Charles Bukowski a century later. Great poet, drunk and enlightened

The centenary of Charles Bukowski, born on August 16, 1920, destined to arouse many memories and nostalgia above all, is to be believed, among those who read it as a child, in the troubled and visionary seventies. Especially in Europe, because the cult was born in Germany, in France and here in Italy, where Feltrinelli published, between 1975 and 1980, the three fundamental books: Stories of ordinary madness, Hangover companion e Notebook of an old pig. This early European fortune was the fate of many great American artists of the late twentieth century, much less known at home, at least at the beginning, than in the old continent: just think of the proverbial case of Woody Allen and that of Philip Dick.

It is true that Bukowski, the son of an American soldier and a German mother, was born in Germany, in Andernach, where the house, still standing, is a place of pilgrimage. But soon the family moved to Baltimore, and Bukowski saw the hometown only in 1978, now at the height of his fame, during a triumphal turned.

More than novels, the cult was based on short stories, and above all on the poetically vital link between the short form and the first-person narrative. We had the impression of listening to a friend, very wise and very troubled, in varying proportions. Sex and alcohol did their part, as they did for many rock stars, but they are external elements of a greatness that, to last as it did, had to belong to the artist, and not to the character.

Charles Bukowski, a hundred years of “dirty realism”: the photostory
The “dirty realism”

Rereading them today, those hilarious tales reveal truly literary virtues of great refinement: the sense of meaningful detail, the wise economy of means, the memorable epigram (entire books can be built made only of Bukowski quotes). But, above all, a sense of the human being of extraordinary intensity and psychological credibility prevails: that of the old pig is a disenchantment devoid of cynicism, an ironic realism born of an unlimited capacity for empathy and compassion. The result is an image of the world that is very different from that prevailing in beat culture, which Bukowski constantly derides for the tendency of its representatives to set themselves up as masters of wisdom and to exaggerate the meaning of experience.

I’m going for beer, Bukowski proudly states as everyone in his California taps into the ultimate truths with LSD. Better drunk than enlightened, and he was right, because man is a comic animal, a clot of desires and secretions, and the artist is not a priest, but one who scandalizes priests. What struck Bukowski’s first readers, children of a century of binding philosophies and affiliations, was the freedom not to resemble anyone: not even the beloved Hemingway.

This does not mean, today that we know much more about man and the work, that possible genealogies cannot be mentioned. An interesting one, and a story of thefts. Bukowski adored John Fante, so much so that he watched over him at the bedside when he was in hospital, sick with diabetes, and now blind he dictated the last book to his wife, Dreams of Bunker Hill. He also wrote some wonderful poems about the dying master. Well, he had discovered Fante by stealing from a public library a copy of Ask the dust: one of those fatal readings that reveal a young man himself. But Fante, about ten years older, recounts a similar episode. He too, when he was still looking for his own style, had plundered a public library, taking away a copy of Fame by Knut Hamsun, who had changed his life.

Let’s put the Norwegian tramp’s masterpiece in line, which was published in 1890, Ask the dust, which of 1939, and the Notebook of an old pig (1969). They are very wise books, but they seem to have written themselves, with the pen dipped directly into the inkwell of life. Having nothing to teach anyone, they are pure expressions of the most difficult art to learn, than that of being in the world, of understanding who we are in front of and who we have inside us, of squeezing all the juice possible from our mistakes, because the path of life paved with errors.

The man the world defines as a failure is often a man capable of the most precious good, that of deluding himself. It doesn’t even matter what. In one of the poems he wrote in recent years, Bukowski says that, returning from the racecourse late at night, he takes the bottle from the kitchen cabinet and asks himself: what is there to celebrate? Maybe just another day without committing suicide. This / or / whatever else there is, / is not there, / there will be, / it will not / will be- / exactly like now. There’s nothing not worth a toast.

The book

nice to see you again, Uncle Heinrich !. Charles Bukowski, on his trip to Europe in 1978, meets an old uncle in Andernach, the German town where he was born on August 16, 1920. It can be read in the diary Shakespeare never did, now published by Feltrinelli with photos by Michael Montfort and translated by Simona Viciani (pp. 167, euro 24). Much of his work, however, published by Guanda.

13 August 2020 (change August 15, 2020 | 12:30)

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