“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
– Charles Bukowski
I have now seen so many documentaries on writers that I have decided to create a category on the blog for them: Writers On Screen. The latest one I found on YouTube about the American writer Charles Bukowski.
Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920, to a German mother and an American serviceman father. The small family moved to America, first Baltimore and then South Central LA in 1930 and here Bukowski had a turbulent childhood. His father was often unemployed, was a heavy drinker and consequently abusive. Bukowski was shy and withdrawn in school, in part due to the severe acne from which he suffered and which left him with scars for the rest of his life. After school he headed to college for a couple of years and took courses in journalism.
Bukowski delved into life, he wanted experience, so lived in rooming houses and motels in the 1940s, working as a labourer and living on one candy bar a day while writing and finding his voice. Despite numerous rejections, he worked harder and took the criticism on board, however the constant failure to get published eventually got to him and he quit writing for a decade and drank heavily while working at menial jobs.
In 1960 Bukowski returned to working at the Post Office, a job he had held for three years previously. He hated the work but hung on there anyway, never really believing he could make a living from his writing. After ten years of hard graft he accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who said he would cover Bukowski’s basic expenses if he would quit the Post Office and write full-time. Bukowski was 49 at this stage. He wrote his first novel entitled “Post Office” in three weeks “out of fear” that Martin would feel like he had made a bad investment.
Bukowski was a man’s man, a chauvinist in the vein of Hemingway and Mailer, but for all his macho bravura he was very insecure and terrified of failure. He believed he was ugly and at times was brutal towards women, perhaps believing that attack is the best form of defence. He comes across as a thorny individual, difficult to be around, at times violent and abusive, perhaps a legacy from his father.
Many of Bukowski’s friends and admirers are interviewed for the documentary; Bono, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Waits, Sean Penn, and Bukowski’s wife Linda. (As a side note, if ever a film were to be made about Bukowski’s life I reckon Geoffrey Rush looks quite like him.) It’s an interesting documentary, but I have to say I’ve never been a huge fan of Bukowski’s work and this hasn’t really changed my mind all that much. I appreciate his place in American literature and admire him for continuing a career that was difficult and at times hugely unrewarding, but I can’t seem to really connect with his work or with his way of seeing the world.