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The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking Paperback – October 28, 2014
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“Most beguiling and incisive.” ―The New York Times
“[A] charming and gusto-driven look at the alcoholic insanity of six famous writers…There is much to learn from Laing's supple scholarship--and much to enjoy, too.” ―Lawrence Osborne, The New York Times Book Review
“Exquisite . . . Laing, wisely, doesn't reach any one-size-fits-all conclusions about the bond between the pen and the bottle . . . A marvelous writer.” ―Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
“Laing dives deep, plummeting into some of her subjects' darkest impulses . . . The result is a multilayered biography that reads quick as fiction, and is teeming with fantastically melancholy details of the writers we thought we knew.” ―Lauren Viera, Chicago Tribune
“[An] eccentric, impassioned, belle-lettristic, graceful and haunted book . . . [Laing's] story has a rambling, daydream quality.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“The Trip to Echo Spring is a rewarding book to wend your way through even if the writers Laing focuses on Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and the American poet John Berryman--aren't among your particular favorites. Laing writes a fluid, fertile nonfiction... Although Laing isn't an alcoholic herself, she alludes to several adult relationships blighted by the disease, and her second-hand understanding of it is manifestly detailed and deep...” ―Laura Miller, Salon
“Laing's writing is beautiful, her insights frequently surprising and powerful. The book's greatest virtue, however, is that it positively swells with empathy.” ―Rosie Schaap, Slate
“Olivia Laing's book is an exploration of alcoholism in six 20th-century American writers...that dazzles in both the scope of its ambition and the depths it reaches in analyzing its subjects. Laing, through the lens of extensive research both into the writer's biographies and into literature about alcoholism as a disease, paints these writers with a brush that renders them in new light....While there may be more uplifting books about writing and writers, few present the reader with such sobering realities about the downside to all those romantic, drunken nights in Paris or Key West.” ―Interview
“Olivia Laing emerges as a kind of British Susan Orlean, combining nonfiction narrative, travel writing, literary criticism and a touch of memoir in a personable style....Her descriptions of the landscape she sees, the conversations she overhears and the people she runs into are sparkling....Without building to a specific point or climax, Laing keeps you on board through her journey...” ―Newsday
“The Trip to Echo Spring...contains astute observations about addiction....Laing provides a remarkably cogent explanation of alcohol's effects on the brain and emotions.” ―Tampa Bay Times
“The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing's remarkable book about six alcoholic American writers, reminds me of the overhead projections we watched in classrooms before PowerPoint came along, in which several transparent sheets were artfully lined up atop each other to produce a complex document....I've read many words about the alcoholism of literary writers, and many more words about the 12 Step model of addiction and recovery. But until "Echo Spring," I'd never read a writer who bridged both worlds with such intelligence, grace and thoughtfulness.” ―Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A funny, tragic, and insightful journey for anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, or John Berryman; prepare to be smitten with this fresh offering. Those unfamiliar with these writers will want to read their works.” ―Library Journal (starred review)
“Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by 'the capacity of literature to somehow...make one feel less flinchingly alone.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“The tortured relationship between literary lions and their liquor illuminates the obscure terrain of psychology and art in this searching biographical meditation....Laing's astute analysis of the pervasive presence and meaning of drink in the writers' texts, and its reflection of the writers' struggle to shape--and escape--reality...A fine study of human frailty through the eyes of its most perceptive victims” ―Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A provocative, evocative blend of memoir, literary history and lyrical travel writing.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“I'm sorry I've finished this wonderful book because I feel I've been talking to a wise friend. I've been trying to work out exactly how Olivia Laing drew me in, because I hardly drink myself and have no particular attachment to the group of writers whose trials she describes. I think the tone is beautifully modulated, knowledgeable yet intimate, and she can evoke a state of mind as gracefully as she evokes a landscape....I think this is a book for all writers or would-be writers, whether succeeding or failing, whether standing on their feet or flat on the pavement....It's one of the best books I've read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring.” ―Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize–winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
“I loved The Trip to Echo Spring. It's a beautiful book that has stayed with me in a profound way.” ―Nick Cave
“The Trip to Echo Spring...thank God, never reductively answers the question [why writers drink] but thoughtfully explores it through an examination of the lives and careers of 'Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Raymond Carver among others.” ―Jay McInerney
“A beguiling, beautifully written journey in search of six famous literary drunks. What gives her book its brilliance and originality...[is] the quality of its writing.” ―The Sunday Times (London)
“The beauty of Laing's book lies not just in the poetry of her prose, the rich array of images, and literary allusions to her chosen subjects evoked during her transcontinental ghost-hunt, but intriguing links she makes to a wider literary landscape.” ―The Independent (London)
“Laing's analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd. But what makes The Trip to Echo Spring truly worthwhile is that she, like those she writes about, is a terrific writer.” ―The Times (London)
“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.” ―Scotland on Sunday
“Like a night out with an academically-inclined Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner. Sodden, surprising, riotous, and crazily up and down. Welsh puritan that I am, I loved it.” ―Daily Mail
“The book's subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement.…[Laing has produced] a nuanced portrait--via biography, memoir, analysis--of the urge of the hyperarticulate to get raving drunk.” ―New Statesman (London)
“It's deliciously evocative, Laing's melancholic and lyrical style conjuring the location, before effortlessly segueing into medical facts about alcoholism, the effects on the lives of each writer, and well-chosen passages from their work. This is a highly accomplished book, and highly recommended.” ―List (London)
“Matches smart textual analysis of 20th-century greats with down-and-dirty ferreting....A superb idea, exceptionally well executed.” ―Metro (London)
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Hokey metaphors aside, this alcoholic author can attest that it’s very easy to judge one’s worth as a writer by comparing oneself to the public success of those who have gone before, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds, the ones whose books have earned them Pulitzers and Nobels and seemingly permanent places in the firmament. (It’s easy, too, to use authorship as an excuse for alcoholism, to embrace the drama and the craziness of the latter in the hopes of using it as fodder for the former. Based on personal experience, it does eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, and one also ends up tempted to entirely abandon books for bottles.)
I digress. Laing’s excellently written and thoroughly researched book performs a valuable public service here, not by pointing out the myriad exceptions to the alcoholic author rule (both the infinity of anonymous alcoholics who have fallen by the wayside without succeeding as authors, and the authors who didn’t drink alcoholically) but by instead casting a critical eye on the most noteworthy examples, looking behind the simple and attractive front, pulling them out to analyze them in their entirety, and seeing how they often fall apart.
As Laing writes, there are no shortage of potential subjects for this book. But for the sake of narrative, she focuses on six lives that are more or less interconnected at various points: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Along the way, she details enough of her personal story to show that she’s no crusading teetotaler, but rather an average temperate drinker (a “normie,” in recoveryspeak) who’s witnessed the ugliness of unchecked alcoholism firsthand.
It works in no small part because of the testimony of the subjects themselves, expressed at length in diaries and journals and letters that give their own witness to that unattractive side of their lives. And Laing does a great job of both sampling and distilling the private lives of these public men. Writing about Tennessee Williams’ diary, for instance, Laing says, “…his grand theme…is the unremitting drama of his physical self, which is to say sex, illness, anxiety and self-medication in the form of alcohol, Seconal and the sedatives he called pinkies…” Laing continues “The difference between this voice and the voice of the plays and essays is so profound that at times it’s hard to believe they belong to the same person. One is large-hearted and attentive to human pain; the other is self-inetersted, his attention directed not out into the world but inward, illuminating as if by torchlight the smallest shifts in his own person, from the condition of his stools to the disgust he experiences after ejaculation.”
It shouldn’t come as entirely a surprise that life as an alcoholic author isn’t as great as the romanticized mythos—Hemingway of course took his own life, so whatever joy and happiness his career brought him was eventually slain by something that must have felt far more vast and bleak. But Laing’s explorations seem to make it abundantly clear that the unhappy later years were far more the rule than the exception. Williams’ later and lesser works, Hemingway’s diminishing output in the latter half of the 1950s, and Fitzgerald’s struggles with madness and depression suggest that they were all very much lessened by what many believe to be a progressive disease. The trip alluded to in the title is not, after all, a real trip; it’s taken from dialogue from one of Williams’ characters, and it perfectly represents the false hope of the alcoholic, the desire to find peace of mind in the bottle.
For some, it may still seem like a fair (if Faustian) bargain—to attain fame and stature at the expense of moral and physical degradation. (I know that, for me, it once felt like a worthy tradeoff.) And many alcoholic authors will, quite understandably, continue to make that deal. But Laing looks, too, at the later lives of those who at last found a way out of that false choice, while continuing to write excellently. And that, in the end, is this book’s beautiful and lasting message: contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous assertion, there are second acts, even for the alcoholic author. It’s possible to integrate it all into a seamless whole—to have both a body of work, and a life.
is my usefulness, and I can do it all the way through.' It always leaves you feeling great. In short, you've made sense of your life."
To be fair, Laing does a fine job cataloguing the physical and mental impacts of drinking. Rightfully, there is emphasis on what happens to the family of heavy drinkers. The six writers profiled share Freudian roots, self-hatred, and insecurity. This led to drink, abuse of their immediate family and flagrant, flamboyant promiscuity.
It is amazing how much that act of drinking is tied to craft of writing. Many greats have succumbed to the addiction. Perhaps it is because alcohol is both depressant and intoxicant that it fits the practice. As Hemingway said, "Write drunk. Edit sober." This book is meant to be an indictment of drinking yet, ironically, it cannot help but be celebratory given what these drunkards accomplished. They produced some of the most intoxicating prose and poured out the most compelling narratives of the 20th Century. I now believe Cheever's The Swimmer carries great reference to alcohol including how one can lose the concept of time passing and the propelling of one forward with the help of liquid.
A few years ago I attended an event in Manhattan celebrating Cheever's 100th birthday. The speakers and content noted that alcohol was essential to his writing. His work is marked by it and will forever carry that association. However, the man was also lauded for his ability to quit the drink and recoup a bit of control and self-dignity. It was a wonderful, memorable and rich celebration that passed without a drink in sight.
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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.