Re-reading John Wyndham, II: The Enemy Within

In the first two novels published by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris as John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953)), the author examines the conflict between sophisticated predatory species. He thought such conflicts were inevitable and would be pursued with absolute ruthlessness, leading to extermination of the weaker group by the stronger one. This was a lesson of evolutionary science applied to human history, specifically in the form of Social Darwinism. (That discussion is here.) They form a pair of thematically-linked novels; the following two novels form another pair addressing related issues. Although it seems this was not a conscious plan, the pairing seems apparent. The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) both explore the responses of human societies to the danger of infiltration by distinct sub-groups which threaten the unity and even survival of those societies or species.

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is set in a future after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed our current civilisation (whom they call the “Old People”), made much of the world uninhabitable and caused substantial genetic mutations in living things due to radiation. We follow David Strorm, who is a member of a fundamentalist Christian society located in Eastern Canada, which has strict definitions of physical normality and which exiles people and destroys animals and plants which deviate from the society’s standards. Technology is reduced to pre-industrial levels, travel is limited and the land is sparsely populated. Knowledge of history and science is greatly reduced. The society venerates the pre-holocaust civilisation yet its natural wariness of innovation – each scientific discovery potentially undermines Christian teaching – means the society is only slowly and piecemeal recovering the technology and knowledge of the Old People.  As a child, David befriends Sophie, a girl who lives locally but does not form part of his community because her parents keep her existence secret. She has a minor deformity which would lead to her exile (or death) in the Fringes (an area beyond the boundaries of cultivated land) if she were examined by an official of the main community. Eventually Sophie is discovered and her and her family are banished. David comes to recognise the potential of banishment for abnormality. When David realises he was born physically normal but with the very rare power of telepathic communication, he understands that he could be classed as a deviation.

David, his cousin Rosalind and a small group of other local children are telepaths who bond as a result of their sense of communal closeness. He and his fellow telepaths must deal with the constant fear of exposure and expulsion. They develop a code of silence to protect themselves. As the children age they realise that there are instances of people evading normality standards applied to domestic animals, crops and even people and that standards within their community are debated and applied with varying degrees of strictness. David’s Uncle Axel discovers David’s telepathic deviation and chooses to conceal the boy’s condition; he advises and supports the telepaths. He has travelled widely as a sailor and has heretical views on the purity standards, believing that they are subjective and too rigid.

David and the telepaths discover David’s younger sister Petra is a telepath of greater power than the others in the group. A series of accidents and slips lead to the community discovering the existence of the telepaths and their persecution of members of the group which they can identify. David, Rosalind and Petra attempt to escape to the Fringes and are pursued by a posse; others in the telepath group are captured and tortured for information by the community, which is alarmed at the presence of this secret group of deviations. The strength of Petra’s projections alerts a technologically advanced society in New Zealand, where most inhabitants are telepaths and telepathy is considered the norm. The New Zealanders send an aircraft to rescue the fleeing telepaths. The aircraft arrives during the climactic battle between the Fringes band of outcasts and the community posse; David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by the New Zealanders and are taken to their city.

The novel is written as an adventure story particularly suited to young adults. It features a rich cast of characters and describes David’s community in varying degrees of detail – especially detailed on the matter of the identification and treatment of deviations – all of which combines to present a vivid world with many memorable images and exciting action. Beyond the world of the story, Wyndham’s intention is to examine ideas of purity, nature v. science and pragmatism v. dogmatism. Wyndham looks at how a community forms its ethical and economic standards by combining the demands of viability in an environment prone to accelerated heritable variation while cleaving to a long-established religious code.

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos is a story set in a small fictional English village of Midwich. The village becomes subject to an inexplicable force field caused by an extra-terrestrial intelligence. All people inside the affected zone fall unconscious, as does anyone entering the zone. Before the authorities can decide on a response to this situation, the force field disappears, as does what was apparently an alien spacecraft that had landed in the centre of the village. It is subsequently discovered that all women of child-bearing age are pregnant.

The authorities monitor the situation. Our narrator is Richard Gayford, a resident of the village who was outside of the village at the time of the event. Military intelligence ask Gayford (who served in the army during the Second World War) to provide updates on subsequent developments in the village. We do not get strong impressions of most of the villagers. The exception is Roger Zellaby, a scientific authority and writer, who provides an informed commentary and is a something of an investigator of the developments in the village. Zellaby and his family are the only villagers who have distinct characters.

Sixty-one babies are born and seem to be human-alien hybrids: appearing largely human but with silver-gold hair and golden irises. “The Children” develop fast and are discovered to have powers of telepathic communication and learn as a group in the manner of a hive entity. The Children are emotionally detached from the host community and use powers of telepathic control to coerce their mothers to support and protect them. They also prevent the mothers from taking the Children out of the village. Some of the babies are abandoned by their mothers and those are brought up by foster families. While the Children are infants the narrator leaves the country for work reasons. We also leave the narrative at this point, to resume seven years later, with the Gayfords returning to Midwich.

Despite the passing of only seven years, the Children have developed at an abnormally fast rate and are physically equivalent to human children of twice the age. They share their knowledge telepathically, therefore their schooling is done by teaching a single girl and single boy, who pass on their knowledge to the hive mind. We discover Children are using their mental powers of coercion and collective intelligence to control the behaviour of villagers in order to protect themselves. The villagers are frightened of the Children and resent them but are unable to confront them. The Children are acting as parasites, using a mixture of collective action, psychic powers and the hosts’ residual (but ebbing) maternal sentiment to provide for them.

Gayford learns from his military contacts that other such groups have been recorded in different places in the world. There are suspicions that the Midwich Children may be in communication with (or aware of) the experiences of other groups and may become super-intelligent. Zellaby summons the Children for a film display, during which he explodes a bomb which kills him and the Children. He sacrifices his life to destroy the Children, whom many villagers and military/governmental authorities consider an increasing threat to society. We learn that in the USSR, a colony of Children has been destroyed with a nuclear explosion and that the Children in Midwich may have soon acted more brutally to preserve themselves.

Although Richard and his wife Janet are the readers’ viewpoint on events, most of the writing is omniscient and the first-person perspective is a dramatic device for artificially limiting the information provided to us. Gayford is inactive as a protagonist; he and Janet mainly act as insiders who can observe events and acquire official intelligence by liaising with authorities. Out of Wyndham’s first four published novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the one that is closest to a pure novel of ideas. Character, environment, mood and prose description are at a minimum; plot and concepts dominate, though we do get vivid glimpses of how the villagers respond to events. Midwich is perhaps the least satisfactory novel of the four for those reading for enjoyment. The denouement is unsatisfactorily convenient and also a plot hole. If the Children learn through only one girl and one boy experiencing events, why do all of the Children gather for a film showing? Surely only two Children would have needed to attend the film showing, which one presumes the Children would have treated as an educational experience, as they do not seem to be much swayed by sensory pleasure.

Discussion

Both novels succeed on their own terms and are replete with insights into human nature. They are novels of ideas but sustain tension and narrative drive, though Midwich largely lacks the striking images and dramatic scenes that make Wyndham’s other novels so memorable. The only event that we experience close-at-hand through the narrator’s eyes is the foiled revenge shooting by a villager. Everything else is reported second hand or alluded to.

Midwich misses the distinctive characters (other than Roger Zellaby) that people Wyndham’s mature novels; the police officer and the village doctor are only ciphers. Wyndham’s specific ideas and approach in Midwich meant that elaboration of character or complex interplay between characters would have slowed the pace and distracted the reader. The dramatis personae fall into three groups: the Children, the villagers and the outside authorities. Distinctions within these groups are minimal; the names of individuals hardly register with readers.

Chrysalids has many memorable characters – even the minor ones leave strong impressions. The imagery is powerful and Wyndham’s writing flourishes. There is action, drama, romance, adventure and humour. The most horrifying passage is the story of Uncle Axel, where he recounts the devastated world sailors encountered. The weird imagery gives us a nightmare vision of a post-nuclear-holocaust world, complete with blasted lands, radiation sickness and glowing horizons. This is one of our only views of the outside world which the Christian enclave in Canada has turned its back upon. Wyndham thoroughly presents the social and psychological realities of fundamentalist religion as a refuge from the horrors of devastation and as a template for a society in search of stability in a world ravaged by genetic fluctuation. For young readers, Chrysalids serves as a primer for how it is to live in a deeply conservative society and encourages empathy for freethinkers and minorities. In terms of skill and power, Chrysalids is Wyndham’s greatest accomplishment. The deeply emotional scenes of young David mourning the loss of his friend Sophie (whom he thinks he has betrayed) and the confrontation between David’s mother and aunt about the birth of a deformed baby are tours de force that brilliantly impart the moral implications and emotional impact of the novel’s drama. Chrysalids is Wyndham’s most sustained imaginative feat.

Chrysalids presents us with a degree of ambiguity regarding the two competing societies. He shows us the Canadian society as capable of instilling solidarity and bravery and of being an effective means of supporting people, including eccentrics. (Consider the characters of Uncle Axel and the passing mention of a local man who runs a steam engine as a novelty). His New Zealand society of technologically advanced telepaths is welcoming to the telepaths but dismissive and hostile towards the non-telepaths, whom they regard as an inferior sub-species due to fall into extinction as the Old People had. The representative of the New Zealand telepaths is portrayed as cold, lacking empathy, morally complacent and arrogant. As readers, we wonder how we would cope in a society composed of individuals who read emotions and thoughts so clearly. How would be able to retain any privacy?

The novels interweave drama, action and adventure in stories that raise serious intellectual, political and moral ideas. Indeed, there is no way of separating these. Midwich is considerably less successful as a reading experience than Chrysalids because we lack the characters to care about and we do not relate strongly to the narrator. The absence of emotional involvement makes Midwich something of a thought experiment or exercise in applied morality rather than a compelling story. There is no adventure to speak of, more a series of logically extrapolated steps. The protagonist does not take part in the action merely observes and engages in discussion. In Triffids we see the multiple routes and alternative scenarios played out in a novel that has great organic and narrative consistency, making Midwich’s limitations appear even more unfavourable. As a novel of ideas, Midwich does not need to be rich or engaging but it would have benefited had Wyndham found some way of developing the story in a way that was closer to Triffids or Chrysalids. However, the limitations of Midwich are perhaps inevitable as Triffids and Chrysalids are adventures, character-driven dramas and immersions in alternative worlds, whereas Midwich is an investigation into morality in a very limited scenario, admitting little room for character investigation or world-building.

The Enemy Within

The theme which links the two novels most strongly is that of societies dealing with sub-groups that present a threat to their standards and even their existence. In Chrysalids and Midwich, Wyndham presents us with two stories that deal with inter-species rivalry that he had already addressed in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, this time in a new form: inter-species rivalry within the human race. The telepaths in Chrysalids and the Children in Midwich are both human in form, with familial relatives, names, schooling and places in their societies, yet they are also different from the society around them. Telepathy and brood parasitism are phenomenon that separate humanity in these stories into two groups: majority and a newly emergent minority. In Chysalids we view the minority group from the inside and grow to care about and support the minority; in Midwich we view the minority group from outside and grow to fear them and recognise the danger they pose to the majority (and, implicitly, us as we conceive of ourselves). Wyndham’s pessimistic view that inter-species rivalry between apex predators in a world of limited resources inevitably leads to warfare resulting in the extermination of the loser here takes a chilling turn: the enemy is within. In a situation where no compromise is possible between different strands of humanity, our conflicts present us with existential annihilation of opponents who are almost identical to ourselves and may even be members of our own families.

The pair of novels raises awful questions which force us to address the most essential moral questions. How do we differentiate between competing formulations of humanity and society? What makes us human? How far would we be prepared to go to defend our civilisation and society? Would we kill members of our society or our own family to preserve our society? Encountering a superior society or sub-species of humanity which is incompatible with ours, what can and should we do?

The themes of religious persecution, inter-species competition and cultural conflict are pressing matters. The revival of Socialism among the young in the West, the morality of human genetic engineering, the possibility of viable artificial intelligence and the rise of Islamist terrorism in Europe all present us again with the Wyndham’s questions of how do we define our societies, how do we decide to include or exclude individuals, how do we deal with fundamental ideas which are incompatible with our societies, how do we respond to dissident groups and what does it mean to be human. How fair is it for us to regard supporters of totalitarian absolutist ideologies as members of competing groups which threaten our societies? How far can we go to defend our civilisations without becoming totalitarian ourselves? Too much resistance and we become monstrously intolerant; too little resistance and we are swept away by murderous opponents convinced of their righteousness.

Wyndham’s view that conflict is inevitable, pursued ruthlessly and resultant in extermination of the losing group is as far from the “cosy catastrophe” as can be imagined.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism

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PUBLICATION DAY

Publisher’s notice:

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

This book is available from bookstores, all online book retailers and the site of the publisher, Imprint Academic: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

 

Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture

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Writer, teacher, artist, publisher, musician and agitator for the counter culture, Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a large figure in the British pop culture landscape during the 1960s and 1970s. He knew most of the leading figures in the underground scene of the era and acted as a link in the form of organiser, publisher, promoter and communicator. As someone with a high profile, Nuttall was in the ideal position to promote the counter culture – though what he put forward was his own version of the counter culture. Nuttall had his own preoccupations and blind spots and the underground culture he promulgated was very much in his own image. Bomb Culture – first published in 1968 – became the handbook for British readers in search of an explanation of the ideas driving the radical Sixties led by the post-Hiroshima generation. Widely reviewed and popular, Bomb Culture was seen at the time as representative of the zeitgeist. The new edition contains a foreword by Iain Sinclair and an introduction by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones. Biographical notes allow younger readers to orientate themselves with less familiar names from 1968. There are also some added photographs.

Nuttall covers the well-established link between the origins of jazz as brothel music from New Orleans and the power of jazz music as a potent expression of political liberation and sexual defiance. Nuttall mentions the liberation movements of the period but is clearly less engaged by these movements. Sexual liberation is viewed in terms of accessibility to sexual gratification rather than to the widening of the social horizons for women. Consciousness liberation took the form of consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Rock music (especially acid rock) is considered as an extension of the psychoactive effects of drugs. Nuttall is knowledgeable about pop music and writes with confidence about the counter culture credentials of rock and roll. Bomb Culture’s perspective is of particular interest because it was written from 1967 to 1968 and was published in 1968, placing its creation right at the centre of activity it describes.

While Nuttall’s perspective was British – laced with references to the Second World War and post-war austerity – his view of the scene was refracted through the lens of American culture – jazz, film, poetry, and underground activist journalism. Nuttall sees the cultural upheaval in Britain as a response to the failure of the CND and Aldermaston Marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He condemns much British Socialist writing as a compromise, seeking to ingratiate writers with the existing structure of the Labour Party as the main leftist opposition to the establishment. His claims are scattershot and his pragmatic counter-position is not forthcoming. For Nuttall the more underground, the freer from compromise production becomes. The International Times and his own fanzine (or “little magazine”, according to your definition) My Own Mag are freer. The manifest failure of the mass youth-led protests against the Cold War bomb culture led to the wider, more pervasive social movement of the counter culture. While British protesters took their lead from anti-Vietnam War protests and American pop culture, Nuttall sees a direct line from the anti-Cold War culture of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nuttall took a more militant – even violent – position than the hippy outlook headed by Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco scene. He is decidedly opposed to the pacifism of the hippies. He sees the violence of protestors in London’s Grosvenor Square against the American Embassy at the height of the Vietnam War as an enervating corrective to the violence being perpetrated against the Vietnamese. Likewise, there is adulation for student bomb makers and narcotic manufacturers. Yet how much of this is not simply the petulant anger of malcontents directed against the status quo? Is not the violent response the extension of violence the responders seeks to curtail? For Nuttall, bomb culture has a double meaning – the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that the nuclear bomb created and the bomb culture of youthful resistance to that system. Nuttall sees violence as an explicable and inevitable response to potential violence of a military system. He discusses the aimless violence of the teenage thrill kill and the gang fights of the Mods and Rockers. (The Teddy boys appropriated the upper-class fashion revival by the Edwardian age that Savile Row tailors, who had planned to market it to the middle class. Instead of the style becoming a profitable product for tailors to reach the middle classes, the working class adopted it as a badge of decadent defiance.)

Another line is the pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism of the Moors murderers as an example of libertinism. The defiance of sexual and social mores logically leads to the defiance of the ethical principles of the sanctity of life. In one startling observation, Nuttall talked of the crowd at the trial witnessing the process less in indignation than in envy.

Nuttall puts forward the psychoanalytic theory of the day, cribbed from popular publications.

Schizophrenia was ill-defined. At best it meant, means, someone who was isolated and therefore not adjusted to the patterns of society.

This conformed to the social-repressive view of R.D. Laing and others, who saw schizophrenia and serious conditions not as a problem of an individual being unable to map reality on to the mental landscape of the subject but of society stigmatising the non-conformist individual. In this view society and family (and the medical profession which sought to apply the principles of those institutions) were systems of repression. Any system that restrains (no matter how it also nurtures, supports and protects) is an artificial development which seeks to divert the potentially disruptive force of individualism. The psychoanalytic profession – rather than seeking to actualise the potential of people – was attempting to neuter people in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, educational system and social structures that were themselves beholden to insane priorities and values. In short, the insane were responding to the insanity of their alienated social reality rather than to any internal deficiency. In this respect Nuttall puts the counterculture case in its clearest form, associating Laing’s ideas with Ginsberg’s Howl – a poem noting the madness of great minds faced by the painful reality of society.

Nuttall diverts into Surrealism and Dadaism as attempts at liberation of art. His art history is unconventional – more Norman Mailer than Ernst Gombrich. Yet, even when he is elaborating ideas that would not find a place in any conventional study, he remains thought provoking.

The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development.

Nuttall knew many of the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs. They lived in London at the same time and Nuttall published Burroughs’s writings. The British Beats are described in a series of amusing anecdotes.

Nuttall does not weave his observations into an integrated thesis. His observations form a torrent of history, pop culture criticism, fashion and music. (Television and radio hardly comes up and American movies are referenced in passing and in terms of iconic actors rather than any discussion of particular films.) Political theory, philosophy and revolutionary activism concepts are almost entirely omitted. The book includes many lengthy quotes – poems, newspaper extracts and popular science papers. Nuttall has limitations as a creative writer and a populariser of other people’s ideas. He was a reckless writer: casual with facts, lazy in style and clumsy with logic. Yet he was by no means a cynical blagger. He had an original and wayward mind; his Bomb Culture remains not only a personal view of a tumultuous period but also an enjoyable record of the era seen from the inside.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, Strange Attractor Press (MIT distr.), 2019, paperback, 306pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 190 7222702

 

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

FBI surveillance of writers

“The remit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) includes monitoring figures who potentially threaten national security. And the FBI has long included famous writers on that list. To them, writers pose a double menace: not only do they pose a potential threat themselves, they might also inspire large groups of people to undermine the status quo, which the FBI is charged with protecting. The perceived threat posed by novelists and essayists is laid bare in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, a new book comprising facsimiles of archived files on famous American authors.

“During the Cold War, when suspicion of writers and intellectuals was at its peak, the FBI was under the control of the domineering, aggressive and thin-skinned J Edgar Hoover. During his long career as FBI director, Hoover took an active personal interest in pursuing political and personal opponents. Writers Under Surveillance reveals all this in official memoranda, letters and reports, with redactions, mainly to conceal identities of informants and other intelligence agencies. The editors have selected the more complete documents….”

Read the full review on Spiked Online here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/12/17/writers-under-surveillance/

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

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