Tuesday, 19 January 2016


I don't often think about Bukowski these days. Years ago, I used to think about him and his writing a lot. So much so, in fact, that the first thing I ever really did on the internet was to build a very simple Charles Bukowski tribute website. In 1998, I think. That led to seeking out fellow fans of the man's work, a number of whom used to hang out in a dingy corner of usenet set up ostensibly to host discussions about the Dirty Old Man of San Pedro. I say ostensibly, because Bukowski was rarely discussed there. The main action was endless flame-wars, some interesting, some dull, some demented. I remain friendly with one of the former habitués of that group, the Chicago-born, Florida-raised and now Germany-based M.P. Powers, author of the novel Fortuna Berlin.

Powers has been a good listener and a damn good talker on the numerous occasions I've met him - in Boynton Beach, in Miami, in Palm Beach, in Berlin and in London. We've corresponded a fair bit, too, over the long years since sometimes finding ourselves on the same side of this or that fight between warring usenet lunatics in the late nineties. So I think (without checking) that I am right when stating that I seem to remember him saying he doesn't care much for most (all?) of the posthumously-released collections of previously unpublished (or unpublished in book form) Bukowski stuff. He is not alone in this. A good number of Buk enthusiasts seem to baulk at paying for scraps and cast-offs of dwindling quality as the late author's last remaining cupboards, notebooks and waste-paper baskets are wrung dry.

There is something in this. But for all that, I do continue to buy this stuff when it comes out, the most recent acquisition being The Bell Tolls For No One, a ragtag of short stories, many (but not all) of which are from Bukowski's L.A. Free Press column of the 1970s. Based on what I've read so far, the quality is patchy. What's more, as I started to read, I decided that I couldn't be certain that I was reading some of this material for the first time ever. Because as many who have read a lot of Bukowski's prodigious output can confirm, the Dirty Old Man endlessly retold, refined and reworked a number of (apparently/supposedly) real incidents from his own life across short stories, poems and sections of his novels, adding and omitting details with each retelling.

This very point is mentioned in the introduction to this collection, written by its editor David Stephen Callone:
Several of the stories included in this volume demonstrate how [Bukowski] worked and reworked [his] material. He creates the same narrative anew; he doesn't copy, but starts over. He is always retelling his autobiography but selecting different details, reinventing instead of rewriting... It is typical of Bukowski's method of selecting episodes from his life and reworking them, adding specific details and usually elaborating on reality by adding invented plot elements. He is constantly engaged in telling and retelling his life, giving it the structure of myth so that the two become inseparable.
None of this is meant as a criticism of Bukowski's tendency to refine and rework the same incident over and over. I certainly don't have an issue with it. Quite the opposite, really. It's become a genuine pleasure to encounter one of the writer's sexual escapades or quotidian frustrations for the umpteenth time. The myth-building process described above by Callone is a big part of what I enjoy. But, for me, it has, in the past, sometimes caused confusion about whether or not I've read any given poem, story or collection.

My own Bukowski collection is now pretty much exhaustive. I own all of the novels and am confident that I've picked up every available collection of short stories and poetry. Added to this are a number of biographies of Buk and collections of essays about his work. What I have not acquired, however, is a perfect recollection of all of the titles. So if you asked me to name the titles of all of those books from memory, I would not be able to do it. Very occasionally, this causes a problem. For instance, when I bought The Bell Tolls for No One last week in the flagship Charing Cross Road branch of Foyle's, I also spotted The Continual Condition in the poetry section and simply could not decide whether or not I already owned a copy. I called home and imposed upon my wife's time, having her check my bookshelves to confirm that I did, in fact, already own a copy of the book in question.

Anyway, the good folks at City Lights Books in San Francisco responded very quickly to the following question:
It was confirmed that two stories in  The Bell Tolls for No One have never been published before and that the remainder have only appeared in publications such as the L.A. Free Press, Open City and Hustler.

Pleased to feel certain that I an indeed reading these familiar-but-new-to-me stories for the first time, I press on with my new purchase, taking my time to enjoy it and think about it.

When reading Bukowski, I almost always find a line which stands out precisely because it reminds me strongly of one of my own experiences or thought processes. Among the pages of The Bell Tolls for No One, I have already found a line of this sort. In a passage from a third person (unusual for Bukowski) piece from one of the Notes of a Dirty Old Man columns, a man and a woman are discussing relationships and how they end. The man speaks: 
"It's always the same. The is one person who cares very much and one person who doesn't seem to care, or who only half-cares. The one who doesn't care too much is in control. The relationship ends when the one who doesn't care gets tired of the game."
The woman asks him "which ends" he has been on, to which he replies that he has been on both ends.

This exchange captures precisely what used to depress, frighten and annoy me about my relationships with women. The end always left me feeling either like a cold-hearted cad or like a broken-hearted victim. There was always the imbalance of power described in the conversation from Bukowski's Dirty Old Man piece. By my mid-thirties, I felt about ready to give up on "the game" and was wondering what I might end up resorting to when possessed with the urge to seek companionship or pleasure.

But then I met the wonderful woman who last week helped me check whether I owned a copy of The Continual Condition. Now I am no longer preoccupied by that question of the "one person who cares very much" vs. "one person who doesn't seem to care." But reading Bukowski's brief observation brought back that familiar unhappiness. It's very possible, as my reading continues, that The Bell Tolls for No One will yield further such powerful moments for me. I guess this is why I don't mind continuing to buy this posthumous output. However much I am minded to agree that the quality is variable, I keep in mind that even Bukowski's weaker stuff has a tendency to contain something which will resonate.

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