Monday, May 26, 2014

Olivia Laing's elegant study of alcohol's place in literature

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink review – Olivia Laing's elegant study of alcohol's place in literature

This fluid portrait of six literary greats combines biography, science and superb prose to illuminate the effects of alcohol on their writing
The Trip to Echo Spring, books
Tennessee Williams, one of the six drunk writers, featured in Olivia Laing's 'astonishingly good' The Trip to Echo Spring. Photograph: Express/Getty Images

It's a niche idea, this one, at first glance. Why do writers drink – well, why does anyone? Why not doctors or lawyers, parents – or children? And why does Laing's book (part literary criticism, part biography, part travelogue, part memoir) focus on six male, American, drunk writers: Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver, 20th-century greats we know a fair amount about already?

Laing answers these questions early in the book. "There are some things that one can't address at home," she writes (ominously); and writers "by their very nature, describe the affliction best". Don't they just. From Hemingway's enticing "nice good lovely gin" to the "brilliant" morning martini Berryman took as a cure for a hangover, the downward slope is apparent; and with two suicides and two deaths due to drink/drugs among these famous names, it's clear this affliction is not a trivial one.

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