Criminally Neglected Authors: John Fante and the tortured writer

If you Google the phrase ‘Criminally Neglected Authors’, down the page you will find John Fante’s name. While not as unknown as say Lester Goran or Clive Sinclair, the latter of whom I dedicated the last ‘neglected authors’ segment to, Fante is still a relatively unknown writer in the wider reading sphere. When I first chanced upon Fante’s work, namely, his notable semi-autobiographical novel Ask the Dust (1939), I felt it read similarly to the gutsy, rhythmic prose of classic crime fiction. But Fante’s work, which has strongly influenced author Charles Bukowski, is associated with the little known literary movement Dirty Realism, the style which is considered quite minimalist, and is defined by Granta writer Bill Buford as:

…the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.

In Fante’s Ask the Dust, we are introduced to Arturo Bandini, the character and alter-ego of Fante which provided the author with the name of his series of four novels, Bandini Quartet: Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938), The Road to Los Angeles (1985), Dream from Bunker Hill (1982) and Ask the Dust. Bandini is a struggling writer who begins a tempestuous relationship with waitress Camilla Lopez, with such a love/hate rhythm that there are echoes of Chandler-esque themes of gritty, messy passion. And, like many great writers, for Fante the city acts as a central, though simultaneously peripheral, character. Bandini has an unwavering and often poetic love of the tough city that is notoriously unkind to struggling writers:

Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.

Bandini forges a love that combines the elements of the city, the girl, and the writing, but it is his struggle to articulate himself through his writing that appears as the most arduous and torturous relationship:

I remembered her brown nakedness and her kiss, the flavour of her mouth as it came cold from the sea, and I saw myself white and virginal…Late in the afternoon I was exhausted and the sight of myself in the mirror was unbearable. I sat at the typewriter and wrote about it, poured it out the way it should have happened, hammered it out with such violence that the portable typewriter kept moving away from me and across the table. On paper I stalked her like a tiger and beat her to the earth and overpowered her with my invisible strength. It ended with her creeping after me, in the sand, tears streaming from her eyes, beseeching me to have mercy upon her. Fine. Excellent. But even when I read it over it was ugly and dull. I tore the pages and threw them away.

The book is interspersed with unsentimental and often nonsensical streams of consciousness that paint Bandini as predisposed to madness, vulnerable to its catalysts- such as love, sex and writing. But it was the above mentioned scene that resinates as one of the more poignant, not the relationship between him and his fanciful, bordering on delusional relationship with Camilla, but the relationship between writer and writing. That the typewriter moves away from Bandini the more boisterous and passionate he writes symbolises the characteristic difficulties and often unbearable and maddening effects that writing has on writers, unable to translate reality into prose and utterly losing themselves in the process. In 2006, the book was adapted into a film by Robert Towne starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, though I’d imagine it lacks the poignancy of the book and could not master the naked prose of Fante.

This struggle for a mastery over writing is not foreign in literature, appearing most notoriously in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1954), also a semi-autobiographical work, in which Sal Paradise (often deemed to be Kerouac himself), becomes disconnected and uninspired in his writing. Fante’s disjointed and often rambling style reflecting on the mundane nature of contemporary life also mirrors that of Bernardo Soares in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (1991), whose protagonist is a Lisbon-based bookkeeper who catalogues the tedium of everyday life, a character whom Anthony Burgess described as ‘a distinguished mind at work beneath the dullness of clerking.’ For Pessoa, as it is for Fante, the minutiae of place, while seemingly on the periphery is illuminated through the mind of the writer, who perhaps needs every bit of stimuli for inspiration. Soares, in one of his entries, writes:

Yes, it’s sunset. I walk, leisurely and distracted, down Rua da Alfandega towards the Tagus and as Terreiro do Paco opens out before me, I can clearly see the sunless western sky. To the left, above the hills on the far shore of the river, a bank of brownish, dull pink mist crouches in the sky and there the colours shade from greenish blue to greenish white. A great sense of peace that I do not possess is scattered in the cold, abstract autumn air. Not having it, I let myself suffer the vague pleasure of imagining its existence.  Later on down the page, Soares writes, I feel and I forget.

The relationship between the reality, the feeling, and then extracting the memory, is central to the writer’s inner disruption that is beautifully catalogued in both Fante and Pessoa’s work. Bandini often feels. He feels for Camilla or for his city, before he forgets, the tether between his writing and reality cut. The inner turmoil of the unhinged writer attempting to not only find the right words, but to ultimately be inspired in order to alleviate themselves from the mediocrity of life by finding beauty on the periphery. To have ‘the woman’ as a standalone character that represents the writer’s saviour from the mundane world would be too generic, the beauty found in a woman easy and predictable. What we are exposed to instead is the writer at odds, but also coming to terms with, an otherwise bleak existence in which he or she finds beauty in cities, in landscape.

While Bandini, ultimately Fante, has his typewriter in LA, and Soares (Pessoa incarnate) has his diary in Lisbon, the artful struggle for writers -whose occupation one would think is to create beauty- is juxtaposed against a world that is often anything but inspiring and conducive to a thriving, artful mind. Where to look for inspiration? Fante may be telling us to ask the dust, for perhaps there is no one person we can ask.



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3 responses to “Criminally Neglected Authors: John Fante and the tortured writer

  1. This is great. I’ve never heard of this author although I have read that excerpt by Bill Buford on ‘dirty realism’, I’m quite intrigued to try Fante’s work… thanks!

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