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14 July 2021

When writers drink

A new book explores the role of alcohol in the lives of eleven literary figures.

By Soumya Bhattacharya

“What this book is interested in,” William Palmer writes in the introduction to his study of writers and their drinking habits, “is the effect that heavy drinking had on writers, how they lived with it and were sometimes destroyed by it, and how they described the private and social world of the drinker in their work.” ­Palmer’s ­preoccupation is the life as much as the writing of his 11 subjects – Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys, Charles Jackson, Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, John Cheever, Flann O’Brien, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis and Richard Yates – and he offers a forensic examination of both in this enjoyable exploration of an enduringly ­fascinating subject.

Palmer’s anecdotes flow as freely as the drink in the writers’ lives. In the latter stages of his career, Hamilton’s “daily consumption can seldom have fallen below the equivalent of three bottles [of spirits]”. A drink-sodden Rhys attacked her ­husband, “leaving his face scratched and his eyes blacked”. According to his wife, Lowry would drink anything: “Anything included tequila, mescal, whisky, gin, beer, rubbing alcohol, after shave lotion, and hair tonic.” Bishop, invited by Robert Lowell to dine with TS Eliot and WH Auden, was so ­nervous that “she instead sampled all the bottles in a  friend’s apartment and passed out”.

Palmer unearths, from his subjects’ journals and correspondence, numerous revealing observations, some quasi-aphoristic, about drinking: “As soon as I sober up I start again” (Rhys); “Took a slug of whiskey at eleven. Two straightforward martinis at noon” (Cheever); “Writing is an agony mitigated by drink” (Burgess). But Palmer’s study is not merely a compilation of literary gossip. He is above all a dispassionate critic, and is always attentive to, and unwaveringly perceptive about, the art of his subjects as well as their relationship with alcohol.

In Love with Hell is a work of literary criticism more than anything else. He writes that Hamilton “conveys with deadly accuracy the various rhythms and sudden shifts in intensity in the tides of activity in the pub’s night”. Palmer detects behavioural patterns among his subjects, and a common stock of feelings turning them to drink – insecurity, unworthiness, fraudulence, loneliness, fear of the blank page.

In Love with Hell hits some false notes, too, however. Palmer’s insistence on finding exact correspondences between the lives of authors and their fiction can be jarring. Writers’ personal experiences are often material for their work, but to search for replicas of one in the other is to undermine the alchemy involved in fiction writing. A novelist himself, Palmer ought to have been more alert to the reductive ­nature of his biographical approach. The book could also have done without its hackneyed generalisations: “In the case of the educated and literate… the discovery of drink is often accompanied by early creative efforts, usually the writing of poetry.”

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Palmer’s treatment of his 11 writers is even-handed and largely without ­judgement. He tries to understand, without either condoning or censuring, the impulses behind often reprehensible behaviour. Only when it comes to Thomas does he offer a ­vicious takedown, a portrait unleavened by compassion. Palmer’s contention is that Thomas, whom he calls an “accomplished and compulsive liar”, pretended to be a far greater drunkard than he actually was: the legend of the poet being “the drunkest man in the world” was purely “self-generated”, an act of self-mythologising.

Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), which Palmer alludes to in his opening sentence, casts a shadow over this book. Part memoir, part travelogue, part literary criticism, Laing’s book is an absorbing ­meditation on six heavy-drinking American literary heavyweights: Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Cheever and Raymond Carver.

Palmer’s systematic, conventional approach can appear wooden next to ­Laing’s looser, more instinctive method, which slaloms between the lives and work of writers with an assured and immersive lightness of touch. Yet Palmer’s studied reflections on his subjects, each set in discrete ­chapters of literary history, are equally edifying, ­illuminating the complex relationship – sometimes symbiotic, often destructive – between writing and drinking. 

In Love with Hell: Drink in the Lives and Work of Eleven Writers  
William Palmer
Robinson, 272pp, £20

[See also: The decline of the literary bloke]

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This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook