The Tragedy of the Leaves by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski’s poetry is new to me. ‘The empty bottles like bled corpses’ is stunning, but it is the closing lines that linger for hours: ‘and I walked into a dark hall where the landlady stood execrating and final, sending me to hell, waving her fat, sweaty arms and screaming screaming for rent because the world has failed us both’.

[Update 16/11/13: The concluding confrontation between Bukowski and his angry landlady in this early, gloomy poem, according to Howard Sounes’ biography of Bukowski, reflects the place Bukowski was living at the time.]

The Tragedy of the Leaves

I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
and screaming
screaming for rent
because the world has failed us
both

Bukowski in correspondence with John William Corrington who published Bukowski as the American representative of a tradition of literary outsiders stretching back to Villon and Rimbaud:

‘Old Man, Dead in a Room is my future, ‘The Tragedy of the Leaves’ is my past, and the ‘Priest and the Matador’ is a dawdling in between.

A Truly Original Writer

Customarily I expect each book I read to suggest subsequent reading material. Reading Simone de Beauvoir offered up André Gide and William Faulkner, and also lead indirectly to Bernard-Henri Lévy and Stendhal. Geoff Dyer suggested Rebecca West, leading to Henry Green, whom she describes:

He was a truly original writer, his prose was fresh minted, he drove his bloodless scalpel inches deeper into the brain and heart, none of it had been said before. He is nearly forgotten.

Four other writers merit West’s favourable mention, each of which I shall try to squeeze into my life:

Now I admire Muriel Spark, for she is an innovator. And I am a fanatical admirer of A. L. Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault. You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire The Middling or An Occasion for Embarrassment. I admire the grand architectural force of Paul Scott, and the subtlety of Francis King, notably his book The Widow.

Don’t You Loathe Comedic Writing?

No genre makes my skin crawl more than comedic writing. I don’t mean those puerile books like The More I See of Men the More I Love My Dog…. that congregate by the tills in bookshops, impulse purchases for people that wandered into the shop thinking it was the next door tanning salon. My disdain is for the humorists, sometimes camouflaged as satirists, that lay the humour with a bricklayer’s trowel. In this category, this side of the Atlantic, are writers like Tom Sharpe, Douglas Adams, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry; on the other side are Carl Hiaasen, Dave Eggers and P. J. O’Rourke. Is it coincidental that this genre is an all-male pursuit?

Genuine, unforced, subtle humour as an integral element of a writer’s voice offers a fresh perspective on what it is to be human. This quality coruscates from the pages of The Essential Rebecca West. In the following passage from The Novelist’s Voice, West is writing of her father’s tutor, Elisée Reclus, known as a geographer (and in informed political circles as an anarchist):

He accepted the post quite innocently, without any attempt to deceive, because she had told him she was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and he imagined that this was a small revolutionary body. When he discovered the truth he behaved with great correctness. He said nothing. He liked my grandmother, he liked her sons, and he thought he could teach them better than the next man, and he made it a rule never to recommend to them any idea of which their mother might disapprove; and there was forged a bond between them which never broke. My father used to tell the story with a chuckle, which became to me the sign of his appreciation of the random nature of human life, and the queer ways human beings counter it and impose a kind of order. Out of bigotry my grandmother had engaged the best possible kind of tutor for her sons, in fact the tutor most likely to prevent them growing up bigots themselves.

In the multitude of ways a writer could have chosen to tell this story, West does so with wit, elegance and percipience. The essay itself is superb, dealing with West’s conviction to become a writer, and how she discovered her voice. West’s humour announces itself on every page, but is satisfied with a gentle smile.

[Is there a better example of British wit that Alan Titmarsh’s book entitled Trowel and Error?]

Essays About Moms and Cats

I had planned to skip Rebecca West’s ‘Why my Mother was Frightened of Cats.’ Essays about mothers are normally too mawkish; combine mothers and cats and nausea is inevitable.

The brilliance and humour of the three previous essays from The Essential Rebecca West carried me forward to, “He [Lord Roberts] would turn and run if a cat walked towards him on the parade-ground; and I quite realised that if Lord Roberts could not control this terror my mother could not be expected to do better. So there was no ill-feeling between us.’ Without shame or embarrassment,  I admit I finished this essay about mothers and cats. It is a first.

Geoff Dyer shoved me toward West, with the gentle encouragement of Emily at Evening All Afternoon and pages turned.

Geoff Dyer’s Motifs

Shiftless, solitary, sybaritic  men occupy the central role in Geoff Dyer’s non-quite fiction. Surrounding a central male character is a common cast of supporting roles: another man, more grounded; a dark-haired, sexually adventurous girlfriend (‘almost-wife’) and an asexual female in a sibling-like role (but not a sister, for the central male is always an only child).

Woven throughout Dyer’s writing over twenty years, whether essay or novel, as narrator or subject, is this shiftless, solitary character. More than any author I read (including Sebald), Dyer is retelling and reinterpreting a personal narrative. In Paris Trance he writes, “The events recorded here concerned only a handful of people and, quite probably, are of interest only to those people.”

Whether the setting is Paris, London, Venice or Varanasi, the story line remains the same: the doomed love of a solitary and selfish, but not unsympathetic man. His generosity almost redeems his selfishness:

‘It’s like he hasn’t been weaned. The world is just a breast to be sucked.’ ‘How can you say that when he’s just cooked yet another incredible meal for us?’ ‘Easily. The fact that he’s very generous doesn’t stop him being totally selfish.’

This haunted character (ranging in age from twenties to forties) inhabits a life without contact with children. In ‘On Being an Only Child,’ Dyer asserts, “It’s not just that I have never wanted to have children; I have always actively hated the idea. Frankly, I can’t understand why anyone [his italics] wants to have them.” In this childlessness state, the character can live an existence of blameless hedonism.

Dyer’s latest fiction Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasicarries forward the same motifs: the familiar cast of characters, candid sex scenes and drug taking. It should all become a bit repetitive and ‘only of interest to those people’ who can recognise themselves. And yet it is rare to uncover such insight into love, friendship, art, music, cinema, literature and life. The author’s personality is what haunts long after you have forgotten the characters and setting. Dyer’s presence lingers strongly after the carefully constructed sentences have gone out of mind.