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Absolut Prose

Alcohol and the literary lifestyle.

By From the January-February 2014 issue

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The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink
By Olivia Laing

(Picador, 340 pages. £20)

Here, on the fecund subject of drink, are two famous novelists:

I began writing in fearful earnest—my mind zoomed all night every night, and I don’t think I really slept for several years. Not until I discovered that whisky could relax me. I was too young, fifteen, to buy it myself, but I had a few older friends who were most obliging in this respect and I soon accumulated a suitcase full of bottles, everything from blackberry brandy to bourbon. 

Whatever part drink may play in the writer’s life, it must play none in his or her work.

The second writer (to take them in reverse order) spent most of his evenings and a great many of his afternoons and late mornings getting soaked out of his skull. Kingsley Amis heaped scorn on the physicians who advised him to lay off the stuff (“[T]wo nights ago an absolutely f---ing murderous pain started up in my shoulder.…I’m still going to the doctor to BE TOLD IT’S BECAUSE OF THE DRINK AND I MUST GIVE IT UP”) and once urged an ailing Philip Larkin who had taken a break from the bottle to jump back in the gin pool:

Are you still not drinking? What’s the matter with you? Surely now it’s time to take it up if you haven’t already. Why did you give it up? Come on, you can tell me. Come on.

The old rogue had few regrets about the elbow bending that cost him his movie-star good looks and his second marriage. But neither did he pretend that he had no choice in the matter or, worse, claim that drink made it easier for him to get paragraphs on the page. Amis wrote at least 850 words nearly every day of his adult life. He reviewed—new fiction and poetry, reissues, anthologies, biographies, and memoirs—ceaselessly and intelligently for the London Spectator, the New Statesman, the Observer, and the Sunday Telegraph; and for many years wrote a daily poetry column for the Mirror. When he had a new novel on the stove, he always made sure that he had the ingredients for another waiting in the refrigerator. He was a literary professional whose no-nonsense approach to his work Americans generally associate with beat reporters or airport novelists. Amis did not believe in writers’ block, which he considered little more than a fetishization of laziness, and had little patience for writers who see themselves as frustrated seekers, sounding a bottle of Bombay Sapphire for inspiration. For him the relationship between booze and prose was no proper relationship at all, a question if you like, of non-overlapping magisteria. Nothing to see here, folks: Like doctors, brick-layers, clergyman, and the long-term unemployed, writers drink, and for much the same reasons.

My other, longer quotation comes courtesy of a sometime novelist, gifted short story writer, spot reporter of genius, and gadfly whose prodigious consumption of alcohol is, alas, his most enduring legacy. I for one have never been able to watch those infamous clips of Truman Capote on the Tonight Show in the late ’70s, with the by-then brain-dead old queen slurring his words and whinnying idiotically, for more than a few seconds. The brilliant champagne-sipping prose mosaicist who gave us Breakfast at Tiffany’s—please read the novella, in which the cat does not return, if you haven’t already—ended life as a vodka-slurping zombie all but incapable of writing anything except uninteresting short stories about real people, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to pass off as journalism. Capote is as good, or bad, an example as any of a writer whose life was ruined by drink. His insistence that he could not work without it, that the proper state of mind for prose composition could be attained only after downing four or five screwdrivers, is hardly unique. Any number of good or bad writers, from Byron to Charles Bukowski, have told us much the same thing. Such delineations of working habits may or may not hold (tonic) water. Waiting to be marshaled against them is a whole host of evidence: historical, anecdotal, chemical, and so on. Nevertheless, many readers like to see the writer as a kind of libation bearer prostrate before the muses. (This is especially the case when the readers are also would-be writers.)

But is there any harm in it, though—other than for the drinkers, I mean? We all love reading about boozing, and, whatever the consequences for them, writers’ lives tend to be full of it. One can open any Norton Anthology and go right down the page penciling in writers’ beverages of choice or some related anecdote: Dr. Johnson and wine (“I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it”), Byron and gin, Hemingway and mojitos; Dostoevsky’s quarrel with one Vasily Khiristoforovich Smirnov (“Smirnov was here and drank a lot of vodka”), Anthony Powell and Constant Lambert’s adventure with a bottle marked “Tawny Wine (Port Flavor),” and Edmund Wilson’s disgusting binge of August 13, 1955, in which he “drank a whole bottle of champagne and what was left of a bottle of old Grand-Dad and started on a bottle of red wine” all while “eating Limburger cheese and gingersnaps.” Each of us has his favorite literary drinking story, or his favorite literary drunk. Mine is Hobbes, whose peculiar habits were recorded by the great English antiquarian and biographer John Aubrey: 

I have heard him say that he did beleeve he had been in excesse in his life, a hundred times; which, considering his great age, did not amount to above once a yeare. When he did drinke, he would drinke to excesse to have the benefit of vomiting, which he did easily; by which benefit neither his witt was disturbt longer then he was spuing nor his stomach oppressed; but he never was, nor could not endure to be, habitually a good fellow, i.e. to drinke every day wine with company, which, though not to drunkennesse, spoiles the braine.

 Too often, however, the amusing figure of the writer-as-drunk becomes the tedious figure of the drunk-as-writer. Here is a letter Evelyn Waugh wrote to his friend and future biographer Christopher Sykes in 1964: 

My life is roughly speaking over. I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try to read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography, then I have some more gin and it’s lunchtime. That’s my life. It’s ghastly.

When Waugh died two years later, he had barely started writing the second volume of his autobiography. This was what things had come to for the author of Decline and Fall by the early ’60s. Though still capable of writing magnificent English paragraphs, he was mostly unproductive. His best work was behind him, and he was perpetually sozzled. He had become a bore, even to himself. The gin didn’t help.

It is with the drunk-as-writer that Olivia Laing is mostly concerned in The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink. No need for a spoiler alert here: Laing’s juicy subtitle promises much more than her book delivers. (I was amused to learn that in the forthcoming American edition the subtitle has become “On Writers and Drinking.”) For one thing she has nothing whatever to say about drinking, even rather heavy drinking, by the Amises and Dr. Johnsons of the world who quaff and scribble, however much and however well, without making much of a fuss about either. Indeed, she is not interested here in the drinking of English, Scottish, or Irish writers. Instead by “writer” she means a certain kind of 20th-century American, almost invariably male, whose work tends to be popular (and overrated) and whose dissolute, bilious life is a good candidate for mythologization (auto or otherwise). The sort of “writer,” in other words, about whom earnest young MFA candidates make a great deal of fuss, but whom many of us in this country stop reading at age 17 or 18.

This is Laing’s second book. Her first, To the River, was a marvelous travelogue about (among other things) Virginia Woolf’s suicide, fossils, Celtic etymology, and the author of The Wind and the Willows. Like To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring suggests the influence of W.G. Sebald, who drew upon both his extensive travels and his knowledge of literature, history, geology, botany, metaphysics, religion, and a great many other subjects in his unique fictionalized memoirs. Here when Laing is not quoting letters and diary entries or doing lit-crit one-offs with her favorite short stories or trying her best to make inhibitory neurotransmitters and gamma-aminibutyric acid sound interesting or going through the DSM-IV with a fine-toothed comb she is traveling around the United States, mostly by train. Most of her destinations have some significance in the lives of six dipso American writers who, she says, “produced between them some of the most beautiful writing this world has ever seen”: Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.

Even Fitzgerald, far and away the most talented of these men, is not someone I would like very much to have known. He considered himself “on the wagon” when he was drinking only 20 bottles of beer per day, and at one point seems to have developed a penchant for public exposure. Ditto John Berryman, who  often wet the bed and was known to sleep at public functions. There is perhaps only one wholly amusing  story in The Trip to Echo Spring: I laughed when I read about Cheever and Carver racing off to a liquor store in a “Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days” in order to get properly plastered before teaching their morning classes at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Much the best part of the book is Laing’s interlaced account of her American wanderings. In New York she spends one night in the Elysée hotel on East 54th Street, where Williams lived for many years and died in 1983, and strolls over to the Queensboro Bridge, on which, we are told, “John Cheever once saw two hookers playing hopscotch with a hotel room key.” She takes a streetcar ride and smells “mule piss and rotting refuse” in post-Katrina New Orleans hoping to “find the magical city Williams had inhabited in the 1940s.” She meets “a bearded green iguana the size of a cat” while taking a shortcut through a cemetery to Hemingway’s home in Key West. She picks out local flora along the bank of Morse Creek, the subject of a poem by Carver: “I needed my National Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest to identify Souler’s willow and salmonberry, the pink flowers a cross between a clematis and a heraldic rose.”

Laing is a former deputy editor of the Observer’s terrific books section and an excellent prose stylist. Notwithstanding a few purple patches, this book is very well written. (One occasionally finds in her writing vaguely Fitzgeraldian and Carveresque sentences: Like all good stylists she is capable of literary ventriloquism.) It is also full of absorbing anecdotes. But it suffers throughout from certain assumptions that are announced in its first few pages.

The first is simply that “alcoholism” is a chronic condition like tuberculosis. It is not. It is simply a word used to refer to someone’s tendency to drink beyond certain vaguely-defined limits. Even the American Psychiatric Association no longer uses the term. Instead, Laing herself notes, the DSM-IV mentions “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol dependence.” Virtually nothing of importance is known about what causes some of us to drink too much. (There was a time, not so long ago, when excessive drinking was thought to be a matter of individual choice rather than of genetics.) Because there is no such thing as alcoholism per se, a book organized around a search for parity among the lives of a group of so-called alcoholics who, apart from their shared experience of professional writing and heavy drinking, had very little in common is bound to involve a certain amount of conjecture, psycho-critical oversimplification, and just-so storytelling.

Laing’s suggestion that there is something significant about her subjects’ “deep, enriching love for water” seems to me absurd. What about all the landlubbing barflies and tipplers who never learned to swim—to say nothing of those Olympic medalists in swimming who have never had a drop? So too does her probing of these men’s pasts for instances of childhood anguish (or “trauma,” as she calls it, adopting the parlance of mental health and literary “theory”), the better to account for their adult behavior. Surely for every harshly-scolded bestselling novelist double-fisting vodka sodas there is both an alcoholic writer whose mother followed Spock literatim and a normal, socially well-adjusted adult whose parents abused him hideously and whose relationship with alcohol is healthy.

A related problem is all the space given here, from the first chapter onward, to the loose babble of Alcoholics Anonymous, probably the only sizeable mileu in which alcoholism is still taken seriously as a concept. Laing calls her journey “what is known in AA circles as a geographical,” though from what I can gather, the geographical, or “geographic cure” is, in AA terms, mostly a bad thing. From AA.org: 

Geographical.

Trying to solve our problems by moving to a new location, an attempt to cure our alcoholism by getting a “fresh start” in a new city. It doesn’t work. There is a saying around AA, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Also known as “changing deckchairs on the Titanic.”

Much of the worst writing in the book comes as a result of Laing’s attempts to the make the round peg of her own compelling perceptions fit inside the square hole of AA-speak. (This is a shame because on the whole her prose is beguilling.) One does not doubt that “Twelve Step” incantations and mumbo-jumbo about Higher Powers has helped many self-proclaimed alcoholics, but this is a work of literature, and the moral, philosophical, and religious world of AA, however comforting to those within, looks banal to outsiders. Thankfully Laing herself, whom we see enjoy a drink more than once here, does not consider herself an alcoholic. If she did, this book would be insufferable.

Finally there is Laing’s implicit assumption that all her favorite problem drinkers are great, or even good, writers. It does not seem to have occurred to her that books like Across the River and Into the Trees are much too bad to be worth picking up again, much less discussing at any considerable length; that these days, undeservedly or not, Cheever’s reputation is at a very low ebb in this country; that Berryman’s poems are not, to some of us anyway, strictly speaking, poems; that being interested in Tennessee Williams’s life and work is the American lit. equivalent of fussing over the Brontë sisters. A less narrow study of writers’ boozing, one not restricted to a small number of 20th-century American authors, in a similar vein would have called for more traveling and, undoubtedly, more money. But it might also have made for a better book.

The Trip to Echo Spring is not an AA pamphlet or the product of a research colloquium. Nor is it, on the other hand, exactly a full-throated endorsement of intemperance, much less an argument in favor of heavy drinking as a catalyst for literary productivity. 

The road of excess does not lead to the palace of wisdom, although it may lead to other interesting places. 

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications.