest of the renowned literary programme “Apostrophes” on French television. After a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear to viewers at home on their television sets: this author is sitting there dead drunk. He answers the questions posed to him in a hardly understandable way. He is more interested in the writer Catherine Paysan sitting next to him, whose skirt he finally tampered with until she jumped up in indignation.
Two bottles of wine, he had demanded behind the scenes, he needed for the show – he had already had them at the beginning of the show. When he himself realizes that staying in the studio is not very effective, he says goodbye to the presenter with a “Orro, orro!” that probably imitates French. His wish to see “a few more cancan dancers” is denied him by his companions and after a short brawl with the security staff he is escorted to his hotel.
Charles Bukowski lived up to his reputation – “it was about time that you could see something honest on French television” writes a critic of “Le Monde” the next day.
The “Dirty Old Man” Bukowski, who had already become a legend at the time, was reluctant to be persuaded by his publishers to travel to Europe. Born in Andernach in the Rhineland on 16 August 1920 as the son of an American occupation soldier, he moved to the USA with his parents when he was three years old, which he had not left since – unlike many of his generation, the Second World War had not brought him to Europe either: The army judged him unfit for duty, and by the age of 21 alcohol had already damaged his body too much.
His childhood is dominated by the violence, even sadism of his father: “The walls, the sink, even the toilet bowl suddenly lit up at me,” he says later about the bathroom of his parents’ house, “the father was gone.”
For hours he was beaten there with the leather strap, especially when he stood protectively in front of his mother. “If you keep getting the shit kicked out of you, at some point you start to say what you really think.”
It sounds almost absurd: In the violent orgies of the father, who struggles with odd jobs and often spends what little money he has on prostitutes, Charles’ independent spirit is awakened.
Decades later, Bukowski describes his nightly, secret reading under the duvet as “the only paradise I have ever experienced”: it is the great works of world literature – Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, Lawrence – in which the boy finds places of escape, out of his dreary and hopeless home in Los Angeles. “The word is the magic potion that keeps us from killing ourselves,” he once said.
His body full of acne, he does not manage to graduate from college: his path into severe alcoholism had already begun. Casual jobs are now for decades what ensures his economic survival; he is a postman, corpse washer, unskilled worker.
In the middle of this misery he writes: poems and short stories. His hope of finding a publisher for them is not fulfilled for a long time. Until he is 46 years old, he has earned just 80 dollars from writing. Again and again the publishers reject his texts.
It is Whitt Burnett, editor of the magazine “Story”, who seems to give him a perspective: by refusing, of all things. “We almost took this one, please send more” he lets Bukowski know again and again. “Every typed rejection was like a little miracle for me”, writes the man who lives in miserable apartments, “I think I only continued writing because of these typed rejections”. For a long time, “little shacks full of cockroaches and mice” will continue to be his lodgings, odd jobs and vast quantities of alcohol: his daily routine.
For some time, Bukowski moved to New York in the hope of finding professional success as a writer, in the city of media and publishing houses. In fact, “Big Apple” becomes a terrible place for him.
His apartment, located directly on the elevated railway, drives him to the brink of madness: “A train had just stopped. I looked at a line of New York faces staring at me. The train stood for a while, then it went on. It was dark again. Then the room became light again. That look on their faces again. It was like a recurring vision of hell.”
Soon he leaves New York, and after a brief stopover in Philadelphia, he returns to Los Angeles. The short time in prison lets him know for the future: “I don’t like prison. There are no bars there.”
At the end of the 50’s he is now able to experience that smaller magazines print his texts over and over again. The years of misery, uncertainty and lack of prospects have probably made his writing stronger in the impression and judgement of the publishers.
His poems and stories from the backyards and brothels, the bars and factories, the tales of violence and crime do not document the America of success, security and prosperity – but they do find more and more readers, even among the middle and upper classes. Millions of Americans are dishwashers and will remain so.
When finally Bukowski’s works, now also including novels – “The Man with the Leather Bag” describes his time as a postal worker – reach Europe, they meet with great enthusiasm here. The social upheaval has reached the old world, and many see in Charles Bukowski the rapporteur, indeed prophets of a new age that does not want to accept the miserable conditions created by capitalism.
The author himself, however, considers himself fundamentally unsuited to become part of a political movement. “The eternal Love-Love-Love cry sounds like a command,” he writes about the hippie movement, “and I don’t like commands.” He remains a loner all his life.
In general, encounters with people are unpleasant for him. His publishers were able to persuade him to readings for a few years, which, in the spirit of the times, often had chaotic traits on the part of the audience. The “literature stroke”, as he calls the events themselves, he only endures drunk, he leaves the scotch in the thermos flask at the author’s table. “I didn’t pay to see you,” he shouts to those who call him names in a mixture of enthusiasm and rudeness.
In 1977 Bukowski meets Linda Beighle, whom he marries in 1985. Because of his lifestyle, it seems almost ironic that she runs a shop for organic products. She becomes a pillar of support for him in his last years, which also allow him a certain amount of seclusion due to his previous success on the book market. The film “Barfly”, whose script was written by him, once again shows the typical scenery of his works: partly autobiographical, the viewer follows the trail of a man amidst booze, violence and crime.
The author died in 1994 in San Pedro, a district of Los Angeles. Although he insulted the preoccupation with his texts after his death in typical Bukowski style even during his lifetime (“They make me much braver and more talented than I was. It is exaggerated. Even to the gods comes the big puke.”), can be determined today: His work in hard, often vulgar language has helped to reveal the dark, dirty side of the “New World” both inside and outside the USA.
“Death is like the dot at the end of a sentence – then a new chapter begins”, he formulated in a television interview in the last years of his life.
We can be curious to see in which bar we will one day meet Charles Bukowski – in a new chapter.
“Stories and Novels”
“To the gods comes the big vomit”
“The man with the leather bag”
“Notes of a Dirty Old Man” (Translation of the author)