Cra­pu­lous Haze

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Stu­art Wal­ton

The Re­cov­er­ing: In­tox­i­ca­tion and its After­math, Les­lie Jami­son, Granta, 534pp, £20

You Left Early: A True Story of Love and Al­co­hol, Louisa Young, Bor­ough Press, 407pp, £14.99

One of the chal­lenges of writ­ing about prob­lem drink­ing is that, while there is al­ways some­thing new to say about al­co­hol, there is vir­tu­ally noth­ing we haven’t al­ready heard about al­co­holism. Its par­tic­u­lar man­i­fes­ta­tions may vary from one drinker to the next, but its struc­tures of com­pul­sion, the psy­cho­log­i­cal fragility it both evinces and ag­gra­vates, the pa­thetic eva­sion strate­gies its vic­tims stage for the ben­e­fit of those who care about them, and its re­lent­less pro­gres­sion to­wards phys­i­cal dis­in­te­gra­tion re­main as con­stant as the north­ern star. They re­flect an enor­mous dis­ap­point­ment with life, which hardly ever mea­sures up to the ver­sion of it seen through the crushed ice at the bot­tom of a cock­tail glass, and by the time one sees it only through the cra­pu­lous haze of round-the-clock drunk, when for all its fail­ings the un­drunk life has be­come an in­du­bitably bet­ter propo­si­tion, it may well be too late.

As old as hu­man­ity it­self, al­co­hol is an in­dis­pens­able ac­cou­trement of the fully lived life, long be­fore it be­comes the means of self-de­struc­tion, which is why self-de­struc­t­ing with it is worth avoid­ing, and yet ac­counts of en­tropic de­cline with booze re­main as com­pelling as ever. Even the ex­trav­a­gances of his­tory’s al­co­holics, both the cer­ti­fied and the prob­a­ble, from Alexan­der the Great to the vi­tu­per­a­tive ghouls that haunted ev­ery stale af­ter­noon and ven­omous late night at the Colony Room, leave a trail of joie de mourir in their wake that dares the rest of us to live so heed­lessly in the now. Where the drink­ing life and the cre­ative life co­in­cide, a con­flu­ence of urges that be­came a his­tor­i­cal con­stant cen­turies ago, the myth­i­cal be­lief is re­in­forced

that there is a cog­nate link be­tween the al­tered con­scious­ness re­quired for aes­thetic pro­duc­tion and the va­ri­ety fur­nished by gin.

The two per­sonal mem­oirs writ­ten by Les­lie Jami­son and Louisa Young neatly rep­re­sent the twin poles of writ­ing about al­co­holism and art. In Jami­son’s case, the drinker is her­self, an as­pir­ing nov­el­ist; Young’s sub­ject is the late mu­si­cian and com­poser Robert Lock­hart, with whom she was in a re­la­tion­ship for many years. Both texts un­flinch­ingly ex­am­ine the im­pact of chaotic drink­ing on those who still re­gard the al­co­holic as a loved one, and both dis­cuss the crunch­ing gear change and em­bat­tled com­pro­mises that fol­low on the de­ci­sion to go into a re­cov­ery pro­gramme. It is a cen­tral sup­port of the twelve-step ap­proach pi­o­neered in the 1930s by Al­co­holics Anony­mous that their clients are en­cour­aged to be re­lent­lessly sel­f­re­flec­tive about their habits, and what these habits say about their at­ti­tudes to who they are, which is not the least rea­son that this sub­ject has been such a mod­ern pub­lish­ing peren­nial.

In the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, ex­ces­sive drink­ing was still at­trib­uted to a weak­ness of the will, and thereby con­sid­ered a moral fail­ing. The evo­lu­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal the­ory even­tu­ally turned it into an ill­ness, with its own spe­cific ae­ti­olo­gies and treat­ment regimes. In the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion’s Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual, it is now termed ‘al­co­hol use dis­or­der’, in recog­ni­tion that al­co­holism was too one-di­men­sional a con­cept to en­com­pass the whole va­ri­ety of ways in which an in­di­vid­ual might suc­cumb to a loss of con­trol over drink. That view has in turn been re­fined into the no­tion, ac­knowl­edged by Young, that al­co­hol de­pen­dency is not a con­di­tion in it­self but a symp­tom, a trau­matic in­di­ca­tor of un­der­ly­ing men­tal in­sta­bil­ity. Both of the drinkers por­trayed here have or had many other psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues: while Lock­hart came from a frac­tured fam­ily back­ground and suf­fered from ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der and a dys­func­tional ap­proach to sex­ual re­la­tion­ships, Jami­son has, by her own ac­count, been an in­ter­mit­tent self-harmer and anorexic, some of whose close rel­a­tives have also been al­co­holics.

The Re­cov­er­ing tells Jami­son’s own story with ref­er­ence to the great al­co­holic writ­ers, not sim­ply to re­tail the old myth of the van­dal­is­tic fury

of the lit­er­ary muse, but to ask whether those who did re­cover from their drink­ing habits, even if only tem­po­rar­ily, went on to pro­duce bet­ter writ­ing when they did so. Ray­mond Carver is the star wit­ness for this case, but oth­ers only let the side down. Charles Jack­son’s at­tempt to write a re­cov­ery se­quel to The Lost Week­end (1944) ended in the fail­ure of an un­pub­lished dreary man­u­script. For oth­ers, such as the poet John Ber­ry­man, the con­stant ef­fort to re­main sober drains one of so much psy­chic en­ergy that writ­ing be­comes a se­condary oc­cu­pa­tion. Oth­ers fade into the sun­set, not writ­ing but drown­ing. Jean Rhys lived into an im­prob­a­ble se­nior­ity in ru­ral Devon, snarling at the neigh­bours, send­ing an ar­riv­ing in­ter­viewer straight out again for sherry, her ex­is­tence re­solv­ing into a cir­ca­dian rhythm of drinks and the sad­ness they med­i­cated.

Wo­ven through the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of her own drink­ing in the midst of a trou­bled re­la­tion­ship, these sen­si­tively de­lin­eated pas­sages of lit­er­ary anal­y­sis are the el­e­ment that lifts Jami­son’s book above the in­dus­try stan­dard for such works. It leads to nu­mer­ous mo­ments of el­e­gantly formed insight into the twinned con­di­tions of ad­dic­tion and re­cov­ery and the psy­chic land­scapes of which they mark the bound­aries. ‘One prob­lem with liv­ing as if your sad­ness takes up the whole world,’ she writes, ‘is that it never does’. The ob­ser­va­tion is made with spe­cific ref­er­ence to Rhys, but it ap­plies with glar­ing clar­ity to her own case. Her erst­while part­ner through most of this nar­ra­tive, whose ex­cru­ci­ated sense of Jami­son’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity leads him to sug­gest to her that she per­haps ought to put her­self on cal­cium sup­ple­ments, ‘so my bones didn’t break when he fucked me’, is one of those nor­ma­tive drinkers who fail to no­tice that they have been hold­ing the same half-fin­ished glass of wine for the past three-quar­ters of an hour, and whose idea of a reck­less binge is three bot­tles of Bud. The ef­fort­less re­straint such peo­ple show is like a red rag to the bullish­ness of al­co­hol greed, es­pe­cially where they are not par­tic­u­larly judg­men­tal about one’s own oceanic thirst.

Jami­son in­vests twelve-step re­cov­ery with all its an­tag­o­nised play of psy­cho­log­i­cal forces. The only way to stop it from be­com­ing a self-deny­ing pe­nance, one that de­nies the drinker’s eter­nal in­stinct to deny the need for

it, is to turn it into both a way of life and a philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem. ‘When does or­di­nary crav­ing be­come pathol­ogy?’ she asks her­self to­wards the end of this book, and pro­vides the ready re­sponse. ‘When it be­comes tyran­ni­cal enough to sum­mon shame. When it stops con­sti­tut­ing the self, and be­gins to con­strue it as lack.’ The cul­tural pin­na­cles that such an im­pulse has pro­duced, how­ever, have so of­ten de­fied the odds stacked against them by their cre­ators. Mal­colm Lowry thought that his one undis­puted mas­ter­piece, Un­der the Vol­cano (1947), had had the rug pulled from un­der it by the prior pub­li­ca­tion of The Lost Week­end, which it none­the­less daz­zlingly tran­scended. Bil­lie Hol­i­day’s abraded, gin-bedrag­gled ghostvoice emerg­ing through Ray El­lis’s string orches­tra on her 1958 record­ing Lady in Satin, wrongly iden­ti­fied here as ‘her last al­bum’, is a doc­u­ment of dam­aged emo­tion re­fracted through phys­i­cal dam­age. These only help to make Jami­son’s in­con­clu­sive mis­sion to find cre­ative hope in re­cov­ery all the more for­lorn.

Young ends her ac­count of Lock­hart’s full-time bat­tle with both al­co­holism and throat can­cer with the sim­ple as­ser­tion, in the face of a tidal wave of grief, that ‘[w]e are all more than we know our­selves to be’. We lac­er­ate those clos­est to us with our dys­func­tions and de­nials, and then fi­nally by our ill­nesses and deaths, hardly al­low­ing that they change life’s cli­mate ut­terly, or where we are con­scious of it, muf­fling that aware­ness with shame cy­cles, mawk­ish at­tempts at self-den­i­gra­tion and gal­lows hu­mour. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary co­in­ci­dence of al­co­holism that it only seems to af­fect in­suf­fer­able peo­ple, or those who have what Young can­didly calls an ‘Evil Twin’, that ran­corous id­iot who shows up at the door three sheets to the breeze, streaked in puke and wear­ing a dress­ing-gown, when you had hoped for his lovely brother. At the fi­nal bed­side, as the tem­po­rary life sup­port is with­drawn, and he sub­sides into the great­est al­ter­ation of con­scious­ness of them all, what there is left is the help­less surge of all the love that was de­flected from its true tar­get, to set be­side the pal­li­at­ing mem­ory of that which found it.

There is hope in the hard work that re­cov­ery from this con­di­tion en­tails, as is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in Lock­hart’s un­spar­ing self-scru­tiny over sev­eral

years in treat­ment pro­grammes, on poignant dis­play in the ex­tracts from his per­sonal jour­nal that Young gives us. There is also the only kind of di­dac­tic ad­mo­ni­tion that might stand a chance of suc­cess where the alarums of medics and gov­ern­ment guide­lines fail. If you have to re­cover from al­co­hol, you may find your­self forced to ac­cept the reg­u­la­tory regimes of in­sti­tu­tions such as the now-de­funct Seneca House, a re­pur­posed fish­ing mo­tel in Mary­land where, as Jami­son re­ports, al­co­holics who were overly se­ri­ous ‘had to carry around stuffed an­i­mals and make them speak’. Imag­ine per­suad­ing Jean Rhys to do that.

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