Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bukowski And The Beats, by Jean-François Duval

(pb; 1998, 2002: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"There are several reasons for this book. The principle one is pleasure -- the pure joy of returning to Charles Bukowski and to the Beats, by dipping into their legend -- particularly since the Beat movement is now enjoying a lively revival of attention through new editions, appearances of previously unpublished material, exhibitions, and other events.

"There is also the pleasure of rediscovering Charles Bukowski, cult author whose reputation continues to grow steadily all over the world. The full drama of his humor, fits of anger, memories, frustrations, and distinctive grace come to life during Dvual's long interview with Buk -- An Evening at Buk's Place. In February 1986, drinks in hand, the two hit it off with unusual rapport, providing a dialogue that is an essential part of Bukowski's canon.

"The pleasure also consists of having a close look at the links and contradictions between Bukowski and the Beat constellation -- a subject on which the enfant terribles of American literature have variously reacted with hatred, resentment, and, at times, actual admiration.

"Jean-François Duval, novelist, essayist and journalist, gives us an inspired commentary, plus a bibliography, a Who's Who, some never-before-seen photos, and much more."

Review:

Entertaining, informative read about Charles "Buk" Bukowski's relationship with the Beat writers and the rest of the world, on and off the page.

First, an abbreviated Beat-related history.

According to Duval:

"Originally 'Beat' was an imprecise term created in Times Square, New York by the poet and thief Herbert Hunke. Kerouac took the term and gave it it content. At the beginning the expression was quite meaningless -- 'Man, I'm beat,' Hunke would say. He hadn't a cent to his name, he slept in the Underground, it didn't really bother him that nothing ever went right. Straight away, seeing the light in Hunke's eyes, the light that radiated from him, Kerouac understood that 'beat' didn't simply mean worn out, but also blessed -- blessed because he was worn out. This light contradicted the apparent state of degeneration that the expression entailed.

"In 1948, John Clellon Holmes (future chronicler of the movement) asked how Kerouac would characterize the term, and conscious of Hunke's words [Kerouac] replied: 'I guess you might say we're a beat generation.' Holmes used the expression for the first time in a famous article in The Sunday Times on November 16, 1952, and also in his novel Go in which he used Kerouac's material. . . [Kerouac's] On The Road appeared only five years afterwards in 1957."
(p. 38)

In the year prior to On The Road's publication, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the publishing house City Lights (now City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco), had published Allen Ginsberg's politically provocative poem Howl. Publication of this poem cemented Ginsberg's celebrity in the literary world, and earned Ferlinghetti a court conviction: when he published the poem, Ferlinghetti had violated obscenity laws.

These two events started a literary firestorm that inflamed society -- especially pop culture.

According to Duval, "soon it was everywhere, the new look, the 'twisted' slouchy look; finally it began to appear in movies (James Dean) and on television. . . the bop visions became common property. . . carried over to the new rock n' roll youth via Montgomery Clift (leather jacket), Marlon Brando (T-shirt) and Elvis Presley (long sideburns). . ." (p. 48)

Bukowski began getting published in the mid-Fifties, and his raw (a word usually associated with Bukowski), crude-language style inevitably got him compared to the Beats, who, in their own distinctive ways, eschewed the narrative rules: Kerouac loved his rambly, poetic, nostalgic descriptions; William S. Burroughs was hygenically stark and/or hallucinogenic, depending on which novel you read; Ginsberg was political, provocative, with his crazy word flights; Ken Kesey's love of psilocybine, mescaline and LSD impelled him to write the novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; there are others, but I don't want to belabor the point.

The truth of it was that Bukowski (born Henry Bukowski) didn't get on with most of the Beat writers -- e.g., the cold, "disturbing" (Duval's word) Burroughs had no interest in meeting Bukowski (the feeling was mutual); Ginsberg was too "silly" (Bukowski's word) and shrill in his political posturings, on and off the page; Kerouac was off on his own trip, as was Bukowski.

And so it goes.

Given the scope of these authors' popularity, an inevitable cross-pollination of influence seeped into some of these writers' works and lives (sometimes, years later, as was the case with Bukowski).

However, for the most part, Bukowski and the Beats were separate entities, born of similar societal and literary dynamics.

This excellent, reader-friendly study is, appropriately, published with Duval's February 1986 interview with Bukowski. Titled "An Evening At Buk's," Bukowski's grace, humor and warmth, usually glimpsed between the lines of his sex- and booze-drenched works, shines through.

At heart, Bukowski comes off as a honest guy who understands all too well that everyone has their own store of bullsh*t that they have to sort through, and that one's walk should gibe with his talk. For the most part, Bukowski seems to accomplish the latter, as well.

Exemplary, fascinating book, this. Check it out. For Bukowski fans, it's (probably) worth owning.

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