Books lead to other books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.
Welcome to Connection Degree Three …
Three autobiographical books – Factotum by Charles ‘Hank’ Bukowski; Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky; A Moveable Feast (The Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway – that are linked by two formative threads: poverty and booze.
Factotum by Charles ‘Hank’ Bukowski is the story of the broke and cantankerous Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego who meanders across America in search of jobs, liquor and companionship. From the backstreets of Los Angeles to the hovels of New Orleans, from bicycle pedal factories and market stalls, and from there to the surrounding bars and the hookers that work them and the racetrack (horses) where money is either made or wasted in a flash, resulting in depravity, insanity and abuse – of oneself and others – and plenty of spirits, high and low and ethylated, either straight up and concentrated or watered down cheap-ass booze made to rot a man’s brains and guts – it’s all in the mix.
Chinaski is a voracious mill, an itinerant beast who eats and grinds through whatever crosses his path. Nothing is too low or out of bounds for the king of lowlife whose life of friction wears him down, little by little. Grotesque yet genial, he’s on a bender to end all benders, driven by an undercurrent of madness reminiscent of
Notes From Underground, a Dostoevsky novella where the narrator reflects on the grotesquery of both the ‘civilized’ world and his own disheveled self: an hysterical, almost schizophrenic antihero with a tormenting vision of a world borne out of a life lived in self-imposed isolation, as far away as possible from the banal customs of men and women he loathes with a passion.
Alas, rejecting civilization is not that simple. The narrator may despise the world for having invested its time and energy in everyday reality – a pathetic arrangement in his eyes – but he also finds it alluring, if not tantalizingly engrossing. He observes people go about their lives in a manner that reveals his longing for connectivity, his need to communicate what he knows, his revulsion for those who shun him and the love he has to offer should things go his way. He refuses to compromise, expecting everyone to turn around and meet his needs, and damn them if they don’t. Alcohol is his refuge, providing him with relief that turns out to be transient, leading him to the crack inside him that separates his inner saint from his resident madman, a condition exacerbated by the treacherous spirits he abuses, consolidating his mental split, an issue that is present in
A Moveable Feast (The Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway, his celebrated memoir of the time he spent in France and Austria during the early part of his career.
According to Papa, those years were hard for him. He was unknown, earning money like a pauper but living like a king because Paris was good to those who knew how to live it, he said, and Schruns, a mountain resort in Austria, was the perfect sanctuary. When Paris got too much, he made for the Alps with his wife, Hadley, to chill out.
In his memoir, Hemingway describes his life with gusto and authority. His time in Paris and Schruns was consumed by writing and reading, and when the work was done he went to the racetrack and sat in the sun to enjoy the spring and all the beauty that came with it. He relished the warmth of the Voralberg pensions in winter and welcomed the hardships that framed both the big city (Paris) and the mountain resort (Schruns), all the challenges these places put forth. His life was spent diving deep in the aperitifs and the wine that came with lunch and dinner, as well as the sweet digestifs that capped the occasion, come rain or shine, bliss or agony, a man always at the whims of his mercurial finances and the people inclined to buy him a round. He lived on the edge but managed to keep himself together for a while, at least in the beginning, keeping the mad part of him in check. Unlike Dostoevsky, he didn’t oscillate between ‘frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness,’ not in the manner that shaped the tormented Russian’s characters. Instead, Papa developed his game and image until he became a household brand, which is what contributed to his eventual downfall (tragic irony at work), setting the bar for so many male authors, including one Charles ‘Hank’ Bukowski whose alter ego, Chinaski, could be Papa’s bristling cousin.
And here we are. Three compelling stories by (and on) three flawed individuals/authors who spent their lives battling their vices in their quest for a purpose, flirting with disaster at every step of the way, to each his own. Tormented by demons and all kinds of questions as to what constituted life, they threaded an elaborate narrative on the human soul and the depravity to which people are subjected during their search for truth and beauty. In the process they acquired precious insight, for which they paid a high price. Falling prey to their vices, they became sickly and died, but they left behind a treasure trove of wisdom and insight.