Bukowski in France

Four months later Bukowski went to France, where Ferlinghetti had sold rights to Notes of a Dirty Old Man and made the same initial mistake—a $23 hardback.85 But that was quickly followed by a $6.50 paperback. Though similar books sold for $1-2 in the United States, this was a reasonable price in France. Gerard Guegan, the translator, would also work on the two volumes of Lamour est un chien de lenfer [Love Is a Dog from Hell]. By 1975 Bukowski was also selling well in France, so the 1978 trip had a marketing logic. Rolling Stone reported in 1976 that Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet thought Bukowski was “the greatest American poet alive today,” but this appears to have been another plant by Weissner.86

The French reading audience was less beleaguered. Most of Bukowski’s publications in print in France before 1976 were poems. Readers knew him as a plain-spoken, proletarian Drinker, Brawler, and Horse Player, and the translations placed in high profile his odd references to Verlaine, Camus, Celine, Kafka, Turgenev, and Che Guevara. His fiction persona in French focused mostly on Los Angeles, a place that fascinated many French readers, and its voice embodied a kind of hip, proletarian flaneur. The French selection of his work was certainly no call to return to the barricades of 1968.

At least five books were in print in French by the time that Bukowski arrived in Paris in 1978.87 We also know that Bukowski had already received at least one $9,000 royalty check from his French publishers.88 Now he was about to create scandal and gain fame on a French television literary show, something that escaped even Norman Mailer. Antenne 2, one of the two major stations in France, got word that Grasset was preparing four new books by Bukowski. It offered the author a plane ticket and hotel stay if he would appear on Apostrophes, a famous literary talk show hosted by Bernard Pivot.

Martin urged him to accept, and Ferlinghetti saw the perfect complement to the Germany trip.

In his account of his visit, Bukowski is cranky. He greets his French editor with “Listen you son of a bitch,” and reports that “I cussed him good for 5 or ten minutes.”89 The French press loved him. He got a glowing write-up in Libiration, the hip leftist daily, from Jean-Franqois Fogel, who made it clear that for French readers Bukowski was not about alienation or work but about sex.

Not that Bukowski is more salacious or lubricious than the cascade of writers and filmmakers who stop the hand of the U.S. clock at the hour of sex. But no one, not even [Henry] Miller had ever spoken so directly of fucking in the big cities, between cans of beer and leatherette seat cushions where the skin can’t help but stick a bit.

[Non que Bukowski soit plus salace ou plus lubrique que la cascade d’ecrivains et de cineastes qui bloquent la pendule des Etats-Unis a l’heure du sexe. Mais jamais personne, et pas meme Miller, n’avait parle si directe- ment de la baise dans les grandes villes, entre des canettes de biere et des coussins de Skai ou la peau colle forcement un peu.]90

This article repeated the various Bukowski myths, quoting briefly from Post Office about his jobs, but also dwelling at fascinated length on his ugliness:

What to say about Bukowski, the shipwreck of American cities? His flesh is puffy from alcohol. A blood disease has left traces of burn marks on his cheekbones. Some hookers have worked over his cheeks with their nails. And his nose would be the pride of a Dutch tulip bulb seller. It’s bulbous, bursting with pus and spider-webbed with veins. A touch of rouge and you’d think he was Bozo the Clown about to enter the circus ring. Bukowski is really not handsome. He has evidently had to make do with his mug, and also his slim hands, which everyone who gets close to him remarks on: “I say to women that my face, that’s my experience, and my hands are my soul—anything to get them to drop their panties,” jokes Bukowski.

[Que dire de Bukowski, le naufrage des metropoles americaines ? Ses chairs sont soufflees par l’alcool. Une maladie de sang a laisse des traces de brulure sur ses pommettes. Quelques putes ont laboure ses joues a coups d’ongles.

Et son nez ferait la fierte d’un marchand d’oignons de tulipes hollandais. C’est bulbeux, petant de pus et de veinules a fleur d’epiderme. Un coup de rouge et on croirait Gugusse pret a entrer en piste a Medrano. Bukowski n’est vraiment pas beau. Il a evidemment du faire avec sa gueule, et aussi avec ses mains fines que remarquent tous ceux qui l’approchent. «Je dis aux femmes que mon visage, c’est mon experience, et que mes mains sont mon ame, n’importe quoi pour qu’elles baissent leur culotte», plaisante Bukowski.]

This celebration of his worn appearance and frank sexuality remind us that Bukowski arrived in France, as in Germany, during the punk movement. In fact, following the Liberation interview, he met with a writer from a French punk zine who asked him for heroin. When Bukowski said he didn’t have any, the reporter asked if he liked pollution. Bukowski thought this funny.91

Both press and punks hoped for theater, and the next day on Apostrophes they got it. Pivot’s weekly gathering of literati introduced the new, evaluated the established, and influenced the contemporary canon. It was almost compulsory viewing for anyone interested in the nation’s cultural life. For Bukowski to appear was an honor, especially since the show was usually in French and he would need simultaneous interpretation via an earpiece. Pivot was reaching down to notice Bukowski, though as Sounes reveals, there was pressure from Antenne 2 to modernize. The network had proposed the interview, not Pivot, and it paid for the flights and housed Bukowski at a good hotel. “Bukowski figured the show would help his European sales,” writes Sounes.92

He got to the Antenne 2 building forty-five minutes early. He had stipulated that he wanted two bottles of good white wine delivered to him; the first arrived while he was in make-up (according to Pivot, he had demanded three bottles of a good Sancerre).93 He was soon drinking from the bottle. Very drunk indeed was he when led out to meet his fellow guests. These included a distinguished psychiatrist who had treated Antonin Artaud, and Catherine Paysan, an author of what exactly Bukowski was never sure. They sat round a coffee table on which lay several of Bukowski’s books. The second camera frequently cut away to show Bukowski’s bottle and glass. He was the star, so Pivot began by asking him how it felt to be feted in Europe, to be on French television.

“I know a great many American writers who would like to be on this program now,” replied Bukowski, speaking even more ponderously than usual.

He was puffing on a sher bidi, a type of Indian cigarette Linda Lee had introduced him to. It looked like a joint and smelt awful. He was also obviously drunk, slurring his words and nodding his head. “It doesn’t mean so much to me . . .” he said.94

Pivot tried to develop a discussion, but Bukowski had trouble following the interpreting. Pivot asked questions about Sartre, marginality, and how Bukowski compared himself to Henry Miller. Bukowski responded that truth was like a “beautiful whore” and that he wrote for money. Pivot had heard that Bukowski threw up on a German show and was afraid he would do so again, so he turned to a critic and asked why he liked the American. According to Pivot, Bukowski then began talking to himself “lugubriously,” whistling for more wine, and belching. This is not in any of the videos. After a few minutes Bukowski broke in, saying he would like to see more of Catharine Paysan’s legs: that way he might know how good a writer she was. According to Pivot, he touched her thigh, because she jumped up and, straightening her skirt, said “Oh! bien 9a, c’est le pompon!” [“Oh, that’s just about the limit”]. But at this point the video evidence halts.

Pivot reportedly gave Bukowski a withering look, and the American told him he was a “fucking son of a fucking bitch asshole,” which posed the interpreters a problem since the show was going out live. Pivot understood, however, and put his hand over the American’s mouth and told him to shut up. “Don’t you ever say that to me,” Bukowski growled. (At this point the video evidence resumes.) Bukowski pulled out his earpiece, rose unsteadily to his feet and turned to leave. Pivot bid him “au revoir,” the audience laughed, and other guests commented on the lunacy. Bukowski stumbled momentarily, steadied himself by touching the head of the man next to him, and then tottered off. There was a confrontation with police in the lobby.

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