Aristotle on storytelling

The latest book in Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers is advice from Aristotle to poets and dramatists. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was Plato’s most brilliant student and tutor to Alexander the Great. He is one of the great ancient thinkers, whose ideas have permeated philosophy, science and art for two thousand years, although his ideas come down to us in fragmented and diluted form. This volume takes extracts from the Poetics, an important statement of ancient aesthetics. Aristotle described all literature (and storytelling) as based in mimesis. He set out the importance of appropriate length of a story and that stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Spectacle must be subordinate to plot. Plot takes precedence over character. Conflict between allies and inside family is more compelling than that between strangers. Tragedy comes from a great man undone by weakness.

Translator and editor of this volume, Philip Freeman of Pepperdine University, explains the difficulties with Aristotle’s texts. “The Greek text of the Poetics as Aristotle wrote it consists of unpolished lecture notes, not a finished literary work like the dialogues of his teacher Plato. The text also has missing words and sentences, with other parts annotated, rearranged, and in general jumbled by copyists over the centuries more than most manuscripts from the ancient world. The result is a book that will leave even the best classical scholars at times scratching their heads in confusion.”[i]  

Aristotle’s observations on fiction have been very influential and have become the rules that one must know, even if in order to subvert them. The idea that a story needs good and bad characters, acting to change a situation and a clear conclusion seems to be one thing that scriptwriters and financiers of Marvel and DC movies, and American television series, need to re-learn. The serial nature of high-budget cinematic and televisual drama has destroyed Aristotle’s recommendation and left us with a legacy of stories designed to be unended and ever ready for disappointing (but lucrative) prequels, sequels and reboots. In an age when scriptwriters do not believe in heroes and villains – except when they have politicians to champion or decry on Twitter – the power of essential elements of storytelling need to be reinforced. The terrible comic-book action-hero stories come from writers being ignorant (or defying) the advice to make a tragedy from “a serious error in a noble kind of person”[ii].

American comedy writers need reminding that “Comedy, as we have said, is an imitation of inferior people.”[iii] The most effective comedies explore the pitiful pathos and hubris of inferior people. Curb Your Enthusiasm presents the failings of a fictional Larry David character who cannot control his resentment, selfishness and worst instincts. The writers, directors and actors in that series are clear about the central character’s inferiority without sacrificing his humanity and relatability. In all failed comedies we find an unwillingness to expose weaknesses of character or to allow those characters to ultimately fail or remain disgraced. Aristotle warns us not to go too far. “Comic characters are not cruel or vicious, but laughable […] Being laughable is a shortcoming or disgrace that doesn’t involve serious pain or destruction.”

The comedy requires the incorporation of the morality tale and that means judging and being permitted to condemn flaws and types of person. In a mass-media world that fights shy of mocking oddity and absurdity – and refuses to accept traditional descriptions of sin and flaws as valid – the moral core of comedy becomes compromised or suppressed. It is regrettable that – contrary to his ideas on tragedy – Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy are mostly lost.

The tragedy is best when compact; the epic needs a greater space of time within the story. In some ways, Aristotle goes against the current fashion. Those brought up in an age of method acting will find foreign the observation, “[T]he goal of an actor on the stage is not to imitate character. Character is instead a by-product of action. Action and plot are what a tragedy is about.” We might differ on the need for characters to explicitly state their reasoning. This falls into the trap of exposition – telling not showing. It is often more stimulating and realistic for characters to conceal motivation or reveal it indirectly and against their will contra Aristotle’s assertion “speeches in a play in which the speaker doesn’t choose or make a clear choice do not express character”. The audience reading the subtext and inferring motivation is satisfying because it demands the audience use empathy, life experience and analysis rather than simply passively absorbing.

Other sections discussion language, grammar and speech and the Greek poetic metres. There is advise for writers and critics and comparisons between art and writing. The merits of epics and tragedies are weighed. The notes are thorough and informative. As usual in series, the introduction and notes are in English; the main text is in the original language (Greek) with parallel English translation. How to Tell a Story forms a worthy addition to Princeton’s classics library.

Aristotle, Philip Freeman (trans., introduction), How to Tell a Story, Princeton University Press, 2022, cloth spine hardback, 264pp, English/Greek text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 20527 4

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To find links to my books and writings visit https://linktr.ee/alexanderadamsartist

“Sunken Island”: First photographs of new book

First photographs of the new anthology “Sunken Island” have been released. The book presents my verse and illustrations and was edited by me. Here are details:

“As Great Britain emerges from pandemic lockdown and enters the post-Brexit era, British culture finds itself at a crossroads. On topics such as governance national independence, community, migration and the preservation of cultural heritage, profound questions are being asked with renewed urgency.

“This anthology of new poems brings together established and newly emerging poets in a rich collection. Using a variety of styles, the poets explore modern life, the recent experiences of lockdown and rioting and the changing faces of our cities and countryside. Verse here also delves into deep history, by addressing primordial themes of nature, the seasons and the struggle for life.

“Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry contains new unpublished verse by Nicholas Murray, A Robert Lee, Alexander Adams, S D Wickett, Daniel Gustafson, Benjamin Afer, Columba and Rahul Gupta.

“Edited and illustrated by Alexander Adams, with a foreword by William Clouston, Sunken Island reaffirms that poetry can play an important role in illuminating essential subjects with wit, passion and erudition, formulating propositions about our existence in ways that are deeply personal as well as universal.”

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry, The Bournbrook Press, 2022, 60pp, mono illus., paperback, £12.50. The book is available for pre-order today here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/press

If you would like to order previous books of verse by me, you can order from the same page. These other books are On Dead Mountain (2015), On Art (2018), On Art II (2020) and After/Apres Francis Bacon (2022). Each features unique poems and illustrations.

AA books available for international purchase for first time

I am pleased to announce that for the first time, books of verse and art catalogues by AA will be available for sale internationally. Currently, the poetry books are available through the website of Bournbrook Press/Magazine here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/books/ The art catalogues will be available on the same page by the end of July.

If there is sufficient demand, other publications by AA will become available through Bournbrook in future. Not available are Degas, Culture War, Iconoclasm and other books by AA through large presses.

Proceeds of purchases support the author and this website.

New: “Sunken Island” anthology + poetry by AA

Today, the first volume by The Bournbrook Press is launched. Here are details.

“As Great Britain emerges from pandemic lockdown and enters the post-Brexit era, British culture finds itself at a crossroads. On topics such as governance national independence, community, migration and the preservation of cultural heritage, profound questions are being asked with renewed urgency.

“This anthology of new poems brings together established and newly emerging poets in a rich collection. Using a variety of styles, the poets explore modern life, the recent experiences of lockdown and rioting and the changing faces of our cities and countryside. Verse here also delves into deep history, by addressing primordial themes of nature, the seasons and the struggle for life.

“Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry contains new unpublished verse by Nicholas Murray, A Robert Lee, Alexander Adams, S D Wickett, Daniel Gustafson, Benjamin Afer, Columba and Rahul Gupta.

“Edited and illustrated by Alexander Adams, with a foreword by William Clouston, Sunken Island reaffirms that poetry can play an important role in illuminating essential subjects with wit, passion and erudition, formulating propositions about our existence in ways that are deeply personal as well as universal.”

The book is available for pre-order today here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/books/p/sunken-island-an-anthology-of-british-poetry-2022-pre-order

If you would like to order previous books of verse by me, you can order from the same page. These other books are On Dead Mountain (2015), On Art (2018), On Art II (2020) and After/Apres Francis Bacon (2022). Each features unique poems and illustrations.

“Sale of Ted Hughes’s Poem Reveals his Raw Grief”

Never-before-seen handwritten poems by the late poet reveal his mental duress after his second partner’s suicide, just six years after his first wife Sylvia Plath killed herself.


“Coming up for auction on Tuesday, 19 July is a powerful piece of literary history. Sotheby’s London will be selling a treasure trove of unique and rare materials related to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. The cache includes poetry written by Hughes following the suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and the death of their daughter.

“In 1962, Hughes began an affair with Wevill in London. At the time, he was living in a home in rural Devonshire that he shared with his wife, poet Sylvia Plath. The infidelity contributed to the collapse of their marriage. Plath committed suicide in February 1963, leaving behind her two infant children. At the time, she was separated from Hughes and renting a flat in London…”

Read the full review on whynow? for free here: https://whynow.co.uk/read/sale-of-ted-hughess-poems-reveals-his-raw-grief

Polina Mackay: Beat Feminisms

The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women  (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.

Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.

There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]

The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]

Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.

Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.

There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.

Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?

The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. The extensive bibliography and a full index contribute to the book’s use as a study resource. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.

Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, Routledge, hardback, 172pp + xiv, £120, ISBN 978 0 415 8927 1 1

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: “After/Après Francis Bacon”

Book

Alexander Adams, Peggy Pacini (trans.), After/Après Francis Bacon, Golconda Fine Art Books, February 2022, first edition, 60pp, 1 col. illus., English/French, 140gsm cream paper, one-colour cover, A5 size, ISBN 978-1-9999614-2-8, 250 copies, 50 signed and numbered, £10 + £5 p&p (UK and worldwide)

After/Après Francis Bacon is a suite of 21 poems by Alexander Adams based on the life and art of Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon. It follows his story from childhood to death, including key parts of his life, evoking his art, milieu and residences. Partly set in Paris and Monaco, the entire sequence has been translated into French by Mme Peggy Pacini. The English original text and French translation are set out on parallel pages. It includes one colour illustration by the author.

The author and publisher wish to gratefully acknowledge the generous contribution to this publication made by The Alessandra Wilson Fund and a private donor.

Purchasing

This book may be purchased directly from me (via this page https://www.alexanderadams.art/contact) or via Amazon (UK residents only). Payments are £15 per book or £5 p&p + £10 per book for multiple orders. Payments can be received by bank transfer, cheque, cash and PayPal.

“Fernando Pessoa, Shadow of a Ghost”

“If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

“He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

“This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/12/27/fernando-pessoa-shadow-of-a-ghost/

Review: “British Orientalisms, 1759-1835”

“The main objective of this study is to historicize the different and shifting modes through and ways in which Britons may have conceived of themselves and their nation as ‘open’ to the East across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” So writes James Watt, historian of the Britain in the Eighteenth Century, in the introduction to British Orientalisms, 1759-1835. It opens with the “year of victories”. In 1759 Britain won victories over the French in Madras, the West Indies, Quebec and Minden and the French invasion of the British Isles failed. It saw Britain become the supreme world power and the consolidation of a worldwide empire. It was also a time when intimations of corruption of the state and British identity as the British were forced to administer and mix with nations distance and dissimilar to her neighbouring nations. Watt concludes his study in 1835 with T.B. Macauley’s Minute on Indian Education (1835), a paper in which the colonial administrator demeaned native Indian culture and recommended the active promotion of British standards via education of Indians. He recommended the replacement of Persian with English as the language of administration. “[…] Macauley serves as a fitting end point since the ethnocentrism of his ‘Minute’ ostensibly signals a decisive transformation in British self-understanding: rather than thinking of Britons as in any way disoriented by colonial contact, it instead calls for the nation to wield its civilizational authority so as to afford moral direction to its colonies.” Watt uses literary texts of the period as a lens through which to examine these issues.  

Watt analyses Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), an apologue (moral tale). Prince Rasselas tires of entertainment in the cossetted kingdom of the Happy Valley. He escapes with his sister and travels to Egypt. However, he is disillusioned of exotic sights and returns to his kingdom. It was criticised as providing little by way of local colour, thereby frustrating the expectations of those wanting the detail and variety that they expected of tales of the Orient. Johnson was known to be an opponent of imperial conquest and sceptical about the spread of Christianity among non-Western peoples. Rasselas is considered an indirect satire of imperialism and a recommendation for the British to stay on their isle, their own Happy Valley.  

Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760) was a series of fictional dispatches from Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese traveller recording England. His errors and misinterpretations both make him a figure of fun and allow Goldsmith to satirise the manners and customs of England. Altangi delights in vivid descriptions of the East and lionises the warrior spirit of the English. In texts of the time, “Goldsmith’s various narrators and authorial personae at different times share in popular exhilaration at British military triumphs and stand back from the crowd in order to warn that victory comes at a price.” (Namely, the difficulty of governing such a vast and diverse empire.)  

The rise of the East India Company, which provided the foundation for British imperial rule in India, provided opportunity for British administrators and traders (and their servants and families) to visit India and leave written records. The records varied from letters and reports to poems and novels, all of which contributed to the British public perception of India. Charles Johnstone’s The Pilgrim (1775) was the fictional tale of a woman’s adventures in India before returning home. Watt considers the story to be critical of Major-General Robert Clive, whose administration was considered to have contributed to the 1770 Bengal famine. In Samuel Foote’s play The Nabob (1772) “Sir Matthew Mite attempts to use his riches [obtained by trade in India] to gain the hand of a baronet’s daughter and to buy his way into Parliament, and the mixture of social ambition, conspicuous consumption, and Orientalized manners that he displays identifies him as a composite portrait of Clive and other prominent contemporaries. The Nabob satirizes Mite’s efforts to pass as a gentleman and to legitimize his new wealth […]”

Other accounts were lewder and indulged the readers’ libidinal curiosity – but in doing so they tended to confirm the corrupting and decadent nature of the East, region of the feminine and sensual abandon. Hartly House, Calcutta (1789, publ. 2007) by Phebe Gibbs includes an account of a rape by a British man of an Indian woman, which likely resulted in capital punishment. Although the author declared that such crimes were “more oftener perpetrated than detected”, it shows that far from impunity, British people in India could expect equal punishment. It also shows that British writers approved of this legal equality in regard to serious crimes.   

In The History of Women (1779), William Alexander discussed the situation of women in the East. He advanced the idea that as society advanced, it freed women from labour but that this freedom caused now-indolent women to gravitate to corruption and pursuit of vice. Thus, financial and material security led women to become less maternal and faithful, more selfish and depraved. “[…] female virtue is becoming ever more scarce, as the feminine qualities of care and concern for others ‘diminish gradually, in proportion as women advance more toward that perfection, or rather imperfection of politeness’.” Materialism undercuts morality; freedom leads to transgression; absence of hunger heightens the drive to satiate carnal desires. According to Alexander, this is seen no better than in the harems of the East, where there is nothing more for a woman to do than indulge herself – she is literally permitted to do nothing else.

One interpretation of Orientalism is one of horizon expansion rather than a means of “otherising” or “exoticising” inhabitants of foreign societies. An example is Sir William Jones’s Poems Consisting Chiefly of Translations from the Asiatick Languages (1772) and his Persian grammar (1771). Jones was a judge in Bengal and developed into a fluent Persian speaker. He developed the idea of Indo-Aryan cultures and languages sharing a root – the first time that English language had been associated with non-European languages. Jones hugely advanced British understanding of India and Persia. He translated Hindu myths and poems into English; he codified Hindu and Moghul law. Upon his premature death at the age of 47, Jones was idolised for his erudition and sympathy for the peoples of India.

Robert Southey’s Thabala the Destroyer (1801) “is an important text for my book as a whole since it both helped to establish the Orientalist epic poem as a medium of political engagement and in its own distinctive fashion extended the Jonesian project of cultural translation.” Watt dissects the politics and symbolism of Southey’s epic (which was heavily footnoted by the poet), showing how the attitudes and ideas relate to the wider trends. Roderick the Last of the Goths (1814) about the king of the Visigoths battling the Moors in Spain. It is compared by Watt to Thabala and assessed as an allegory of Continental politics under Napoleon. Watt notes how contemporary critics responded to it. Southey led the way for the Romantics taking up Orientalist epics. Thabala was followed by Byron’s The Giaour (1813), Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818)

As Watt demonstrates, the response of the British to newly gained empire was mixed and often hostile to the corruption, death and cultural influence that came with subjugating and administering peoples of far-off lands. Far from welcoming the glory of supremacy, British people saw empire as an enterprise that brought out the worst in individuals – the temptation to carnally sin, the opportunity to abandon land, family and religion and the lure of gold and indolent life were identified (with some evidence) as ever-present threats to Englishmen.

Watt’s assessment of British writing reflecting upon Empire in the Enlightenment-Romantic period is well grounded, thoughtful and catholic. British Orientalisms helps to explain the complexities of responses to empire and dismantle recent narratives that are driven more by present-day politics than evidence.

James Watt, British Orientalisms, 1759-1835, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 285pp + vii, hardback, £75, ISBN 9781108472661

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Bukowski: The Shooting

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

By the mid-1980s, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was already both famous and infamous. As king of the West Coast underground poetry scene, Bukowski was a critical figure in the counter culture, on the verge of entering the mainstream. His verse – curt, pungent, profane, grand – spoke to many, even those who usually did not read poetry. During the 1970s he had filled university halls with his poetry readings. For decades he had published stories, poems and columns in the underground press and men’s magazines. He had appeared on radio and television and a documentary had already been made about him. His novels won critical acclaim and a cult following, not just in the USA but also Germany, with his works being translated into other languages yearly.

In 1985 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Magazin finally managed to get Bukowski – who was an increasingly well-known author in Germany – to agree to have his picture taken for a feature. Bukowski: The Shooting is the illustrated story of four days a young photographer spent with Bukowski.

Abe Frajndlich – a German-American professional photographer – got the assignment. Frajndlich used a personal contact to persuade the reluctant Bukowski to give him one day. He recounts in his essay his time with Bukowski and his fiancée Linda Lee Beighle. On 4 and 5 March, the photographer spent time with the couple in their house in San Pedro, California; he photographed the couple and Bukowski alone. He was allowed into the office. “Although most of the house was clean and tidy, his working room was complete, but creative, mess, with papers strewn about, beer and wine bottles and magazines lying about helter-skelter, and manuscripts over and under the desk and on the floor.” However, when he submitted the images, the picture editor rejected them all. He told Frajndlich that the photographs were too poor to be used. They were mere documentation and provided nothing exciting or visually powerful. Frajndlich was crestfallen and desperate to make emends. He half-begged, half-bullied Bukowski into letting him return for a second session. Bukowski agreed.

The photo shoot on 1 April was quite a different affair. The first had been low-key, unintrusive: Bukowski typing in the garden, in his office, with Linda. The second shoot had to be something special. Bukowski and Frajndlich decided to play up the author’s wild-man reputation with props, humour, play acting and excess. Frajndlich believed his career was on the line and Bukowski wanted to help him out; they tapped into Bukowski’s irreverent side.

When the feature was published, Bukowski received copies and was delighted with the result. He invited Frajndlich to his wedding in August. Frajndlich agreed to take a set of photographs for the couple, himself and a patron. The ceremony was performed by Linda’s guru (she was a Buddhist) and the day proved memorable for all, with Bukowski getting very drunk.    

The Shooting reproduces photographs from all three days. This captures a wide range of moods and aspects. The first shoot has Bukowski at work (or mimicking it), drinking at a garden table during an evidently not warm day. We see his office, dirty, chaotic and comfortable, chair at the desk facing a blank wall, books, magazines and manuscripts in profusion. Next to the electric typewriter is a lamp and a radio. (Bukowski preferred classical music to rock music.) We get a sense of Bukowski’s normal life and environment: working, smoking, drinking, under his lemon tree, with and without Linda. This is Bukowski’s subdued self, his sensitive and introspective side. Much of Bukowski’s power as a writer resides not in the declamatory, erotic and comic modes; rather, it lies in the thoughtful, reflective and tender side of the man, which does not undercut his dry humour, clear-sightedness and lack of false sentimentality. Bukowski was as much a reader and (in his youth) a frequenter of libraries as he was barroom brawler. The obscure historical asides and literary references in Bukowski’s verse demonstrate the writer’s time spent as a reader.

In the second shoot, Bukowski puts on Linda’s hat and glasses. He wears the glasses upside down. He draws his famous cartoon figures at giant size and poses with them. He strips off his shirt and he brandishes a knife. He plays the grotesque. In his mugging for the camera, Bukowski acts very similarly to how Picasso acted in his photoshoots of the 1960s, which Bukowski must have seen. We see the man unshackled from boredom and the routine of a professional writer with a fiancée, a mortgage and a BMW, allowed to play freely. We have drunk Bukowski, a sliver of the hostile, arrogant, lecherous drunk that acquaintances were accustomed to and wary of – yet, here, Bukowski is his other self more in jest than earnest.

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

The final shoot was the wedding of Bukowski and Linda in August 1985. We see bride and groom, the Rolls Royce hired for the day and a shot of the couple in their marriage bed. On the covers is a drawing by the poet of his cartoon figures, with the legend “LEGAL, AT LAST! AFTER 8 YEARS! Hank & Linda”. On a photograph of cups and saucers set out on a table, Bukowski has written “FOR ABE – FILL THESE FUCKING THINGS WITH WINE!” We get a sense of the friendliness that developed between poet and photographer and a glimpse of the marriage that provided Bukowski with much needed stability and serenity.

Included is “The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski” by Glenn Esterly. First published in 1976 in Rolling Stone, it is a long profile of the poet, describing a Bukowski reading in 1976 (not long before the poet ceased giving public readings) and featuring an interview with the poet at home. Public readings made Bukowski nervous, he often drank too much and antagonised the audience. By 1980, his royalties were so high that he no longer needed the money. Esterly captures the tone of the event and incorporates comment from Bukowski’s colleagues. The interview is good and the author is not afraid to challenge Bukowski, question his public image and present him with contradictions. It presents a snapshot of the poet just before he met Linda and his life settled into its late period of material comfort and emotional security (albeit with ructions).

The text is translated into German in full. The combination of new text and provocative and memorable images – both providing insights into the life of one the century’s great writers – make a winning combination. Fans of Bukowski will not be disappointed by The Shooting.

Abe Frajndlich, Glenn Esterly, Bukowski: The Shooting, Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 96pp, 65 col./mono illus., English/German, €29.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3667 8

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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