The Fante Question

If you’ve ever read Charles Bukowski, you probably know one of the writers he often praised was John Fante. He wrote several poems about him and a few stories and he cited him as an influence. Other Bukowski influences are Celine, Dos, Turgenev, Hemingway, Hamsun, E.E. Cummings, just to name a few. All, completely original luminaries, IMO.

Fante, on the other hand, never did much for me. I have read Ask the Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini and both books I found completely underwhelming.

There’s a quote by Goethe that I love. It’s from the book Conversations w/ Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann. Nietzsche called this book “the best German book there is,” and I tend to agree. Maybe. I also like a lot of Schopenhauer’s books. Parerga and Paralipomena & The World as Will and Representation to name a couple. Faust is also a fave. And some of Nietzsche’s stuff too. Anyway, here’s the quote. He’s talking about Byron:

“He is a great talent, a born talent, and I never saw the true poetical power greater in any man than in him. In the apprehension of external objects, and a clear penetration into past situations, he is quite as great as Shakspeare. But as a pure individuality, Shakspeare is his superior. This was felt by Byron, and on this account he does not say much of Shakspeare, although he knows whole passag…es by heart. He would willingly have denied him altogether; for Shakspeare’s cheerfulness is in his way, and he feels that he is no match for it. Pope he does not deny, for he had no cause to fear him. On the contrary, he mentions him, and shows him respect when he can, for he knows well enough that Pope is a mere foil to himself.”

THE FOIL is a common phenomenon in the literary world. It happens all the time in the small-press, the Byronic technique being to ignore and/or obscure what’s good, or what you’re incapable of & praise a non-threatening equal or lesser writer. It kind of like when two guys who are both about 5’7 and have Napoleon-complexes hang out together. Or when one of them hangs out with a guy 5’5. It makes him feel like King Kong.

Fante was never more than Bukowski’s foil/stumpy-legged goombah. He may have influenced Buk in some short-lived ways, and since they both lived and wrote about L.A., I’m sure there was a regional appeal, but make no mistake: Bukowski was the light. And he knew it. He knew Fante could never climb out of his shade so he could praise Fante. He had to praise at least one of his contemporaries. Someone with a little more credibility than sucky Jack Micheline or that StrungoutSpacecadetPseudohippy Steve Richmond.

The real threats of his time — Sylvia Plath and Ray Carver and D’j Pancake — he never talked much about. Not sure if he read Pancake, but if he did, he probably wouldn’t have admitted it. Plath could do many things Buk couldn’t, and there was no reason for him to wanna like Carver. Academia embraced him, and that was the hatchet blow on him.

Anyway, Fante’s writing had gone the way of obscurity until Buk came along. He raved about and praised his foil, and they met and became good friends. Now, you see Fante mentioned and his books everywhere and I think people like to believe he too can be ranked among the greats. Really he’s just easy to read. He wrote in a simple style that Buk admired, but personally I like writers with a little more taste and fire in the belly. I also like people who aren’t afraid to bend some rules and play around with words. The “simple, uncluttered sentence” as Buk called it, is great, but it’s not everything. I don’t remember there being much humor in Fante either. He was kind of like Bukowski without the humor, which is kind of like The Doors without Jim Morrison. Or with that toadlicker from Creed filling in.

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