Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

"The Trip to Echo Spring" by Olivia Laing (Canongate, 2014)

A study of 6 drunk writers - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Berryman, Cheever and Carver. She quotes from Lewis Hyde's "Alcohol and Poetry" - 'four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholic. About half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves.'. She writes that "Most of this six had - or saw themselves as having - that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Three were profoundly promiscuous, and almost all experienced conflict and dissatisfaction with regard to their sexuality" (p.9). She visits their haunts, the landscapes they fled to for recovery, goes to AA meetings and recalls her alcoholic father, how he left when she was 4, how another alcoholic, a woman, came to live with her mother, how eventually they ended up in Southsea then on an estate near Portsmouth, UK.

She 33. During the long train rides across the USA she reads their works for scenes that might be true regarding the effects of alcohol, reading much into Cheever's "The Swimmer". She reads their letters and diaries, finds out how they use drink as a cure for social anxiety. She writes about their common themes of insomnia and denial.

By p.170 a theory's beginning to emerge - "The three-way relationship between childhood experience, alcohol and writing ... A sense was building in me that there was a hidden relationship between the two strategies of writing and drinking and that both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire at once to mend it". She notices that "the dream of letting go into water is prevalent in the work of alcoholic writers. ... little fantasies of cleanliness, purification, dissolution and death" (p.207).

I hadn't realised that "The expansiveness Lish objected to was intimately bound up with [Carver's] own sense of recovery and renewed grace" (p.277). In the end Carver acquiesced to the removal of the happy endings.

Other reviews

  • Sophia Martelli (Laing explores the causes in admirable detail and astonishingly good prose – incisive, powerful, illuminating – that rivals the output of the authors she is writing about. )
  • Keith Miller (There are even fragments of what might have been a rather better book: a straightforward first-person memoir in which Laing talks about having an alcoholic stepmother. But it doesn’t seem to occur to her that her personal experiences may have made her less, not more, able to write objectively about other people’s drinking. )

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