Bukowski: On Drinking

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drinking

for me

it was or

is

a manner of

dying

with boots on

and gun

smoking and a

symphony music

background. […]

For Bukowski drinking was heroic. It was humiliating, destructive and alienating. It was self-poisoning and an attempt to capture a fragment of the vastness of human potential in an infinite universe. It killed time; it killed sexual potency; it killed friendships; it killed friends. Drink killed Jane Cooney Baker, the great first love of Bukowski’s life. Drinking was ridiculous and a source of boundless pleasure. It freed him of his natural shyness and sensitivity; it intensified everything. It made him fat. The beer bottle became Bukowski’s personal attribute, the way Camus’s Gauloise and Burroughs’s fedora were theirs.

All of the central parts of Bukowski’s life were prominent in his writing: love (and sex), reading, writing and drinking. (Other parts which appear less often are the life of the writer, gambling, childhood experiences and his troubled relationship with his father.) In that respect, Bukowski was an autobiographical writer, using the experiences of daily life – and recalling (and transforming) anecdotes – in his writing. He did not shy away from the truth of his addiction. When asked if he was an alcoholic, he replied “Hell, yes”. “Drinking makes things happen.”

Bukowski’s early years were spent moving between major American cities. Later he returned to his native Los Angeles. Those days were filled with bar hopping, manual labour, black-market ad hoc work, drink driving, hanging out with winos and whores, participating in drinking contests and sleeping off hangovers in the drunk tank. In one column, Bukowski riffs on Chinaski (his alter ego) in the drunk tank demanding Alcoholic Liberation – freedom from cop oppression in a time of radical politics. Bukowski tells tales of dramatic fights but also confessed “That stuff gets old, gets stale – you get your eyes all cut, and your lips all puffed up, a tooth loose… There’s no glory in it. Usually, you’re too drunk to fight well, you’re starving, you know…”

Drinking almost killed the writer. In 1954 he suffered a grave internal haemorrhage. Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (excerpted here) includes a description of his emergency hospitalisation which is stark and gruesome – though not humourless; Bukowski always has a wry take on matters, the more important the topic the more trenchant and dry the humour. He characterises the staff of the charity ward in LA as a mixture of cruelly indifferent and competently professional.

He resumed drinking but (either through luck or moderation) he never became as sick again. Over the years he switched between American and German beers, Riesling wine and whiskey.

By the time Bukowski wrote about drinking he was already deeply steeped in the cults of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Li Po. He knew the stories of heavy-drinking Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other creative pioneers. He bellied up to the bar and squared up to his big-drinking dead colleagues, matching their ghostly legendary drinks with his own bottles of Schlitz or Miller. As a writer and a drinking man, he engaged in banter, sparring and intimate confidences with dead creators with whom he felt kinship. He did it through competitive writing, drinking and emulation. Yet, as an honest man and an honest writer, he knew the painful reality of a drinker’s life and included in his writings the humiliations and transgressions brave and selfish. He knew that drinking numbs loneliness. Although many of his stories involved barroom encounters and drunken couplings, Bukowski most often drank alone while writing and listening to symphony music on the radio, especially when he became a full-time writer in 1970. “Heavy drinking is a substitute for companionship and it’s a substitute for suicide,” he admitted. “Drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn.”

Drinking helped Bukowski cope with public readings. He began on the reading circuit in the 1970s, invited to universities by poet-professors who were friends-cum-rivals. To deal with stage fright (“I always vomit before a reading,”) and to take the boredom out of post-reading faculty parties Bukowski drank. As his reputation grew (mainly after the publication of his first novel, Post Office, in 1971 and the appearance in underground newspapers of his bawdy column), fans expected to see him drinking or drunk at readings. The proud and sensitive Bukowski realised that some people came to see a spectacle and despised this aspect (and his willingness to perform that role) but his response to the shame and anger that provoked only made him drink harder. Later on, he drank to take the edge off interviews.

The editorial approach to On Drinking conforms to the other books in the recent series from Ecco, edited by Bukowski expert Abel Debritto. It comprises chronologically arranged selection of poems, stories, columns and extracts from letters, novels and interviews. Although some pieces are familiar from previous books, a number have only appeared in periodicals and a few are hitherto unpublished. Bukowski himself approved of a mixture of verse and prose in books, including a collection called Run with the Hunted (1993) which is the best introduction to Bukowski’s writing. Illustrations are line drawings by the writer, photographs and facsimiles of manuscripts. Debritto has – where possible – used the original periodical text or the manuscript for the text of On Drinking. This avoids the corrupted texts published by Bukowski’s former editor, John Martin. (For discussion of the posthumous editing of Bukowski, see my article here.) Paradoxically, after years of having drinking posthumously neutered in publications, this shot of drunken Bukowski feels positively healthy.

Certain stories recur in variations over the years in stories, poems and newspaper columns. The book includes one of my favourite stories, “The Blinds”, in which Chinaski volunteers to wash filthy venetian blinds in a dive bar. After hours of work, all the regulars join in to finish the job. Chinaski takes his $5 pay and buys everyone a drink. The bartender pours the drinks then tells Chinaski he owes $3.15.

In a poem entitled “shit time” Bukowski turns a shared defecation at a beachside latrine into an event of melancholy camaraderie between drunks. Afterwards, the tightness of hangover adds contrast when he confronts the grand and indifferent view:

I looked at the ocean and the

ocean looked good, full of blues and

greens and sharks.

I walked back out of there

and down the street

determined to find my automobile.

 

Some of these pieces are barroom yarns, full of improbable and seemingly exaggerated incidents. “I came up from the floor with the punch. It was a perfect shot. He staggered back all the way across the room […]” Yeah. Maybe, maybe not. Many tales are very funny. (Any poem which ends with “pulling up my pants / I tried to explain.” beats every limerick ever written.) It is hard to tell what is meant to be the humorous telling of actual story and what is a comic vignette cooked up from nothing. Ultimately, it does not matter. The point of the story is the story. Anyone dissecting Bukowski looking for truth is bound to come away vexed. Anyone who reads Bukowski for anything else will come away satisfied.

 

Charles Bukowski, Abel Debritto (ed.), On Drinking, Ecco, February 2019, hardback, 272pp, mono illus., £20

© 2018 Alexander Adams. Edited 5 December 2018 to correct two dates.

See my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

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The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature

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As the last unpublished writings of the original Beat Generation (Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac, plus others) reach print, the memoirs of their most distant associates become public and text-critical editions of classic texts are issued, the seams of iconic writers become exhausted. Notwithstanding the academic study of ever more obscure aspects of those writers and application of new theoretical systems of interpretation, the scholarly searchlight inevitably moves to unfamiliar territory. In terms of the Beats, the unfamiliar is foreign writers who were liberated by the Beat example of free verse, Buddhist mysticism, sexual freedom, drug use and radical politics.

The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature is a survey of the non-American Beat writers, written by multiple specialists, divided by country. Many of the specialists are natives of these countries and understand their subjects from the inside. These texts have been marshalled by Professor A. Robert Lee, an authority of the subject of Beat literature and author and editor of previous landmark studies.

The core first-generation Beats travelled relatively widely and some lived abroad for periods. All lived long enough to become famous and lauded outside of their homeland. In old age, Burroughs and Ginsberg toured – reading their writings, signing books, attending events, teaching classes and performing various public duties which brought them into direct contact with fans and allies. Yet Beatism is not a socially transmittable disease. As Lee sets out in the book’s introduction, the Beat movement spread directly through books, newspapers, chapbooks and fanzines, quite independent of the proximate presence of the writers. Indirectly, it spread through films, documentaries, the lyrics of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Jim Morrison and – most loosely – the pop-culture caricature of the Beatnik.

The definition of “Beat” in this handbook is somewhat elastic. Lee specifies no exact parameters for the authors. Is Beat a discrete period or is it open ended? Is Beat a movement (with a circumscribed set of stylistic tools, thematic concerns and political tenets) or is Beat an affiliation, tendency, influence or (in the most cynical light) simply mercenary appropriation of iconic cultural production of a past era? There is no manifesto, no defining compilation or event, no strict criteria for inclusion, no school, no necessity for apprenticeship and no arbiter’s blessing to confer Beatitude upon supplicants. Or rather, there are myriad manifestoes, compilations, events, criteria, schools, apprenticeships and arbiters – none authoritative.

The editor has allowed essayists to use their own judgment as to what “Beat creator” means in their studies, be that creators who claimed affiliation or lineage from the American Beats, those who created like them or those who adapted Beat principles to their native culture. In practice, it means all three groups. Katharine Streip covers the influence of the Beats on film maker David Cronenberg (director of Naked Lunch), musician-writer Arish Ahmad Khan and multi-media artist John Oswald. Much of Frida Forsgren’s essay deals with the sculptor Marius Heyerdahl, as one of the leading Beat creative figures in Norway.  We encounter snippets of unexpected information: women Beat creators in Italy were all involved primarily with music rather than writing; two of the leading German Beats were struck and killed by cars; the father of Lars Ulrich (Metallica drummer) is Torben Ulrich, professional Danish tennis player and Beat writer.

In some cases the reception of the Beats was impaired by cultural resistance. Alberto Escobar de la Garma notes, “Publishing houses in [Mexico] have been reluctant to make the Beats available in part because of historic antipathy towards the USA (to include its language) and in part because they so expressly flaunt Mexican conventions of conservative cultural manners and behaviour.” Conversely, there was sometimes antipathy from the American Beats towards creators in other countries. Luke Walker describes how Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg all felt that the British poets who appeared at the Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation in 1965 to be mediocre and derivative. They considered Great Britain a drab and socially constrained place, as did Burroughs, who lived there for a long period. When Corso read his poem “Bomb” it was denounced by the British audience as pro-war. Fiona Paton’s summary of the Scottish response to the Beats is called “Cosmopolitan Scum” and discusses Scottish writers Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Their response was more assertive, rebarbative – in short, more Scottish – than those of their English colleagues.

The essayists give a sense of the creators’ achievements and their significance (or insignificance) within their national scenes. Many of the writers were peripheral and published sporadically. Very little of this work has been published in translation, thus this Handbook provides valuable guidance regarding inaccessible work to international audiences. Authors acknowledge that often it was the example of the Beats and their literary liberation that freed foreign writers without those inspired writers becoming Beat themselves. This seems particularly true in the cases of Poland, Russia and China where access to imported subversive Western writings was tightly restricted and translations were almost non-existent. Pieces on Morocco and Turkey foreground the very different social, political and religious climates which shaped responses to Beat creativity. Essays on Japan and China take us even farther afield.

While writers sometimes closely analyse a poem and passage of prose, the essays are jargon-free, light on theory and highly readable. Quotations are necessarily restricted in length but even so one encounters some striking excerpts. Consider this by Leopoldo María Panero, quoted by Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo:

El palacio de la locura está

lleno de animals

verdes con

motas anaranjadas como ácidos y

cubierto de polvo: entra ven.

 

The palace of madness is

full of green

animals with

orange dots like acid

covered in dust: come inside.

 

The extensive bibliographies will send readers in search of the original texts. The footnotes and index will prove useful to researchers.

This book is an essential starting point for Beat fans’ parlour game of “debate the inclusion/omission”. No gathering of Beat academics or readers would be complete without fiery dissent on the status and relevance of writers included in the Beat canon and passionate advocacy in favour of omitted personal favourites. This book will be the starting point for such discussions for decades to come and a touchstone for Beat scholarship for a generation.

Let us hope that in time a cheaper paperback version is published, allowing the rich and enlightening scholarship in The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature to reach an even wider audience.

 

Contributors: Thomas Antonic (Austria), Franca Bellarsi (Belgium), Nicholas Birns (Australia), Thomas Epstein (Russia), Alberto Escobar de la Garma (Mexico), Frida Forsgren (Norway), Alexander Greiffenstern (Germany), Benjamin J. Heal (China), A. Robert Lee (Japan), El Habib Louai (Morocco), Polina Mackay (Greece), Erik Mortenson (Turkey), Lars Movin (Denmark), Lisa Avdic Öst (Sweden), Peggy Pacini (France), Fiona Paton (Scotland), Andrzej Pietrasz (Poland), Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo (Spain), Tomasz Sawczuk (Poland), Maria Anita Stefanelli (Italy), Katharine Streip (Canada), Jaap van der Bent (Netherlands and Flanders), Harri Veivo (Finland), Luke Walker (Great Britain).

A. Robert Lee (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature, Routledge, 2018, hardback, 350pp, £175, ISBN 978 0 415 78545 7 (also available as an eBook)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Thomas Rain Crowe and the San Francisco Scene

After many years of curating, cataloguing, collecting and selling books, Arthur S. Nusbaum has moved into publishing with his first book. This extensive transcript of interviews between Third Mind Books and Thomas Rain Crowe (b. 1949) forms a fascinating first-hand eye-witness testimony of the boom in Beat, Hippy and Yippy cultural production in San Francisco from the 1960s onwards. Crowe was one of the central figures of the San Francisco poetry scene in the period and he describes the interactions of writers such Neeli Cherkovski, Jack Hirschman, Ken Wainio, Harold Norse, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, Jack Micheline and – a central figure – Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The way they responded to visits by the original Beats Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso is covered. Ferlinghetti was artist, poet, publisher and bookseller. He had direct connections to the original Beats, published them and his bookstore City Lights acted as a hub for poet activity in San Francisco (as it still does, even as Ferlinghetti approaches his 100th birthday).

Nusbaum and Joe Provenzano interviewed Crowe and curated his extensive archive. Items from that archive illustrate the book. The images include broadsides, posters for legendary gatherings and poetry readings, photographs, letters, book covers and art works, many of them unique. There are covers of Beatitude, the revival of the Beat magazine, which was resurrected in San Francisco to publish the work of the Baby Beat or Second San Francisco Renaissance writers. Crowe founded New Native Press, with a focus on the Baby Beats and Native American writers.

One tantalising project that is discussed is a collection of Beat letters, which was intended for publication by City Lights and used letters by Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso written to Ferlinghetti. Crowe collated the letters, which were apparently vivid and various. The book was never published and the manuscript has since disappeared.

Crowe talks about his own development as a poet and his reactions to his contemporaries. He relates stories of lifelong friendships between writers and occasional animosities. He recounts how Norse was offended by being omitted from the line-up of the first annual San Francisco poetry festival (held in 1976), which Crowe co-directed. Norse ran a guerrilla campaign to undermine the festival, piqued at being overlooked. He made a point of avoiding the festival when it took place. Crowe talks about the drug and drink scene and the importance of left-wing political activism to the poets. There is discussion about campaigns to support political dissidents and the Indian Rights Movement.

There are some rare pieces reproduced, including facsimiles of Ferlinghetti’s Populist Manifesto and Cherkovski’s satirical broadside Syropa, a cutting satire on the Naropa Institute poets who were due to speak in San Francisco to promote the Naropa Institute for Disembodied Poetics at Boulder, Colorado. The book also includes a poem by Cherkovski about his friend Crowe. This book is a useful contribution to studies of San Francisco literature and a very enjoyable and informative read. We look forward with anticipation to the next publication from Third Mind Books.

 

Thomas Rain Crowe and Third Mind Books (ed.), Starting from San Francisco: The Baby Beat Generation and the Second San Francisco Renaissance. Thomas Rain Crowe in Conversation with Third Mind Books, Third Mind Books, 2018, paperback, 184pp, col. illus., $20, ISBN 978 0 692 13076 6 (Hardback collectors edition also available)

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

(c) 2018 Alexander Adams

Carlos Rojas, Valley of the Fallen

“On 24 August this year, the Socialist government of Spain legislated to exhume General Franco from his tomb at Valle de los Caídos, near Madrid. The Valle de los Caídos basilica was built by Franco as a symbol of both reconciliation and conquest and it became his tomb in 1975. His remains are now being exhumed and relocated, ostensibly to prevent Franco supporters gathering, as they have done over the years, to pay respects to Spain’s former dictator. In truth, the move to relocate Franco’s remains is not about paramilitary displays causing disorder or resurgent militaristic Catholicism, neither of which have been a threat since the failed coup of 1981; it is a chance for the Socialists to posture against the hated fascist dictator, albeit posthumously enacted. This move is part of the recent trend to erase symbolic history in the USAustria and Ukraine and South Africa.

“Publication of a new translation of Carlos Rojas’s seminal 1978 novel El Valle de los Caídos – The Valley of the Fallen – could not be timelier. Written in the aftermath of Franco’s death, the novel blends the turbulent and sometimes barbarous history of Spain in a meditation on parallels between two eras: the last years of the Bourbon monarchy, and the twilight of the Francoist era. We encounter Goya, court painter, talking to the king, Fernando VII. Rojas recounts stories from the Napoleonic wars of Iberia and the thoughts of the elderly Goya. The other thread of the novel is the domestic life of Sandro, a biographer of Goya living through the final days of Franco. Struggling with his literary task and coping with a troubled romantic relationship, Sandro considers the legacy of Franco and the civil war that brought him to power…”

Read the full review online on Spiked here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/into-the-valley-of-the-fallen/21791#.W5t7E85KjIV

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Sylvia Plath: Alive in Letters

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I.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading the letters of Sylvia Plath, the advice I received was to take it slowly and take frequent breaks. The inference being that Plath’s letters would be a gruelling testament to suffering. It is a reasonable assumption. There is no major author in the post-war period more closely associated with numbing emotional isolation and excruciating depression than Plath. The short poems of her last weeks must be among the sourest, most sarcastic and seared expressions of suffering in modern poetry.

Those who know her work broadly know there is more to her but if you know little it is the last poems and her famous “Daddy” that you know. However, if one listens to the recording of Plath reading “Daddy” – that apparently bitter invective against a tyrannical father – you will hear the glee in her voice, undercutting the rage that a million young women have vicariously immersed themselves in. The likelihood that Plath wished to conflate into a single poem her mixed feelings about her father with the prevalent psychoanalytic preoccupation with the symbolic father figure – a poem as rife with absurdity as it is with anger – is not immediately obvious to the casual reader. The play of her humour and irony enliven the mosaic of cultural references she carefully arranged for us to find in her verse. This humour and learning is nowhere more evident than in her letters.

Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath grew up in a middle-class home in Massachusetts. The earliest extant letter is from 1940, the year her father died. Numerically, most of the letters are to Plath’s mother, the first ones written during summers spent with relatives, summer camps and at youth conferences. She wrote to a German pen pal for a number of years, explaining her life and displaying intense interest in German life. Her world was one of book-reading and stamp-collecting, cardigans, knee-socks, hamburgers and milk, blind double dates, picnics and bracing cycle rides.

She was accepted into Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. In almost daily postcards to her mother, she records her life. We follow her health, friends, studies and dates. Plath in these letters is an inquisitive, assiduous, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and creative young woman. She could be supercilious and self-impressed, as is only to be expected from an individual who had lived a sheltered life and received such praise and admiration while young. Even the most cynical reader would not be won over by her character.

She aspired to be a writer; she had been editor of the high-school newspaper. She started to write stories and poems. She wrote fiction that was published in women’s magazines and the new burgeoning market for girl’s magazines, such as Seventeen. At the same time she was submitting poems to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other publications. Poems are included in the text and we see Plath growing as a writer. Photographs of Plath, her family and friends and images of her illustrated letters are included.

The core of the group is those letters written to her mother. One can see Plath sharing her pleasures and problems, delighting in magazine cheques and competition prizes, all the time wanting her mother to be impressed and proud. Performing for an audience and meeting her own punishingly high standards proved too much. She exhausted herself through overwork. In the summer of 1953 she had a nervous breakdown, experiencing insomnia and depression, which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. Soon after, she attempted suicide not once but twice. The first time she tried drowning. In the most powerful letter in the book – made all the more memorable for Plath’s offhand dry humour – she described her failure to die.

Well, I tried drowning, but that didn’t work; somehow the urge to life, mere physical life, is damn strong, and I felt that I could swim forever straight out into the sea and sun and never be able to swallow more than a gulp or two of water and swim on. The body is amazingly stubborn when it comes to sacrificing itself to the annihilating directions of the mind.

She continued:

So I hit upon what I figured would be the easiest way out: I waited until my mother had gone to town, my brother was at work, and my grandparents were out in the back yard. Then I broke the lock of my mother’s safe, took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement, after having left a note to mother that I had gone on a long walk and would not be back for a day or so. I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion. My mother believed my note, sent out searching parties, notified the police, and finally, on the second day or so, began to give up hope when she found that the pills were missing. In the meantime, I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell…

The search for the missing co-ed – prizewinning young authoress – made the pages of over 200 newspapers and Plath had to recover in hospital a figure of minor notoriety.

Plath’s failed attempt to meet Dylan Thomas and successful encounters with W.H. Auden and literary scholar I.A. Richards while she was still a student, show Plath’s ambition to rise to the status of these figures. Part fan adoration, part intellectual curiosity, part careerism, these events are recounted in her letters. In a letter of 4 November 1954, Plath wrote “I am really beat but beatific: my status quo.” The following year she applied to teach English at the American school in Tangiers. How different her life might have been if she had been in the company of Bowles and Burroughs rather than Hughes and the Movement poets…

Plath recounted a bohemian scene of a carefree outing with a boyfriend.

I was so tired, having slept about two hours all night, that I curled up in the backseat of the little car driving to new haven and fell deeply asleep. I awoke to consciousness of sunlight and a circle of people staring at me in unfeigned curiosity. [Richard] sassoon had stopped at a merritt parkway gas station for coffee, and the sight of a touseled girl sleeping soundly in the backseat of a volkswagon in the midst of empty wine bottles and books of baudelaire attracted attention, to put it mildly.  

There are absences – not least many letters to boyfriends. Perhaps we should be grateful to have some intimacy withheld. There are no surviving letters to Richard Sassoon. We have some extracts that Plath copied into her diaries. They are the most literary, allusive and passionate of her early letters.

Plath was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study at Newnham College, Cambridge in September 1955. Plath arrived in England and was enchanted to an almost comical degree.

London is simply fantastic. So much better organized (beautiful “tubes” with artistic posters, two decker red busses, maps everywhere, all black cars and cabs, guides to theaters, all posted) than NYC; more beautiful than Washington (Parks with roses, pelicans, palaces, plane trees and fig trees and lakes and fountains) and infinitely more quaint and historic (obviously) than Boston). The “bobbies”” are all young, handsome, and exquisitely bred; I think they’ve all gone to Oxford. Flower girls, fruit stands with enormous peaches, grapes, etc. on every corner. […] Oh, mother, every alleyway is crowded with tradition, antiquity, and I can feel a peace, reserve, lack of hurry here which has centuries behind it.

In February 1956, the concluding year of this collection, she met Ted Hughes and began a relationship with him. She wrote about how excited she was to be with him and how he helped her creatively. “Ted is the most wonderful man in the world; I am constantly incredulous with joy at how much I love him and how magnificently well we work together.” Included is the text for “Ode for Ted”. They married in the summer of 1956 in secret because Plath feared (apparently erroneously) that she would lose her scholarship were it to become known she had married. There are long letters describing an idyllic honeymoon in the small obscure fishing village of Benidorm (“probably too small to be on your map”). She did not approve of the bullfight she saw. “The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.”

There are misjudgements in the editing of the volume. As is now house style for Faber & Faber correspondence present locations of letters are given (when that specialist information could have been given as end notes) yet no places are given for the location letters were written from. This is same as the Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot letters. This was not always the case. The Larkin letters (published 1992) do have locations given.

The notes are prolific and detailed, sometimes excessively. When Plath mentions enclosing stamp hinges what is gained by annotating “The enclosed stamp hinges are no longer with the letter”? The biographical notes refer not just to recipients but individuals mentioned. Likewise, many of these are useful but footnotes for passing mentions to schoolmates could be considered excessive. It is sobering to see biographical notes on Plath’s school and university friends reading “(1932-   )”. Plath too could still be alive now if she had not taken her own life over 50 years ago.

As this first volume closes, the prospect of the second volume offers us more varied correspondents – editors, authors, in-laws and so on – as she becomes a public figure in the British literary scene. It also promises insight into her final painful months.

Plath is much more than a victim. To underplay her complexity and her cool calculation as a writer is to ascribe to her little more than reactive emotionality. Indeed, if she were primarily the caricature of a hot-housed daughter, spurned wife and troubled mother – as many academics and students reduce her to – then she would be no writer at all. Above all the epithet “tragic” is a sweeping patronising description of a life as richly varied as any and presents the poet to be a helpless hostage in the grip of malevolent circumstances. Tragedy is a concept that is necessarily a retrospective judgement and is enmeshed in the idea of inevitability. Supporters of Plath who are driven by gender-political motivations exaggerate both her brilliant originality as a poet and the overwhelming influence of her husband’s infidelity in her choice of suicide. Plath was a great poet but very much a product of her time, influenced by her reading and her peers. Plath was distressed by Hughes’s infidelity but she was also subject to internal pressures and psychological issues present since her youth, not to mention the difficulty of coping alone with two young children whilst on powerful mood-altering medication. To understand anything about Plath the writer we must acknowledge her cunning, her craft, her ambition, her immersion in literature and her ambivalence. This understanding opens us up to acknowledging Plath’s complexity as a person.

There is no better way to understand that complexity than to read her letters.

II.

In 1740 Samuel Richardson published one of the first novels in English, titled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. In this book we are presented with a coherent directed narrative telling a story in the form of authentic letters between various characters. The author plays with boundaries of fiction and factuality, though readers can feel fairly certain they are reading a work of fiction. In this novel (and two subsequent ones) we get ostensibly independent documents which are really guided by the hand of the omniscient omnipotent author. We at once are immersed in a story, experience it through differing perspectives and appreciate the author’s ingenuity. It complements our intelligence and we in turn admire the craft put into this story. We enjoy the narrative and meta-narrative. Like Tristam Shandy, another experimental early novel, Richardson’s novels approach a near Post-Modernist play of pretence and self-awareness. The works were necessarily experimental as the English novel was only then being invented.

There is a peculiar aspect to reading collected letters by a single writer without replies. Unlike poems or stories, which although they might be related are individual communications, letters are incomplete. Lacking the chain of interchange, we confront something incomplete: a two-part musical score with half the pages missing.

Readers who are well informed about a subject find themselves reading letters through an external framework. If we read a book of collected letters in sequence, we read early letters with a degree of impatience, wanting to get to more accomplished writing and varied correspondents. We become tired of reading news repeated to multiple correspondents, especially in a complete (rather than selected) collection. We await significant career milestones, personal events and historical events, anticipating the writer’s responses. We search the last letter for profound insights into life or a final message to the world. Like attendees of a play we have seen before, we know what is in the characters’ future. The dramatic irony is that we know the accomplishments, tragedies, betrayals and reverses of fortune which lie ahead of the characters while those individuals do not. We are omniscient, watching characters struggling to overcome obstacles and challenges in their path, judging their morality and fortitude in their most private words. We have the power to skip ahead or go back – even of dismissing the spectacle by simply declining to read on.

Thus we as readers who consume a collection of letters have a unique response to the text – a text moreover that the author never actually wrote. The author wrote small texts and sent them to different readers without thought to how they would work together. It would be like printing a transcript of someone’s speech over the course of a day without context, pauses and responses. We encounter multiple discrete texts to different recipients in a totalised, cumulative and sequential manner. Books of letters do not have to be read in such a way and certainly researchers or students do use such books as reference resources. Our expectations adjust but we are beings formed of experience and temperament and it is impossible for us to entirely detach our expectations of narrative, drama and reading pleasure which colour our responses to a collection of letters. This is not to suggest that collections of letters and readings of them are misleading or intrinsically flawed. They are, of course, as every human endeavour and response must be but that is not the point. The point is that reading letters in collected form presents us with a distortion that we should constantly remind ourselves is a distortion.

Consider the case of diary reading. It has often been said that diaries are repositories of disappointment and disgruntlement, places where writers can unload their negative feelings to experience catharsis and meet no opposition or scrutiny. Consequently, diaries appear to readers as negative, bitter and petty. In truth they often are but they are a partial presentation of the self and as a record of character diaries can be very misleading, even if we constantly remind ourselves of the bias. With letters the matter we must bear in mind is not a distortion in the source (although it is natural that a writer communicates certain things and withholds other things on purpose) but that we are watching a film composed of multiple different silent films which flicker in and out and overlaying that is our historical understanding, which forms a continuous soundtrack which is anachronistic and not necessarily congruent with the film passages. Yet as we watch this film we naturally wish to consider it whole, narratively comprehensible and authored. Our human tendency forms this discordant fusion.

As long as we are aware of this tendency we can better understand our own reactions to reading volumes of letters and not succumbing to the temptation of believing we understand more than we actually do.

 

Sylvia Plath, (Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds.), The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956, Faber & Faber, 2017, hardback, 1,424pp, col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 0571 328 994

© Alexander Adams

Charles Bukowski: The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way  

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Interviewer: What do you hold responsible for your success?

Bukowski: A brutal childhood, alcohol, half a dozen rotten jobs, a dozen rotten women, plus an overpowering fear of everything, plus a strange arrival of luck and bravery in sub-zero situations.

In this new collection of stories, essays, reviews, statements and interviews (compiled and introduced by Bukowski expert David Calonne) we read Bukowski meditating on writing: the experience of writing, how he judged writers, his writing process and why one could (and should) write. There are also a few unpublished items.

Charles Bukowski often thought about what writing was good for (and not) and which writers made it (and which did not). Writing was his occupation and trade. He did a lot of reading. He frequented libraries and read voraciously. Despite not finishing his college education he was familiar with the classics (verse, prose and drama) and the early Moderns, as well as pulp writing, Chinese poetry and a host of other writers recent and ancient. He formed and expressed strong opinions but he was prepared to qualify. For example, he said he greatly admired Hemingway when he was younger but had cooled towards Hemingway because his writing lacked humour. But he was prepared to admit Hemingway’s greatness and conceded his jealous rivalry with the giant of American Twentieth Century literature. This is amply apparent in a very ambivalent review of the posthumously published Islands in the Stream.

This book does not make it. I wanted this book to make it. I have been pulling for Hemingway to hit one out of the lot for a long time now […] Hemingway knows his drinks and his drunks and the bar scene is good and the conversation is a little bit on-stage but not bad. You can get thirsty reading this part. I didn’t. […] No, this book doesn’t make it. Few do.

Writers Bukowski expressly admired included Dostoevsky, Gorky, Céline, Li Po, Hamsun, John Fante, early Hemingway, early Saroyan. He did not tend to publicly praise contemporary poets. This was perhaps partly professional jealousy and ego, but he had reasons to be sceptical. In the 1960s and 1970s Bukowski read a large amount of verse in connection with his work on little magazines. He claimed that the poor quality of American verse published at the time did not come close to matching the awfulness of the verse not published. Reading the dregs that were submitted for publication led him to make sweeping public statements and the largely dismiss American verse of the era. Yet Bukowski is nothing if not honest and we see that in his warm and generous introductions to his fellow poet Steve Richmond’s poem collections. Doug Blazek, Al Masarik and Al Purdy all get words of praise of varying intensity. No matter how rebarbative and brusque he could be generally, when encountering specific poems Bukowski would be as sensitive and responsive as one could wish for in an intelligent commentator. Due to that, when Bukowski trained his critical gaze on writing and found it wanting his verdicts were all the more brutal.

The most brutal of reviews is the verdict on a book of poems by John William Corrington. The pair had been friends and written each other many letters. Bukowski cooled on Corrington’s craft and conduct, attributing highfalutin diction and lifeless conjunctions in Corrington’s verse to his university education and work as a professor of English. Bukowski provides many examples of terrible self-conscious verse (“the strum of lost evening”, “sob chill rumor of your sinking flesh”, “grief stands like squad of riflemen”, etc.) which will leave readers wincing. Bukowski identifies instances of derivativeness and near plagiarism. Yet even within such a crushing and closely argued demolition, he quotes and praises a fine poem. Bukowski’s honesty will not allow him to lie or elide an awkward truth to strengthen his hand. To be fair, Bukowski the critic applied the principle of minimum-necessary force. No one could have finished the review thinking that Corrington’s Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965) was anything other than a disappointing pretentious mess. This is poetry reviewing as bullfighting and there is a certain vicarious pleasure in seeing this matador drive the sword in to the hilt. Bukowski should have written more reviews.

The selected stories here are uncollected since their original publications, mostly in weekly columns published in National Underground Review, Candid Press, L.A. Free Press and other counter-cultural newspapers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bukowski spins yarns about fellow writers, writing columns and giving poetry readings at universities. At events he would drink while reading poems, deal drily with hecklers, behave boorishly at faculty parties and fend off groupies. Or not fend them off. He admitted – or boasted, depending on your view – of bedding admiring students, aspiring poetesses and wives of faculty members on numerous tours and reading engagements. Bukowski rarely spares himself and no matter how selfish, hypocritical and shallow his characters are, the writer himself hardly emerges any more dignified. Many of the stories are based on true events and earned the ire of fellow writers. My favourite is supposedly a veiled tale about “Tony Kinnard”. The poet injures his back and retires to a sickbed while his wife collects money to support him, even after his death. The story’s origin is unclear. As others at the time did, Calonne identifies Kinnard as Kenneth Patchen. Patchen did have severe spinal injury that left him bedbound over the years but this story was published in 1971 – a year before Patchen’s actual death.

The stories make fun of the farcical contradictions and false piety regarding the life of famous writers while always upholding the importance of what writing is and what writing can do. Bukowski experienced the pain of rejection and poverty and so when the empty adulation and wealth of great fame became his life, he could view the business with a gimlet eye. He is disarming frank about the variable quality of his weekly column, admitting that they were written for money and that some were weak. However, Bukowski never suggests that writing for money is wrong or that it necessarily degrades the writer.

A handful of interview transcripts and some questionnaires allow Bukowski to explain his thoughts on writing. He admits in interviews that the character Henry Chinaski is actually himself, embellished only slightly. He also says that the raucous stories of fights and one-night stands are largely true but mainly from the 1940s and 1950s and played up for effect. He was aware of his reputation as a “badass poet”, prepared to brawl, puke, gamble and screw his way through life and turn that life into writing. Bukowski never suggests a solution to the quandary of the writer using his own life as material and perhaps living in a certain way in order to provide literary subject matter – and the implicit danger of self-consciousness and autobiographical cannibalisation that this situation gives rise to. He concedes it happens but it is content to rely on literary judgment on a case by case basis. Ultimately, that is a reasonable response – perhaps that only one he could have in his circumstances.

Bukowski’s comments on his writing process shed light on recent controversies regarding the posthumous editing of his verse.

I write right off the typer. […] I revise but not much. The next day I retype the poem and automatically make a change or two, drop out a line, or make two lines into one or one line into two, that sort of thing – to make the poem have more balls, more balance.

This late (1985) interview directly contradicts the idea that editor John Martin of Black Sparrow Press has put forth. Black Sparrow Press published all the collected volumes of Bukowski’s poems from the late 1960s until after his death. When readers commented on minor and major changes between original versions of poems Bukowski submitted to magazines and the poems Martin published posthumously, Martin implied that all the changes had been made by Bukowski. However, Martin never produced manuscripts to substantiate the claim that Bukowski had embarked on a late, major and secret campaign of revision. The revision that readers detected in posthumous volumes was not the revision the poet describes in this interview – light contemporaneous revision designed to “make the poem have more balls” – but in fact atypical revision that neutered poems. Unless holograph manuscripts in Bukowski’s hand are provided attesting to the veracity of the posthumously published revisions, I am happy to take the poet at his word.

David Calonne and City Lights Books have done fans proud by publishing so much rare material of high quality. Some of Bukowski’s original illustrations for his stories are reproduced. The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way is a rich, surprising and very enjoyable collection. It is warmly recommended to all Bukowski readers and to anyone curious about Bukowski’s deeply felt thoughts on his trade and craft.

 

Charles Bukowski, David Calonne (ed.), The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way: On Writers and Writing, City Lights Books, 2018, paperback, 292pp, some line illus., $15.95, ISBN 978 0 87286 759 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Getting into Hemingway’s Head

“On the morning of 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway took his favourite shotgun and shot himself in the head at his home in rural Idaho. He had finally done it. He had threatened suicide, described the suicides of others and even play-acted it with empty guns. He had been talked out of suicide, and physically restrained from doing it, twice before. Dogged by declining health, difficulty in writing and now a chronic writer’s block, Hemingway chose death. He was haunted by the knowledge that his father had shot himself. Two of Hemingway’s siblings would later commit suicide, with suicide being the suspected cause of death for another sibling. Suicide was a hereditary risk for the Hemingways.

“In Hemingway’s Brain, Andrew Farah, a clinical psychiatric practitioner, has analysed the causes of the mental decline that precipitated Hemingway’s suicide and has come up with a new diagnosis.

“Born in 1899, Hemingway lived a life that was physically precarious. Sometimes due to accident, sometimes by placing himself in dangerous situations, Hemingway courted danger and death. This was in his character and it underpinned a heroic persona that found its way into his writings. As a boxer, deep-sea angler, big-game hunter, trainee bullfighter, war correspondent and hard-drinker, Hemingway lived a life that transcended the macho and became epic.

“During the First World War in northern Italy, Hemingway was wounded by a mortar explosion and hit by machine-gun bullets. He suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds and experienced concussion…”

Read the full review online on Spiked website, 28 July 2017, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/getting-into-hemingways-head/20130#.WXtJioTyvIU

Literature of Longing

Denton Welch

Denton Welch, Daniel J. Murtaugh (ed.), Good Night, Beloved Comrade. The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, 2017, University of Wisconsin Press, hardback, 213pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-299-31010-3

 

The upheaval of the Second World War provided many people with opportunities for covert romantic and sexual assignations. The blackout in large cities aided fleeting trysts and, on the home front, the relocation of people assigned war work, the absence of spouses and general mobilisation all loosened social constraints. People of different regions, professions and classes mingled on an unprecedented scale during those years.

In November 1943 the author-artist Denton Welch was partially crippled and bed-ridden when a friend paid a visit. Welch said he was too ill to see him, then he changed his mind; it was a decision that would alter the course of his life. The friend brought into Welch’s bedroom a handsome labourer called Eric Oliver. Although they did not know it at the time, Welch and Oliver’s lives would be entwined forever after.

At that time Welch had published a novel and some stories that had made him the toast of a small circle of London literati and a wider circle of homosexual admirers. Welch, who had trained as an artist, had been struck by a car at the age of twenty and for the remainder of his life suffered severe medical complications. Mobility seriously restricted and frequently in pain, Welch occupied himself with writing, spending his adult years in Tonbridge, Kent. Although in his twenties, he described himself as “old, so immensely old, like a stone image on a mountain watching small boys play”. Detachment aided Welch as a writer – he excelled in observation and description. Of the writings published in Welch’s lifetime the most explicitly homosexual aspects were omitted; only in the 1980s were Welch’s frankest writings published.

Welch’s journals and novels are tinged with longing, regret and wistfulness. Reading his descriptions of road-menders working in the sun stripped to the waist, we are made strongly aware of an attraction the author rarely consummated. His bucolic descriptions of rural Kent and pinpoint scrutiny of domestic details also leave a strong impression. Reading Welch is peculiarly like watching Welch write – we imagine Welch melancholy and thoughtful, his full forehead and horn-rimmed spectacles bowed above the pages of a notebook.

When Welch met Oliver, the latter was working in Kent in the agricultural service as a land boy. Oliver found Welch good company; Welch became infatuated with Oliver. The mismatch in class and outlook – with Welch a public-school-educated introverted intellectual and Oliver, a hard-drinking bisexual working-class rake – caused a degree of friction and uncertainty. After a slow start they grew closer and became lovers. After Oliver’s residence was destroyed by a V-2 rocket (in July 1944), he accepted Welch’s offer that Oliver move in with him; they would remain together until Welch’s death in 1948, at the age of 33. The companions gave mutual support and Oliver’s emotional and practical assistance brought the writer great happiness in his last years.

This collection of 51 unpublished letters by Welch to Oliver covers the period 1943-7. Most letters are from 1943 and 1944, before cohabiting rendered correspondence unnecessary. The letters of 1945-7 were written during Oliver’s absences. In early letters, Welch expresses his longing and betrays anxiety about rejection, sometimes pricked by jealousy and self-pity.

“I would agree with you absolutely, over 100% love affairs being very uncommon, but doesn’t that apply to everything in life? Aren’t all our feelings, however strong, never quite as strong as we think they might be? Aren’t they always mixed with some doubt; and aren’t we always torturing ourselves and wasting time thinking, can this be love?”

Reading of the indignities of Denton’s medical examinations and the symptoms of his conditions explains much of his peevishness, although the descriptions are touched with humour. Not all of the correspondence is introspective. Welch tells Oliver about the flight of residents from Kent to avoid V-1 bombs (a number of which landed on Tonbridge), “those wretched bombers circling overhead and those peculiar lights which flash from the hillside” and difficulties of living with rationing. He passes on news of their friends, sometimes empathetic, sometimes catty. Suffering and the threat of sudden death heightened the piquancy of Welch’s desire, though he admitted that “in some moods I would quite ruthlessly sacrifice all the lovers in the world to my work.”

The editor has decided to leave Welch’s spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected and underlining in the original letters is faithfully transcribed. Thus we get Welch at his most raw, intimate and irascible. A vivid, informative introduction allows readers previously unfamiliar with Welch’s writings to understand the course of the author’s life and work. Extensive annotation is confined to the back of the book and includes extracts of Welch’s novels and journals. The reader does not have to be familiar with Welch’s other writings to enjoy this collection, which is as fresh and lively as Welch’s fiction and journals.

This book is part of a series of publications in the press’s “Living Out” series of gay and lesbian literature. More open social attitudes towards sexuality have stimulated interest in gay writing. Newly published letters and diaries give us insights into the experiences of people whose stories could not be publicly told in the eras in which they lived. Although some individuals considered their sexuality shameful and found subterfuge stressful, others relished the frisson of “sex as crime”, leading the lives of sexual outlaws and conspirators. Welch’s life is particularly poignant as it was so clearly restricted by the circumstances of his time. In a later age more advanced medical treatment and altered social attitudes regarding homosexuality would have extended and enriched his life. Yet, perhaps Welch’s best qualities as a writer spring from painful yearning and a sense of isolation. Paradoxically, what might have made Denton Welch’s life fuller would possibly have made his writing less powerfully engaging.

Alexander Adams

Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k

 

Review: The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence

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B.S. Johnson, Zulfikar Ghose, Vanessa Guignery (ed.), The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence, 2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, cloth hb, 457pp + xxiv pp,  ISBN 978 1 4438 7266 9

 

1.

Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973) and Zulfikar Ghose (b. 1935) were fellow writers who achieved success in the London literary scene of the 1960s. They came into contact with each other in 1959, while still English undergraduates. They entered into a correspondence about the editing of Ghose’s university literary journal, a dialogue that developed into a close alliance, partly epistolary because although they both lived in London at the same time, they also lived apart for periods. This volume collects all the surviving letters, cards and telegrams between the pair, covering the years 1959 to 1973.

B.S. Johnson is once again fairly well known. He achieved professional respect, modest sales and occasional (brief) notoriety as a writer of mildly avant-garde fiction, verse and drama. His first novel was published in 1963 and in the following decade he produced a substantial amount of fiction, drama and prose (much of sports journalism and literary criticism). He covered the 1966 football World Cup for The Observer and The Times of India. He wrote and directed a number of short films and television programmes. His most notable works are novels employing avant-garde techniques, such as text in parallel columns, holes cut into pages and blank and patterned pages. The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of 27 loose sections in a box, to be read – aside from sections marked “first” and “last” – in any order.

Johnson was vociferous in his advocacy of Modernism and experimental techniques in preference to more traditional narrative plot and ostensible realism. He compared the novelist’s position to that of an architect’s, saying that it was dishonest to work as if Modernist innovations had never taken place. It was the duty of the writer, as he saw it, to embody the intellectual developments of his era in formal characteristics of prose. Johnson could be dogmatic and intemperate on this matter, though he could also be generous to fellow writers and his left-wing principles steered him towards occasional collective action and attempts to better the lot of authors who made their living from their work. It is clear from the progression of the novels, as well as from various letters and articles, that at least by the 1972 Johnson felt he had reached a point of exhaustion in his pursuit of technical novelty. Indeed, it seemed clear that his rigid view that “telling stories is telling lies” had left him with only his own life to mine for material, which he had exhausted by the time he finished his last novel.

See the Old Lady Decently (posthumously published in 1975) was an admission of Johnson’s exhaustion It was a reconstruction of his mother’s life, drawn partially from interviews. He had reached the limits of usable material from his own life and struggled to assemble a disjointed assemblage of aspects from his own life and that of his mother. He interpolated fragments of his experience writing the book into the book and thereby became drawn into a web of self-reference and self-absorption that was denser than ever. Writing about writing is dull stuff, largely. As a chronicler of ordinary life, Johnson could see that the subject of See the Old Lady Decently was writing itself, an arid area destined to become ever more self-regarding. The novel was to be part of a trilogy but Johnson understood the line he was pursuing was exhausted, not least because he had already quarried his own life for material in previous novels. He did not write the subsequent two books planned and died shortly after delivering the manuscript of the first to his publisher; See the Old Lady Decently has never been republished.

It could be argued that technical novelty was actually impeding Johnson. He was in danger of being known – when he was known at all by the reading public – as a producer of literary gimmicks. It is the case that some of his novels were very slight in terms of narrative substance. More substantial characters, denser stories, more complete back stories to indicate motivation – all of these would have made Johnson’s novels more satisfying. It is possible that Johnson’s devices would have proved even more taxing to readers if the books had been longer. Johnson was often writing under the pressure of deadlines because of his contracts and he was hamstrung by his ideological position resisting pure invention. Seven novels, two collections of poems and a number of play and film scripts written in the curse of a decade was a relatively demanding production rate for an author who had additionally to write a fair quantity of journalism and who involved himself in the life of his young family.

Johnson’s novels Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), The Unfortunates and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) are rewarding and memorable novels, which are largely successful as literature. What stands out in these books is not so much the technical experimentation – which is often quite modest and to a degree peripheral to the overall experience of reading the novels – but the clarity of writing, the author’s intelligence and sensitivity, the memorable images and humour. The formal innovations do not distract from the substance of the novels. Other nouvelle roman novelists could be much more ambitious than Johnson, whose attachment to radical formalism was tempered by a desire to reach a mass audience.  Johnson wanted to have a readership comparable to that for the novels of James Joyce and the prose and drama of Samuel Beckett. Johnson was always ready to promote his books and to be interviewed. He frequently made suggestions to his publishers and agents about how to market his books. He wanted to be a respected novelist, earn a living from royalties and advances alone and also maintain intellectual credibility. That he managed to sustain all of these three to a degree (however erratically or uncertainly) is a measure of Johnson’s skill and tenacity. However, depressed by the death of his mother and marital difficulties and anxious about the relative commercial failure of his books and – most importantly – frustrated by the apparent dead-end he had reached in his literary work, Johnson took his own life in November 1973. His reputation ebbed over the following decades, with most of books out of print, and it was only with the republication of some of his novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Johnson reached a new generation. It seems unlikely that the revival of Johnson’s reputation will extend to his poetry. This minor revival was aided by an intelligent and sympathetic biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), by Jonathan Coe.

Zulfikar Ghose is less known to general British readers, though he was a highly regarded young poet in the 1960s, frequently anthologised and widely published. Many readers while approach this volume of correspondence knowing some of Johnson’s novels and perhaps nothing at all of Ghose’s writings. Ghose was born in Sialkot, India (later Pakistan) and moved to London in the late 1940s. He later read English at the Keele University. His poems were published from the late 1950s onwards and his first novel (The Contradictions) appeared in 1966. His writing style displays greater diversity than Johnson’s, ranging from formally experimental Modernism to more traditional narrative realism. Ghose has rejected the label as a diaspora or post-colonial writer, although some of his early subjects included topics related to his country of origin.

Ghose was more successful as a poet than Johnson was, though no jealousy is apparent in the correspondence. After earning a living as a teacher, Ghose was offered a position in the English department of the University of Texas at Austin, where he moved in 1969. He has been resident in Texas since then. Like Johnson, Ghose wrote sports journalism, including cricket reports for The Observer. He visited Brazil with his Brazilian wife and wrote three novels based on his experiences there (The Incredible Brazilian (1972-8)). His extensive literary friendships generated a large body of correspondence, some of which is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and the British Library. His relocation to Texas has probably contributed to the decline of Ghose’s current profile in Britain.

Johnson and Ghose collaborated a number of times: first on Ghose’s university literary review, later on some pieces of journalism, a book of short stories (Statement Against Corpses (1964)), an unpublished book of social satire and some unrealised projects. Johnson and Ghose’s poetry was published together alongside the poems of Gavin Ewart in the Penguin Modern Poets series (1975). These projects form many of the subjects the pair discussed by letter.

One of the pleasures of this collection of correspondence is discovering Ghose as a writer. Any reader of Johnson’s novels and biography already knows his topics, prosodic rhythm and idioms, which are to be found in abundance in these letters. The biography has mined this correspondence so thoroughly that one recognises many passages word for word. What one discovers in Ghose’s letters is an opinionated and vigorous commentator on literature – especially of his time – who is struggling to make a living as a writer. The publication of this correspondence may stimulate Johnson fans to read Ghose’s books.

 

This collection consists of all surviving letters from Ghose to Johnson present in the Johnson archive at the British Library (donated by Johnson’s widow, Virginia) and letters from Johnson to Ghose present in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas (donated by Ghose). In addition to the letters and cards, there are poems by Johnson and Ghose about each other, a statement about Ghose’s writing by Johnson dating from 1967, Ghose’s memoir entitled “Bryan” (originally published in 1985) and an interview with Ghose by this volume’s editor (originally published in 2013). There are extensive indices.

The letters are organised chronologically. The first letter is from Ghose to Johnson, dated 6 March 1959. Johnson’s letters from January 1961 to late 1962 are missing. The letters divide roughly equally in terms of proportion per writer. Most were typed, with a number of postcards being handwritten. No item is reproduced in facsimile except the telegram of 17 November 1973 notifying Ghose of Johnson’s death, which concludes the correspondence.

The initial subject of letters is literary editing. Both Johnson and Ghose edited student journals and anthologies and exchanged opinions or asked for recommendation. Some names which come up will be familiar while others are of writers now forgotten. The pair wrote about literature in general. There is a mutual aversion to Movement writers, a distrust of Eliot’s verse drama and scepticism towards many of the big literary names of the era. Ghose grew to admire contemporary American writers while Johnson was most attached to Joyce and Beckett.

Johnson greatly admired Beckett and frequently described him as the greatest living writer. When he had the chance, he contacted Beckett and became a correspondent and friendly acquaintance, visiting Beckett when he was in Paris. It is interesting that no letters from Beckett to Johnson are included in the four volumes of Beckett letters, though there are letters to others recommending Johnson as a worthy recipient of literary awards and prizes. Johnson credited Beckett’s intervention as instrumental in getting Christie Malry published in America. Upon learning of Johnson’s death, Beckett wrote to Michael Bakewell, Johnson’s agent.

Dear Michael

Thanks for yours of 14.

I learnt the shocking grievous news at end of last week.

I have had a brief card from Virginia.

I missed T.C. in Paris.

It wd be good to see you again, here or anywhere.

Best always,

Sam[i]

(“T.C.” is “telephone call”, a reference to the fact that Johnson attempted (and failed) to contact Beckett by telephone several times in the days before his suicide.)

Johnson retained – and often seemed to nurture – a class-based resentment of successful middle-class writers. As the child of a working-class family, the first of his family to receive a university education, Johnson had the aspiration to be accepted by a literary class composed largely of middle-class writers and was quick to ascribe professional slights against him to class snobbery. Not that Johnson wasn’t a snob. He could be dismissive of people, books and social trends that did not conform with his views and his inflexibility on political and artistic matters seems very much the product of personal insecurity. Johnson simultaneously wanted to be accepted into a social set that he resented while experiencing a degree of guilt at his inevitable separation from his roots. One reason for Johnson’s idealisation of Wales, which he visited many times, must have been its apparent lack of class distinctions – not apparent to him at least.

Taking sides – even inventing sides if no clear distinction was visible – was a way of making social issues and art adversarial, a kind of moral dialectical football match between progressives and conservatives. It gave Johnson a purpose but it was an approach which inevitably isolated him and caused resentment among colleagues and people who potentially might have supported his writing. Johnson became belatedly politically involved when the Conservative party gained power in the general election of 1970. As a left-winger, he was ambivalent about Communism following visits to Eastern Bloc countries as part of cultural delegations. He found the systems of government oppressive and absurd but he admired the respect that literature was held in by the general public.

Johnson was resentful of the advantages graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had in the literary world and willing to bludgeon perceived enemies as relying on social ties to advance themselves beyond the levels their talents (or lack thereof) befitted them to. Ghose made few such comments. Ghose never mentions racial or religious prejudice in the letters, finding a lack of Oxfordian connections more of a hindrance than any resistance to his Pakistani heritage.

One of the most prominent characteristics of this correspondence is the humour. The writers shared a common mordant sense of humour and exchanged jokes and limericks they had encountered or invented. Upon learning that her husband would be receiving compensatory damages for libel, Virginia Johnson told him that she wanted to use the money to buy a freezer. “Freezer a jolly good fellow,” Johnson commented. On another occasion, school pupils were asked the meaning of “fructify”, to which one pupil muttered “Fructify I know”.

In the letters, the pair rate brands of typewriters (Olympia poor, Olivetti good) and pass on family news (they attended dinner parties at each other’s homes when they lived in London). There is relatively little literary gossip outside of tips and warnings regarding editors, publishers and agents that the pair dealt with professionally. Current affairs do not get much of a look in. Letters sent by Ghose from Brazil and India, and by Johnson from Paris, are richer in description and more informative about their daily lives than their usual letters.

We were almost killed in a car crash exactly a month ago in the wilderness of the state of Goias on our way back from Brasilia. We did the daft thing of going on a dirt road at night , were chased by a a lorry, misjudged a narrow wooden bridge, took it on two wheels and were going careering down into the river but were halted by a tree, which, saving us, made a concertina of the front of the car. I chipped a front tooth and that was all the personal damage.

Ghose to Johnson, 8 February 1967

Cars became a recurrent topic between them. They shared recommendations and comparisons of vehicles.

The main subject of their discussions is their writing. They exchanged newly written poems and stories and sent copies of books, expecting the other to comment honestly and constructively. Although they lived in London at the same time and met frequently, writing letters in privacy allowed them to set out clearly their responses to texts. Their comments are often technical, to do with metre or stress. Although many of the suggestions are minor, the writers did not shy away from criticising whole poems or books. The friendship relied upon candour and expertise depended on complete openness about the writer’s reservations regarding a piece of writing. Readers will often not have access to the poems analysed in these letters, though some poems are included in the body of the letters. Johnson’s novels are easily found, Ghose’s less so.

The pair were equally supportive and critical about each other’s writings, though generally in sympathy. Johnson was liable to be more dogmatic on literary questions.

Ghose’s savage criticism of Johnson’s script Whose Dog Are You Anyway? is a dispassionate dissection. The script was for an anti-clerical stage drama written by Johnson. The script was rejected and has never been performed complete, though extracts have been staged. Ghose’s comments bear quoting at length:

I did not like it. I thought the subject-matter merited a short essay but not a full-length play. It is certainly brave of you to try and write a play about a general idea and the play is probably new in this respect, having no story or character involvement; but such an attempt ought to be either wildly funny or devastatingly aggressive in its use of language, and it is neither; it ought to punch the audience in its stomach, but it does not do so. It is only mildly amusing, too often the humour seemed to be weak. At some points you say in your directions that the audience will laugh; I did not do so nor could imagine myself doing so given the performance. I noticed, too, that at one point you leave the actors to invent their own joke; I don’t trust that and it makes me suspect, maybe wrongly, that you couldn’t be bothered to invent one yourself. For I’ve never known you to leave the slightest detail to anyone else. […]

I don’t expect a PhD disputation, but I do expect lively writing and a really convincing refutation, a once-and-for-all balls to god. Instead the dialogue had a bored air about it, the feeling that we’ve-been-through-it-before; this may well be your intention, but to the theme of the play this situation is an important one and you should have dealt with it with fierce rhetoric. The argument is valid, but its statement is without force. […]

The whole thing is too loose. From the moment when the MC begins to talk about normal and abnormal to the Evangelist’s speeded up insanity, I get the impression that you’re not being tough enough with your language; and intellectually, it’s less than a satisfactory performance.

Ghose to Johnson, 19 July 1967

Johnson responded with a mixture of despondent acceptance and exculpatory defensiveness. To the comment about allowing actors to invent dialogue he replied: “You must accept that (a) actors will not do exactly as you intended”. This is an evasion Samuel Beckett would not have given a second’s consideration to. “The main thing that upset me was your pointing out that the language wasn’t up to my usual standards […]” He admitted he was bored by the writing and that “I don’t have the rhetoric it wants”, implying that the play was an ultimately futile endeavour, as subsequent commentators have agreed it to be. It is more than a little unfair that many readers – perhaps a majority – will be more familiar with an unpublished and unperformed minor play by Johnson than they will be with perhaps any published novel of Ghose’s.

As the correspondence reaches the early 1970s, Johnson’s frustration with the publishing world in general and his career in particular becomes evident.

Did you know they’ve turned down my SELECTED SHORTER PROSE? Irresponsible publishing, I called it, and he got very annoyed. They did not even bother to discuss the book with me – just turned it down.

Johnson to Ghose, 25 September 1970

I’ve just about surfaced after a long (well, four months) period of financial depression, which gave me other sorts of depression as well. I was cheated out of directing a film for which I’d done the script on the understanding I’d be seriously considered to direct it.

Johnson to Ghose, 31 October 1971

Increasingly concerned about supporting his family on his earnings from writing, Johnson considered returning to school teaching. Ghose attempted to arrange for Johnson to take a position of visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, a plan which fell through. We can witness Ghose’s concern for his friend and the equanimity with which he treated Johnson’s rare outbursts of rancour in these letters.

As for The Writing Centre of Great Britain, I shall be pleased to be made its head at £50,000 a year, since I am best qualified. But I shall give one lecture a year, if I think so, on a subject of my own choosing, to last no longer than three seconds. I’m a writer, not a teacher.

Johnson to Ghose, 13 June 1972

With (infallible) hindsight we can see Johnson’s accelerating slide towards the point of extinction. Yet Johnson’s jocose morbidity takes on a suicidal cast only in retrospect and there is much here that – had Johnson’s career taken a slightly different turn and had he lived longer – would seem no more severe than Larkin’s pessimistic rationalisations in his letters.

Readers will be left with the impression of a close bond of friendship and a frank exchange of intellectual ideas between two accomplished writers, serious about not only their craft but also their subjects.

3.

As a publication of literary correspondence, this volume has serious flaws.

The editing of the volume leaves a lot to be desired. Meaningless misspellings such as “libary” and “silverbich” are retained, as is “out [sic] magazine” instead of a silent correction to “our” or “[our]”. “BFI” is best altered to “BFI [British Film Institute]” or written as a footnote rather than the intrusive “B[ritish]F[ilm]I[nstitute]”. Famous figures are given footnotes but some obscure ones are missed. Some obvious and unimportant slips go unremarked upon while others merit footnotes or “[sic]” insertions. Readers will be puzzled to see authors’ handwritten notes made on typewritten letters printed as footnotes rather than as part of the main letter text itself. (Or included in the text – the editing is consistently inconsistent.)

This volume ought to have been either a reading edition (silent corrections or corrections in parenthesis) or a critical edition (transcribed verbatim). Instead, it is an awkward mixture. We don’t get the authors in a fluently readable form because we stumble across intrusive annotation; at the same time, we wonder about what might have been silently corrected. Annotations are inconsistent, sometimes being placed later in the text than the first appearance of that reference or abbreviation. Common abbreviations of titles of Johnson’s work go unaltered, expanded or subject to footnotes, apparently at random.

Every editor must decide his/her methodology dependent upon an assessment of whether the letters under consideration will be read sequentially or individually. It is reasonable – with a group as cohesive as this – that readers will read the Johnson-Ghose letters sequentially and subsequently consult letters in isolation while retaining some familiarity. The methodology should therefore have been formulated accordingly, which it has not been. What the exact methodology is is unclear. There is no editorial procedure described in this book. Contrast this with the exemplary methodologies in the Beckett and Hemingway volumes.

Aside from a flawed methodology – and the inconsistent application thereof – there are some obvious editorial errors. Residents of Ruthin, Denbighshire will be crestfallen to read of Johnson’s visit to “Ruthkin, Denbigshire” in the footnotes.

These matters could have been avoided had there been a firm hand on the editorial tiller – or a clearer and rationalised methodology – and the employment of a competent proof-reader. Do not take from these comments that the editing is terrible. It is not. It is adequate but illogical, suffering frequent lapses and has an unsettling inconsistency which gives the attentive reader a vague unease about what has been missed, omitted and silently changed. This is a common problem in editions of texts that fall between the reading edition and the critical edition. While the substance of the volume is of great interest and a satisfying read, it is not – despite the impression given by the commentary, annotation, indices and presentation – close to critical-edition standard.

Finally, the binding deserves comment. This collection of correspondence is a valuable source of information not only about the writers but British print journalism, poetry and author-agent-publisher relations in the period covered and as such will be a reference work consulted for many decades to come. The imprint is an academic one and care has been taken to make the volume as comprehensive as possible. This shows that the editor and publishers understand that the volume is intended as a lasting reference work. The book is priced highly, as academic books generally are. However, while the hardcovers and binding in cloth (a silky black cloth) are sturdy and attractive, the pages are perfect bound not signature bound. Perfect binding is much less durable than signature binding. Furthermore, perfect-bound pages are generally not repairable if the internal spine splits; signature-bound pages can easily be repaired and re-bound. For a reference work intended to last many decades (and priced commensurately), perfect binding is entirely inappropriate. It is a production decision made to cut costs, one that will disappoint purchasers.

Alexander Adams

19 January 2017

[i] Quoted by Alan Burns, “Two chapters from a book provisionally titled “Human Like the Rest of Us: A Life of B. S. Johnson”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997. Reproduced on www.bsjohnson.co.uk