The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing: On the need of hyperarticulate people to get raving drunk

The lives of six writers, and the reasons why they drank so much, are explored in this nuanced portrait which give pleasure in every sentence and offers bright collisions with the past.

The Trip to Echo Spring
Olivia Laing
Canongate, 284pp, £20
 
Olivia Laing’s second book takes its title from a line in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s an apt phrase for a book about writers and alcoholism, with its combined dose of the sublime and the helplessly mortal. But “Echo Spring” is only the liquor cabinet, named after a brand of whiskey.
 
Laing’s ear was apparently made to catch such notes of melancholia; the book’s subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. She has produced not an answer to a glib question, but a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.
 
The biographical focus is on the lives of six writers – Williams among them – and Laing visits the places in America where they variously lived, drank and dried out. The journey imposes a stagey narrative that the book could have done without, but Laing’s experiences give line-by-line pleasure and make for bright collisions with the past. A pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York in hand, she walks to the Queensboro Bridge and remembers that this is where “John Cheever once saw two hookers playing hopscotch with a hotel room key”.
 
When the narrative device recedes, Laing is free to use quotation and analysis. The alcoholic writer’s sense of mortality is key. F Scott Fitzgerald, an insomniac, had an annihilating vision before sleep; he imagined he was “only one of the dark millions riding forward in black buses toward the unknown”. In his autobiography, Williams recounts a teenage realisation that he was “a member of multiple humanity . . . not a unique creature but only one among the multitude of its fellows”. Yet it is tough to embody epiphanies; at the height of his drinking, Williams’s diary shows him in the opposite mode: “ ‘Me’ – that would be an adequate one-word, twoletter entry for every day.”
 
Laing comes from a family affected by alcohol and her hyper-vigilance to inconsistency makes her a good match for her muddled subjects. As she says, writing about writers poses various challenges – they use autobiographical material in unpredictable ways. But, she writes, “when the writer is also an alcoholic . . . this migration of lived experience becomes entangled with another process: the habit of denial”. When Ernest Hemingway refers to his own insomnia in a letter to Fitzgerald, for instance, he makes the imperious claim that “since I have stopped giving a good goddamn about anything in the past it doesn’t bother me much”. But, during a period of moderate drinking, this same exemplar of self-mastery wrote in a quite different tone – abject, self-abasing – to another friend, “In about ten hours from now I will have a nice good lovely glass of Marqués de Riscal with supper.”
 
Self-ironising is another muddling habit. A plastered Fitzgerald might, in the words of his friend H L Mencken, have shocked a Baltimore dinner party “by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe”, but, as Laing writes, “you can yank down your pants . . . and still be a man in mortal terror of exposing who you are”. And you can show that you have a naked body just like every other man’s and still be in mortal terror of accepting it, which is also to say that it is possible to be in mortal terror of mortality – at which point drunkenness might seem like a solution.
 
The book achieves its greatest force through Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition, which often recalls the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. Of a childhood scene involving her mother’s alcoholic girlfriend and the police, Laing notes that her strongest memory is “my conviction that if only I were allowed to speak to her I could calm her down – a piece of absurdly unrealistic co-dependence that’s had long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life”.
 
By the final chapters, Laing maintains this psychoanalytic style; though neuroscience and biochemistry feature earlier on, their offerings seem as poignant as Laing hoping for insights on the Tennessee Williams Walking Tour. She notes that submersion in water is a prevalent image in the work of alcoholic writers. Fitzgerald’s story “The Swimmers” implies that it is the cure for the hero’s unhappy marriage; Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” describes it as “the resumption of a natural condition”. There is, as Laing writes, “some hint of regression” in all this.
 
There is also an expression of longing. As John Berryman put it in an autobiographical poem: “Hunger was constitutional with him,/wine, cigarettes, liquor and need need need.” In a letter written in 1962 to Bill Wilson, who later founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Carl Jung described the alcoholic’s “need” as “the equivalent . . . of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness . . . You see, alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ . . . The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”
 
Talitha Stevenson is an author and psychotherapist

 

Always thinking, always drinking: Tennessee Williams in 1970. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge