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.