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Pen and penury: writers and poverty | River's Edge

Pen and penury: writers and poverty

July 28, 2015

Richard John Davis


Worlds of impoverishment, it seems, have ever been portrayed in novels, short stories, plays, memoirs and verse. These depictions, both fictional and otherwise, reveal a fascination with a real danger that always lurks too near for comfort.


F Scott Fitzgerald was determined to become, and remain, fabulously wealthy. Paradoxically he also, for most of his working life, seemed determined to dispose of his wealth. Fitzgerald, from very early on in his career (his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, when he was still a very young man, was an immediate success), earned vast amounts of money. He set about spending it in equally immense sums, finding an imaginative array of methods for doing so. He died in a relatively impoverished state in 1940. Was he somehow – perhaps subconsciously – anxious that his talent would dissipate if he lived the life of Gatsby? Was he, essentially, internally conflicted on the issue of money and wealth?

Of course, Fitzgerald was also an alcoholic, with all of that condition’s attendant implosions and misfirings. In addition, there were the hefty bills he

F Scott Fitzgerald and family at the height of his fame

F Scott Fitzgerald and family at the height of his fame

received for his wife Zelda’s mental health treatments and stays. And yet there did seem to be more to his wilful pursuit of indigence than mere circumstance. It was perhaps unnecessary to live in top hotels and resorts around the world, for instance, as he did for most of his life.

Today, we’re hearing much about how difficult it is for a writer – any writer – to make anything like a decent living. Notwithstanding other problems such as the ‘death’ of the novel, as identified by novelist Will Self recently. A recent authors’ Licencing and Collecting Society survey showed that the median annual income of the professional author in 2013 was a mere £11,000. But looking back, it seems it was ever thus. Oscar Wilde memorably declared once that he only had his debts ‘to rely on’. (We always think of Wilde ‘declaring’ things, rather than just saying them.) And he certainly lived up to this description, building such substantial sums unpaid that he often found himself in all kinds of trouble.

Other writers  started poor and stayed poor for at least part or, sometimes, all of their career. Not just writers, either. Famous cases, such as Van Gogh, live on in the imagination, adding with posterity to the myths and legends of the lives of painters and sculptors. But writers arguably have a singular relationship with scarcity, built up through years of telling stories and mythologizing. Writers, it could be said, find that income-deficiency is not only part of their own story, but can also contribute to the narratives they invent. The symbiosis is thus complete and extensive.

The perfect example of this dysfunctional co-dependency was probably Charles Bukowski, who perhaps more than any other modern writer made the poverty of his own early life part of his own and his characters’ stories (later, he lived on a writer’s retainer, which sustained him until he was able to earn more from his writing). Post Office, his breakthrough novel of 1971, focused on low-income earners, but most of his other tales dealt in the murky subterranean worlds of barflies, hobos and peripatetic alcoholics. Factotum is such a tale. In this novel, published in 1975, Bukowski’s perennial alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, drifts from one job to another, from one woman to another, from one bar to another, never finding what is conventionally viewed as the “successful life”, but taking on and actively embracing life’s – or rather low-life’s – adventures and volatilities. Indeed, Chinaski bears throughout these tales a ferocious hostility to anything resembling the conventional life. Bukowski was to rewrite and rework this narrative many times, culminating in his screenplay for the film Barfly, his picaresques not seeming to veer to far from the reality of his own world.

Hemingwayesque parataxis permeates throughout Factotum:

There were some rough faces in that bar, some interesting faces. I stayed in my room at night and drank wine and looked at the faces in the bar while my money ran out. In the daytime I took long slow walks. I sat for hours staring at pigeons. I only ate one meal a day so my money would last longer. I found a dirty cafe with a dirty proprietor, but you got a big breakfast – hotcakes, grits, sausage – for very little.


This shiftlessness in the writing mimics the directionless perambulations of the central character. As Chinaski moves around the country, from city to city, he finds little respite, preferring, ultimately, his own company: “I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water.”

Matt Dillon portrays Henry Chinaski in the film version of 'Factotum' (2005)

Matt Dillon portrays Henry Chinaski in the film version of ‘Factotum’ (2005)

In one passage, Chinaski is forced to compare himself in brutally unfavourable terms with his boss, while getting his marching orders:

He was in a newly-pressed light tan summer suit, bow tie (green), tan shirt, with his black-and-tan shoes exquisitely shined. I was suddenly conscious of the nails in the soles of my scruffy shoes pressing up into the soles of my feet. Three buttons on my dirty shirt were missing. The zipper in my pants was jammed at half mast. My belt buckle was broken.

Such detail is reminiscent of George Orwell’s earlier (1933) Down and Out in Paris and London. In this account, with which many of Bukowski’s confessionals appear to share a binding allegiance, Orwell deliberately places himself into penury, after becoming disillusioned with empire’s banalities of evil. This deliberation places the text in a different category: Bukowski’s life-time’s worth of tribulations, though sometimes due to poor decision-making, are not wilfully orchestrated. Orwell not only embraces his new life, he leads it with others, unlike Bukowski, in a sort of comradeship of privation.

The first part of the book deals with Paris. Orwell lives in the poorest parts of town, in bug-ridden, dirty apartments, living hand-to-mouth. He describes the embarrassment of not being quite able to afford bread. He describes ill and wretched friends, fellow sufferers in silence, fighting both mendicancy and biology. Dramatic irony permeates this document, despite its essentially factual nature, as characters – real people – aspire to great things and make their denials apparent in their declarations of intent. One friend, desperately ill and living in the direst of circumstances, continually reminds Orwell of how the acquiring of money is the “easiest” of things in life.

Poverty, though, is not easy, according to Orwell. It is not a straightforward affair:

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty […] you thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.

Orwell was not born into poverty, coming as he did from the privileged middle classes of England. He came to know scarcity, war and persecution in

George Orwell

George Orwell

his life. And it is in his life of penury that his mature writing career begins – Down and Out… was his first published book. It was as though he felt he needed to live a life first in order to write about it. But reading the book, you do not get the sense that Orwell is merely ‘slumming it’. His rejection of his former life seems absolute and sincere, his abject privations real and sometimes dangerous. Criminality is just one step away and Orwell almost is tempted, more than once.

Jean Genet was not merely tempted by crime. He made crime his oeuvre. This did not mean that he became a crime-writer. It meant that he himself led a life of criminality – and documented it. This was Genet’s answer to poverty’s question: his solution.

Born in Paris in 1910, Genet never knew his parents, spending his early life in a state orphanage. At the age of ten, he was sent to a reform school for stealing. He was then to spend most of his adult life travelling throughout Europe, ending up imprisoned in almost every country he visited. The Thief’s Journal is an account of this period. Genet conflates his compulsion for crime with his desire for sexual trysts with men – particularly those of a criminal disposition, such as fellow inmates in the jails of various countries. As he puts it, ‘I was hot for crime’ [his italics]. He hooks up, in both senses, with a serial lawbreaker called Stilitano, whom he calls a ‘roguish prince’. This union acted as a sort of catalyst for both parties:

I kept inciting him to ever more perilous adventures.

     ‘We need a revolver,’ I said to him.

     ‘Would you know what to do with it?’

     ‘With you around, I wouldn’t be scared to bump a guy off.’


But Genet realises that much of this swagger is romantic self-aggrandisement. He recognises the fact that ‘we were both poor thieves’ and merely that. Later in his life, Genet was sentenced to life imprisonment. Many of France’s intelligentsia, led by Jean Cocteau, petitioned against this and he was eventually released. For much of his early criminal career, Genet was driven by impulse: the need to eat, the need for sex, the need for unlawful activity. He was able to describe these impulses poetically and in honest detail, and this separated him from his accomplices and associates.

Genet’s journal is all too real, being based clearly on a life lived in the manner of his book. Other writers have produced fictional vagabonds and unfortunates who are merely that: fictional. Although Dickens researched and campaigned for matters pertaining to poverty, he was supremely adept at creating composites of those he met in the streets on his many-mile walks around the capital. One of these is perhaps the most memorable and notable of continually-impoverished inhabitants of the novel: Wilkins Micawber.

Micawber is often cited as one of the highly significant characters of David Copperfield (the highly autobiographical novel that Dickens referred to as his “favourite child”). When we first meet him, it is possible to size up the man thanks to a clever Dickensian sweep of economical wording: ‘His clothes

were shabby but he had an imposing shirt-collar on […] And a quizzing-glass hung outside his coat – for ornament, I afterwards found, as he very seldom looked through it and couldn’t see anything when he did.’ Micawber is hapless, feckless, and rarely says anything he needs to say in few words. Yet he is amiable and ultimately proves himself reliable and a man of principle.

He is also perpetually in debt. Like Dickens’s own father, he is thrown into the debtors’ prison. He seems peculiarly aware – something those who have known extreme privation will be familiar with – of his own shortcomings in this regard. His oft-quoted dictum runs as follows:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

The result is also a wife and children full of need and anxiety. In any other character, this more than any other narrative consequence would inspire feelings of revulsion in the reader; and yet – again – Micawber inspires the opposite, perhaps testament to Dickens’s prowess as a builder of individuality within the novel. It is also, perhaps, an indicator of the closeness of Micawber’s predicament to our own. In a country on the tick, many of us feel that disaster is one or two steps away, and that we are able to keep it at bay with a combination of good fortune and fire-fighting. One significant increase in the mortgage rate and… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Another factor is Micawber’s eternally optimistic nature. His other memorable, and much repeated, line in the book is, ‘Something will turn up.’ This glass-half-full attitude is essential to his disposition. One feels he wouldn’t survive his misfortunes without it. Faced with such terrible turns of events as his, though, most would surely give up and become disconsolate.

Micawber eventually finds some sort of afterlife in emigration, becoming a magistrate in Australia. This seems to be literary recompense for his good deeds (thwarting the scheming Uriah Heep being the prime example). Such poetic justice was perhaps characteristic of the Victorian novel. Once the horrors of the twentieth century made their entrances, this moral optimism no longer prevailed, leaving the door open for the likes of Orwell, Genet and Bukowski, whose realism punched and kicked like the lives they only too realistically portrayed.



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