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by Bamber Gascoigne

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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 studied for 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 Orleans Item."

During the war years, Bukowski lived the life of a wondering hobo 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. 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.  At the age of thirty-five he began to write poetry. 'Hello,' his first published poem, appeared in the Summer 1946 issue of Matrix. 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 drank heavily.

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. 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 proprietor 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. 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)

Selected works:

  • Flower, First and Bestial Wail, 1959
  • Longshot Poems for Broke Players, 1962
  • Poems and Drawings, 1962
  • Run with the Hunted, 1962
  • It Catches My Heart in Its Hands: New and Selected Poems 1955-1963, 1963
  • Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts: Fragments from a Disorder, 1965
  • Crusifix in the Deathhand: New Poems, 1963-65, 1965 (with etchings by Noel Rockmore)
  • Cold Dogs in the Courtyard, 1965
  • All the Assholes in the World and Mine, 1966
  • The Genius of the Crowd, 1966
  • The Curtains Are Waving, and People Walk through the Afternoon Here and in Berlin and in New York City and in Mexico, 1967
  • At Terror Street and Agony Way, 1968
  • Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window, 1968
  • Charles Bukowski. Philip Lamantia. Harold Norse, 1969
  • A Bukowski Sampler, 1969
  • Another Academy, 1969
  • Notes of a Dirty Old Man, 1969
    - Vanhan likaisen miehen juttuja (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, Tuomas Laurila & Kalle Niinikangas, 2002)
  • The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, 1969
    - Päivät karkaavat kuin villit hevoset yli vuorten (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 1997)
  • Fire Station, 1970
  • If We Take..., 1970
  • Post Office, 1971
    - Postitoimisto (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1986)
  • Anthology of L.A. Poets, 1972 (edited by Charles Bukowski, Neeli Cherry & Paul Vangelisti)
  • Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, 1972
    - Amerikan matadori: runoja 1969-1974 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 1998)
  • Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, 1972 (edited by Gail Chiarrello)
    - Kaupungin kaunein tyttö ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Markku Salo, 1989) / Tarinoita tavallisesta hulluudesta (suom. Petri Leppänen, 2009)
    - films: Storie di ordinaria follia / Tales of Ordinary Madness, 1981, dir. by Marco Ferreri, starring Ben Gazzara, Ornella Muti, Susan Tyrrell, Tanya Lopert, Roy Brocksmith; Crazy Love, 1987, prod. Multimedia, dir. by Dominique Deruddere, starring Josse De Pauw, Geert Hunaerts, Michael Pas, Gene Bervoets; Lune froide, 1988 (short film), dir. by Patrick Bouchitey, starring Patrick Bouchitey, Karine Nuris, Jean-François Stévenin; Lune froide / Copulating Mermaid of Venice, 1991, dir. by Patrick Bouchitey, starring Jean-François Stévenin, Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Pierre Bisson, Consuelo De Haviland
  • Me and Your Sometimes Love Poems, 1973 (with Linda King)
  • Life and Death in the Charity Ward, 1973
  • While the Music Played, 1973
  • South of No North: Stories of the Buried Life, 1973
    - Etelän vetelät: tarinoita kätketystä elämästä (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 2008)
  • Burning in Watwer, Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems 1955-1973, 1973
  • Africa, Paris, Greece, 1975
  • Factotum, 1975
    - Pystyssä kaiken aikaa (suom. Arto Häilä, 1990)
    - film: Factotum, 2005, dir. by Bent Hamer, screenplay by Bent Hamer and Jim Stark, starring Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei
  • Scarlet, 1976
  • Maybe Tomorrow, 1977
  • Love Is a Dof from Hell: Poems, 1974-1977, 1977
    - Rakkaus on koira helvetistä: runoja 1974-1977 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 1999)
  • Women, 1978
    - Naisia (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1981)
  • Legs, Hips and Behind, 1978
  • Shakespeare Never Did This, 1979
  • Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit, 1979
  • Dangling in the Tournefortia, 1981
    - Jatkuvaa sotaa: runoja 1977-1984 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 2001)
  • Ham on Rye, 1982
    - Siinä sivussa (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1991)
  • Bring Me Your Love, 1983 (with R. Crumb)
  • Hot Water Music, 1983
    - Kuuman veden musiikkia: novelleja (suom. Einari Aaltonen, 2005)
  • The Bukowski-Purdy Letters, 1983
  • Horses Don't Bet on People & Neither Do I, 1984
  • There's No Business, 1984 (with Robert Crumb)
    - Vitsit vähissä (suom. 1986)
  • Under the Influence, 1984
  • War All the Time: Poems, 1981-1984, 1984
    - Jatkuvaa sotaa: runoja 1977-1984 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 2001)
  • Alone in the Tome of Armies, 1985
  • The Day It Snowed in L.A., 1986
  • You Get Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense, 1986
    - Eläkeläinen Kaliforniasta: runoja 1984-1990 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 2004)
  • Gold in Your Eye, 1986
  • Luck, 1987
  • The Movie, "Barfly," 1987 (an original screenplay)
    - film: Barfly, 1987, prod. Golan-Globus Productions, dir. by Barbet Schroeder, starring Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige
  • The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966, 1988
  • The Movie Critic, 1988
  • Hollywood, 1989
    - Hollywood (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1992)
  • Wa Aint's Got No Money, Honey, but We Got Rain, 1990
  • Septuagenarian Stew: Stories & Poems, 1990
    - Eläkeläinen Kaliforniasta: runoja 1894-1990 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 2004)
  • In the Shadown of the Rose, 1991
  • People Poems, 1991
  • The Last Night of the Earth Poems, 1992
  • Supposedly Famous, 1992
  • Run with the Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader, 1993
  • Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters 1960-1970. Volume 1, 1993 (edited by Seamus Cooney)  
  • Pulp, 1994
    - Pulp (suom. Markku Into, 2000)
  • Heat Wave, 1995 (serigraphs by Ken Price)
  • Living on Luck: Selected Letters 1960s-1970s. Volume 2, 1995  (edited by Seamus Cooney)  
  • Shakespeare Never Did This, 1995 (photographs by Michael Montfort) 
  • Betting on the Muse: Poems & Stories, 1996
  • Bone Palace Ballet: New Poems, 1997
  • The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, 1998 (illustrated by Robert Crumb)
    - Lounaalla (suom. Seppo Lahtinen, 1999)
  • Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters 1978-1994. Volume 3, 1999 (edited by Seamus Cooney)  
  • What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, 1999
  • Open All Night: New Poems, 2000
  • Popcorn in the Dark, 2000
  • The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories, 2001
    - Kaupungin kaunein nainen & muita novelleja (suom. Markku Into, 2008)
  • The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps: New Poems, 2001
  • Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondense of Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli, 2001 (edited by Steven Moore)
  • Pink Silks, 2001
  • The Simple Truth, 2002
  • Sifting Through the Madness for the World, the Line, the Way, 2003  (edited by John Martin)
  • Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters, 1963-1993 (edited by David Stephen Calonne)
    - Auringonvalo, tässä olen: haastatteluja & kohtaamisia 1963-1993 (suomentanut Seppo Lahtinen, 2011)
  • As Buddha Smiles, 2004
  • The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain, 2004  (edited by John Martin)
  • Slouching Toward Nirvana: New Poems, 2005  (edited by John Martin)
  • Come On In!: New Poems, 2006  (edited by John Martin)
  • The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1951-1993, 2007 (edited by John Martin)
  • The People Look Like Flowers at Last: New Poems, 2007 (edited by John Martin)
  • The Pleasures of the Damned, 2007
  • Portions from a Wine-stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944-1990, 2008 (edited and with an introduction by David Stephen Calonne)
  • The Continual Condition: Poems, 2009 (edited by John Martin)
  • Absence of the Hero: Uncollected Stories and Essays, Volume 2: 1946-1992, 2010 (edited, with an introduction by David Stephen Calonne)
  • More Notes of a Dirty Old Man: The Uncollected Columns, 2011 (edited, with an afterword, by David Stephen Calonne)

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