Magazine article The Spectator

The Muse in the Bottle

Magazine article The Spectator

The Muse in the Bottle

Article excerpt

The Trip to Echo Spring:

Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing Canongate, £20, pp. 340, ISBN 9781847677945 The boozer's life is one of low self-esteem and squalid self-denial. It was memorably evoked by Charles Jackson in his 1944 novel The Lost Weekend; having hocked his typewriter for a quart of rye, the writer Don Birnam spends his lost weekend in a New York psychiatric ward, with a fractured skull. Where did he get that? The previous night's drinking is remembered (if remembered at all) with bewilderment and guilt.

Of course, the illusion of drink-fuelled happiness is familiar to most of us, even if the hangover seems a cruel price to pay.

Olivia Laing, in her study of six alcoholic American writers, The Trip to Echo Spring (the title is taken from a Tennessee Williams play), demonstrates that one hardly need drink every day to be alcoholic. Those of us who indulge in self-destructive benders with stretches of sobriety in between may not think of ourselves as alcoholic at all. Yet alcohol was the vexing devil that crept up insidiously on F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. The day Hemingway decided to nurse his thumping head with a hair (or a tuft, in Cyril Connolly's knowing phrase) of the dog that bit him was the day the unvarnished truth had come home: liquor had got him well and truly licked.

Drinking may be a disease for which sobriety is the only cure, yet it impelled Tennessee Williams to gothic flights of the imagination and encouraged witty conversation (what James Joyce called 'tighteousness'). Even with his tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror the morning after, Williams was reluctant to give up his beloved brandy Alexanders. Raymond Carver was another who drank as though immune from hangovers. The more Carver drank, in fact, the further he seemed to be removed from the likelihood of any sort of headache or twinge of conscience.

Right to the end of his life, Hemingway too had insisted on alcohol's 'essential beneficence' and ability to uplift and even nourish. His wild bouts of drinking are attributed here (not implausibly) to childhood experiences of abandonment and loneliness following his father's suicide by gunshot in 1928. Three decades later, dreadfully, Hemingway took his own life also by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. ('The poor son-of-a-bitch blew his fucking head off', Laing quotes Cheever as saying. …

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