Factotum: Charles Bukowski

Afternoon readers and happy Tuesday; after a wonderful evening playing monopoly and eating heaps of chicken tikka masala, mushroom pilau and peshwari naan I have another classic review for you today in the form of ‘Factotum by Charles Bukowski.’ As mentioned in yesterday’s Monday Musing, its suggested similarities to George Orwell’s book Down-and-out in Paris and London promoted me give this a go and I’m going to attempt to compare the two in this review because despite the similarities in context the styles are wildly different. However another overall fulfilling and intriguing read.

Henry Chinaski, an outcast, a lover and a drunk, drifts around America from one dead-end job to another, from one woman to another and from one bottle to the next. Uncompromising, gritty, hilarious and confessional in turn, his downward spiral is peppered with black humour.

 As the blurb suggests the book follows the rather down-and-out Henry Chinaski as he bumbles between bouts of drinking, half-hearted attempts to keep down a job, a smattering of highly sexual relations with numerous women and a slight yearning to be recognised as a writer. The book, as like Orwell’s, takes on a documentary style ultimately detailing his succession of menial jobs, shortage of money and his day-to-day experiences of low life urban America.

So the basic framework is down, onto the good bits. Whilst Orwell’s book took a truly romanticised style of commentary Bukowski is brash, unaltered, and blunt. The words used are haggard and honest. In one scene near the beginning Henry has moved into a new apartment when he is introduced to the lady next door, a prostitute. The language and description of the brutal event that takes place next is both harrowing and appallingly described. Whilst Orwell romanced us as a reader, Bukowski is sharp and observant. The reason this works is because Henry as a character is so blasé. Both unmoved and offhand he drops women, apartments and jobs at the drop of a hat.

In this sense it allows the plot to move forward continually with little abandon, moving between cities and jobs with very little care. He works in many different establishments with many different titles including janitor, bookie and stock boy. He moves with reckless abandon and with little worry. The only constant is the relentless drinking and the inevitable circle of hangovers. Henry states, ’When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.’ The description of their (Henry throughout the book is in an on-off relationship with a lady named Jan also dependant on liquor) is raw and honest and the author holds very little back. The descriptions of their booze filled evenings, with no food to make a meal but with enough wine to get the two blind-eyed drunk is explicitly written. The blazing rows, the infidelities and the sudden exposure of a sexual disease are described crudely. Almost purely documentary in style we meander along living the life of Henry through the words told to us.

My only real wobble with the book was the way Bukowski described the females in the tale. Throughout the book Henry is both often uninterested and cold however despite this most of the women described throw themselves at his feet desperate for his affection. It’s an odd mix and comes off incredibly misogynistic. The second is a little deeper; throughout Bukowski is incredibly honest. His characters and their events are told from a cold piercing eye looking upon the world. At times however it strays from being authentic and feels more of an imitation of reality, something a little contrived and seeking too much pity. For me it’s lacking something that Orwell managed to pack droves in and that was sympathy; I was rooting for the main character from the very beginning. Here, I didn’t, but, I was happy to sit back and read along.

 Overall despite everything I did enjoy reading this tale; rough and ready, packed with dark humour, violence, sex and alcohol it tells a compelling tale of a male who finds sanity in the bottom of a bottle rather than in life itself. A wandering tale that has left me only wanting to read more from Bukowski.

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Down and Out in Paris and London: George Orwell

101 things in 1001 days

Afternoon readers, another 101 things in 1001 days post but also a book review. Since becoming more of an avid reader I have continued to manage avoiding reading many of the ‘classic’ pieces of literature. I’ve always been one to pick more contemporary writers and books and this has become more so because of my review requests page. However, when writing my list of things to do I thought it might be beneficial to me as a reader to sit down and read a number of classics. I did a little research and listed down a number to try so there will be a number of these reviews in the coming month. Today’s came to both ease me in and so I could read more from George Orwell. Although I enjoyed 1984 it hasn’t stuck with me as a book I need to read again I was intrigued to read more from the famous author. Thank goodness I did because this has just lodged itself in my top ten list of books. Let me transport you to the slums of Paris and London.

George Orwell’s vivid memoir of his time living among the desperately poor and destitute, Down and Out in Paris and London is a moving tour of the underworld of society from the author of 1984, published with an introduction by Dervla Murphy in Penguin Modern Classics. ‘You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them.’ Written when Orwell was a struggling writer in his twenties, it documents his ‘first contact with poverty’. Here, he painstakingly documents a world of unrelenting drudgery and squalor – sleeping in bug-infested hostels and doss houses of last resort, working as a dishwasher in Paris’s vile ‘Hôtel X’, surviving on scraps and cigarette butts, living alongside tramps, a star-gazing pavement artist and a starving Russian ex-army captain. Exposing a shocking, previously-hidden world to his readers, Orwell gave a human face to the statistics of poverty for the first time – and in doing so, found his voice as a writer.

One word to describe this book is grubby although that wouldn’t come close to convey the lyrical writing style of this wonderful book. The book follows Orwell as he struggles to find his feet in the back streets of firstly Paris and in the second part of the book also London. Largely autobiographic the book documents Orwell living in the bowels of a number of different hotels in Paris. Sweating over the hot stoves and desperately washing pots and pans for his superiors we get to visit poverty from a real life perspective. We learn about the lack of hygiene in the smartest of Paris hotels and the everyday poverty that Orwell faced, often both starving and exhausted. The writing is beautifully written, both romantic and utterly gritty I was immediately transported to the dirty soiled hotels of Paris.

The characters are incredibly well built, Boris is the star of the first part of the book that focuses on Paris. He leaps from the page both in his speech and the way in which Orwell describes him, but no matter who we come into contact with along the way Orwell gives us so much detail you cannot help but be transported to the poverty stricken streets. The second part of the book takes us to the dreary roads of London where Orwell intermingles with the tramps of the city and tells a similar story. However the book is lively and Orwell describes the camaraderie of the two cities with a bohemian style of love and freedom. The writing style is dark but humorous, from the descriptions of the grimy sharing of rooms with a vivid number of characters to the boarding houses and homeless hostels named spikes in London. Although gloomier in London the tales are none the less both interesting and informative. I have never read a book quite so good at describing the atmosphere of poverty, hunger , dirt and dismay with so much hope and understanding.

We also often get a philosophical side to the writing, often razor sharp and riddled with humour which is rather surprising seeing the desperate situation of the author and the people he finds himself in the company of. The book is written as though Orwell was alive and well now, telling us these stories of characters such as Bozo the street screever or pavement artist in the most destitute of situations and yet so hopeful for the future. Or Paddy the tramp who even when suffering with the most stomach turning of hunger refuses to steal a bottle of milk from a doorstep. It is quite a wonderful way of telling a tale and on the train to Milton Keynes I became utterly submerged in the story from the very beginning.

Overall this is a tale of poverty, hunger, destitution and pain but it is a wonderfully honest and uplifting tale. Orwell brings these people and stories to life with such beautifully honest prose that I almost felt the stony floors of the London spikes and the drunken tales from the Parisian bars. A stunner of a book and one I cannot wait to read again.

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