The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (Canons) Paperback – 5 Oct 2017
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"One of the best books I've read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring" (HILARY MANTEL)
"A work of art, with a voice and a mood all its own." (Nick Hornby)
"Original, brave and very moving . . . Her insights shine with beauty yet are shaded by sympathy and compassion" (Observer)
"A terrific writer" (The Times)
"Full of insight, compassion and unexpected beauty" (Guardian)
"Haunting . . . a moving, troubling, gorgeously written book" (Independent on Sunday, Paperbacks of the Year)
"Beguiling, beautifully written . . . brilliant and original" (JOHN CAREY The Sunday Times)
"Beguiling and incisive" (New York Times)
"Laing's prose is lucid and exuberant" (Financial Times)
"Laing is a brilliant wordsmith and this is a beautifully accomplished book" (Independent)
A captivating exploration of alcoholism and literature by the author of The Lonely City; 'beguiling, beautifully written . . . brilliant and original' - Sunday TimesSee all Product description
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It is also an analysis of the physiology of addiction, and an exploration of treatment protocols, particularly those based on the Minnesota Model (AA and 12 Step programmes)
And it gets much more personal than this; the analysing writer inserts her own journey into this critical assessment, in the guise of the story of the road trip Laing took across the States, in the footsteps of the writers she examines. Along the way, Laing, a fine writer about the natural world also inserts herself and her own family history of addiction into the mix, as what is referred to as an `Adult Child of Alcoholic Background' - her mother's partner was, whilst Laing was a child, a suffering alcoholic.
Anyone with any history of alcoholism in their family, anyone who works with alcoholics or their families, knows that alcoholism is a condition which profoundly affects the family and close friends of the alcoholic, perhaps none more profoundly than the children in an alcoholic household.
Laing is an excellent, thoughtful, reflective writer, but whilst I was utterly enamoured by an earlier book of hers, a story of another journey, one taken on foot the length of the River Ouse, with Virginia Woolf as a theme running through it, Echo Spring had me part fascinated, part frustrated, not always sure whether the sum of the disparate parts quite worked or not.
Firstly, with some experience working in this field, with all the useful research Laing cites about these particular alcoholic writers, it didn't seem to me that writers-who-are-alcoholics are much different from non-writers who are alcoholics (nor do I think Laing was particularly claiming this) Denial, a certain grandiosity, a certain hypersensitivity and terror is pretty well in the picture, writer or no.
It was however the I assume publisher's blurb which hinted at that hoary old chestnut link between the terrible pain of creativity itself and alcoholism:
"The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert"
This is the Romanticised myth of the suffering artist, which can lead to an indulgence and ostentatious acceptance of bad behaviour, which would never be allowed in bank tellers, nurses, shelf-stackers and the like. I'm actually with the pragmatic George Orwell, when he says:
"The artist is not a different kind of person, but every person is a different kind of artist"
There are artists who are not addicts. There are non-artists who are. Life contains a lot of suffering and pain (and also joy, delight and serenity) We pretty well all try to avoid pain as best we can, and develop coping strategies; some of these are helpful, some a kind of suicide.
Would these writers have written differently had they not been alcoholics? No doubt, particularly when their addictions formed the subject matter of their writings. Would they have written better, would they have written less well? Unsure. Would they have had less pained and destructive lives? Most probably. Would their families? Undoubtedly.
There were a couple of obvious omissions in Laing's book - she focuses, despite mentioning early in the book some female writers with serious alcoholism - Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Marguerite Duras, - on 6 male American writers - Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman. Personally, I was more interested in the female writers as this was a story in some ways more hidden.
Certainly, an excellent acquaintance with all those American writers would I'm sure add to the reader's appreciation of Laing's work. I am reasonably or pretty well familiar with Fitzgerald, Williams and Hemingway, have a slight familiarity with Carver, and no prior knowledge of Cheever's or Berryman's work, though I will no doubt rectify that, so I'm sure a lot of the literary criticism of the last 3 was something I had to take completely on trust.
At times, Laing's wandering off on her own musings and memories about her cross-States journey was absorbing and enjoyable, at times, I rather wanted her to stick with those writers. She is an extremely interesting, intelligent, thoughtful and observant writer. It is just, unlike that earlier book along the Ouse To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface - the slightly shaggy dog story structure (so typical of an alcoholic tangential ramble that I wondered if this was a deliberate stylistic reference) did have me, despite the beauty and precision of her writing, slightly cross, and wanting her to steer a straighter, less devious path to her destination.
Those writers are F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Olivia Laing tackles them in that order, although there is a lot of inter-crossing of their narratives around different themes, e.g. the effects of childhood trauma, and the roller-coasters of their work, love, marriage, the euphoric highs and catastrophic lows, and of course, their disastrous relationship with alcohol.
Laing draws no pat conclusions in looking at the above themes. Her central exploration is that of the relationship between alcohol and writing. Common themes include how these alcoholics both scapegoat their writing for their drinking, i.e. it leads them to places where they have to drink to get through, those intense arenas of the imagination. Another thread in all their writing lives is how drinking damages their productivity. More than one of them seems only to be able to write until midday before giving the rest of their waking hours to the bottle.
There a slight digression into the science of alcoholism and this is a fascinating short precis. Its brevity is partly explained on how little science knows on the subject, and partly because this is literary biography not scientific study.
Without a doubt, Laing captures how seductively these writers describe drinking, e.g. Hemmingway’s “lovely gin,” and she also captures it in her own descriptive passages, how John Cheever consoles himself early in the morning with “scoops of gin” from the kitchen fridge. She also brings out the parallels in these writers work between the cool reliefs of swimming, the cleansing of total immersion in fresh cold water, with a long cold drink.
But she also draws out well the horrors of the alcoholic’s mind and habits, most terribly the destructive effects on others, on partners, spouses, friends, children, anyone who gets between the drinker and the glass. It’s indeed a shock to read of Carver’s casual domestic abuse of his wife, of Tennessee Williams contemptible treatment of his loyal partner Frank ‘the horse,’ the vast sexual carelessness, the worthlessness and contempt with which others are treated. And the pitiable exhibitions they make of themselves. Think of John Berryman soiling himself at work, of public engagements and television interviews delivered in an incoherent stupor, of horrified friends yet again rescuing the manic drinker from some public and frenzied breakdown (an experience of more than one of the writers), and the sheer waste of it all. Laing is not slow to underscore the waste of life when a life is sold to drink, the wasted hours when more could have been written, the wasted opportunities in work and love. There is a romantic myth of how alcohol fuels magical writing. And it may cause or inspire the occasional hit, but how much more does it destroy?
Laing’s passport to writing on this subject is not her own alcoholism, but alcoholism in her family, in an alcoholic partner of her mother. The scenes where she describes being barricaded in her room as a girl against the howling rages of her mother’s partner are very sad. Not being an alcoholic herself lends her some objectivity, and does not strip her of any authority to discuss the subject, as some may argue. This work is structured around a journey, as Laing travels across America to various sites and shrines of these writers, to the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams, to the rivers and seas beloved by Hemmingway, for example. She picks up minutiae of dialogue, of flashes of scenery from train windows, whilst the impressions of her journey and what she is studying tumble around in her head. These create bridges between her explorations of the writers. They are always relatively brief but I did find myself being mildly frustrated by them, wanting to return to the writers’ lives. That’s because Laing’s journey is not as fascinating as the writers she describes, although it does give the book its distinctive shape.
Finally, this is great ‘gateway’ reading. I felt urged to revisit play and novels I knew, and those mentioned and described that I didn't, including Berryman’s work and his semi-auto-biographical and poignantly and tragically unfinished “Recovery.”
This is a great, memorable read on the magic of writing and the seductive but toxic power of alcohol.