This week's Sunday Guardian column
Ted Hughes once wrote that the progress of any writer was marked by “those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system”. For many, one way to hoodwink the cops was by liberal doses of CH3CH2OH – in other words, alcohol. Writers from America have been particularly susceptible – as Lewis Hyde tells us, four of the six Americans who have won the Literature Nobel were alcoholic. In her new book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing sets out to show “what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself”. She does this by looking at the work and lives of six of the most well known: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver.
The resonant title is from Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Echo Spring is the nickname one of the characters gives to his liquor cabinet, from a brand of bourbon it contains. Symbolically, though, Laing writes, “it refers to something quite different: perhaps to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.” Laing isn’t here to censure or proselytise, but to understand: “it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge.”
The book is also a personal exploration, as Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, seeing at first-hand what liquor can do to lives. In her quest, she travels to many of the places her six writers were associated with, from New York to New Orleans, from Key West to Port Angeles. A travelogue, a memoir and a close reading of some key works: A Trip to Echo Spring combines these ingredients to create a somewhat uneasy though potent mix.
Most of the authors she writes about were connected in various ways: "They were each other’s friends and allies, each other’s mentors, students and inspirations." Of the famous liaisons between Cheever and Carver in 1969 at the University of Iowa, the latter was to recall: “He and I did nothing but drink. I mean, we met our classes in a manner of speaking, but the entire time we were there . . . I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” There are also tales of the friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and Laing delves into the differing accounts that both offered later, in works such as A Moveable Feast and The Crack-Up.
|"Write drunk;edit sober"|
This is not to say that Laing romanticises their lives. She details the ravages of alcohol on mind and body; the accounts of John Berryman and Tennessee Williams are especially harrowing. Laing also takes some half-hearted detours to explain, in neuroscientific terms, how alcohol creates its effects, as well as the workings of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was of considerable help to some of those she writes about.
She’s at her best in her scrutiny of the roots of alcoholism, and though she mentions its genetic component, she’s more at home in a neo-Freudian analysis. One of the key moments is her recollection of one of Berryman’s Dream Songs: Hunger was constitutional with him,/wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need/until he went to pieces./The pieces sat up & wrote. She associates this with “the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they’d managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world”, speculating on the relationship between drinking and writing: "both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire at once to mend it – to give it fitness and shape, in Cheever’s phrase – and to deny that it was so.”
The question remains whether these writers would have -- could have -- written the way they did without the crutch of alcohol. Liquor exacted a ruinous toll on their health and relationships, but these six, in Laing's words, managed to produce between them“some of the most beautiful writing this world has ever seen".