Alcohol- the source and scourge of literary talent

JOHN Cheever used to drink in the old Menemsha Bar on New York’s 57th Street: his young daughter Susan patiently chewed Maraschino cherries while her old man smoked Camels and downed Gilbey’s.

Ernest Hemingway enjoys himself at a bar in Pamplona, Spain. Picture: AP

Hemingway’s favourite bars stretch from the Museo Chicote in Madrid to Paris, Cuba and Key West. And the poet John Berryman eventually decided that drinking alone in his room was best, allowing him to carry on writing while he downed crates of red wine.

Alcohol is often a strong current in the writing life, not just for the six writers discussed in this engrossing book but also for the doomed Dylan Thomas and many of the writers of the Scottish Renaissance. Lewis Hyde notes in his essay “Alcohol And Poetry” that “four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholic”.

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In The Trip To Echo Spring, Olivia Laing explores this territory with rare sensitivity and literary insight, discussing the writing and drinking careers of Hemingway, Berryman, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Cheever and Raymond Carver. As anyone who eavesdrops on an AA meeting will recognise, their stories have remarkable similarities. Most believed, at least some of the time, that alcohol was their friend. Hemingway described it as something natural, nurturing; “food”. All saw it as intricately entwined with their creativity, and its capacity to disable the writer’s internal critic as a welcome aid to actually getting the words down.

But, of course, there was always a price to pay. Fitzgerald anatomised it in The Crack-Up, his famous three essays which recounted the cost of living on one’s talent, nerves and prodigious quantities of booze. (Even more powerful is his autobiographical Babylon Revisited in which an alcoholic father returns to take custody of his daughter.)

If there was a kind of doomed glamour to Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age excesses, there was little in the drinking career of Berryman, whose self-destructive boozing would end in his suicide, to make one feel good about drink.

Berryman’s account of his drinking life, written for a treatment group at the Intensive Alcohol Treatment Centre in Minneapolis, describes lectures delivered while drunk, intoxicated passes made at men and women, fist fights, wet beds, involuntary public defecation, a litany of mortification. A week after being discharged from hospital he was back on the booze.

But Berryman’s list also starts with an excuse: “Social drinking until 1947 during long & terrible love affair.” Denial and projection are key weapons in the alcoholic’s armoury of self-defence. Events, other people, circumstances, make the alcoholic drink. The common thread, the alcohol itself, is never the cause of the problem: it is lubricant, release, the refuge, solace, consolation or cure for external problems.

Why do writers drink? The answer might be “for the same reasons as everyone else”. The evidence from Alcoholics Anonymous is that writers do drink, but then so do cobblers, surgeons and street sweepers. Alcoholics are not all creative, sensitive and intelligent, though there is often a self-pitying grandiosity which persuades the boozer that he is uniquely blessed, or cursed, by thin skin.

But if writers are no more likely to be alcoholics, they will more commonly write about it. And the justifications, evasions and fabulations of the serious drinker find a parallel in the creative act of the writer, whose livelihood depends on the creative reshaping of reality, the juggling of dreams and the generation of alternative realities.

The challenge for the writer who tries to write while drunk, rather than simply rewarding himself with a drink when the day’s work is done, is that the same chemical relaxation afforded by alcohol quickly destroys any sense of the rhythm of a sentence.

Laing’s account brings in some of the newest research about alcohol addiction, and explores the idea that alcohol’s effect literally inscribes itself on the brain, forever changing the way the alcoholic processes anxiety and emotions. She also skilfully introduces her own story of how growing up in an alcoholic household disrupted her childhood.

This book is a triumphant exercise in creative reading in which diary entries, letters, poems, stories and plays are woven together to explore deep, interconnected themes of dependence, denial and self-destructiveness. It is a testimony to this book’s compelling power that having finished it, I immediately wanted to read it again.