“spiritus contra spiritum”.
The Trip to Echo Spring : Why Writers Drink, by British author Olivia Laing, is partly a biographical exploration of 6 American writers and literary criticism of their works in reference to the influence addiction played.
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 walking along the Ouse – To The River – 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, at moments, and wanting her to steer a straighter, less devious path to her destination.
And then, the pertinent, thoughtful analysis, the arresting image, would wheel me in once more:
the startling co-existence of good and evil, the shocking duality of the single heart
a quote from Tennessee Williams
And on the power, and the grace and the healing, in narrative itself, which this patterning species is so drawn towards:
We are told stories as children to help us bridge the abyss between waking and sleeping. We tell stories to our own children for the same purpose…………..I tell myself stories when I am in pain, and I expect as I lay dying I will be telling myself a story in a struggle to make some link between the quick and the defunct.
An excerpt from John Cheever’s writings
I wanted to source photos of the 6 American writers before the pain, despair, and ravages of life and drink had bitten too deeply : this was easier for Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Williams, who became ‘golden’ quite young, with the photos of those at an older age, their acclaim came when their lives were clearly etched upon them. The pictures of all of them, as alcohol progressively took its toll, were, for me, unbearably heart-breaking, the darkness, terror and despair which alcohol gets used to escape from, starkly revealed.