By William Palmer

Robinson. 262 pages. Ł20. ISBN 978-1-47214-501-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Most writers are drinkers”, according to Jimmie Charters, the barman who served up drinks to the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Rhys, Robert McAlmon, Nancy Cunard, and numerous others in Paris during the 1920s. Being a “drinker” can mean many things, and it doesn’t necessarily imply that every writer in the land is likely to be a slave to the demon drink. But there’s no denying that more than a few have been and an extensive list can be compiled of authors who had their lives and work affected by a liking for alcohol. By picking out eleven writers William Palmer is simply offering a selection from the many who could be candidates for inspection.

What causes writers to drink? The reasons are probably as numerous as the writers they might apply to. Palmer, looking at John Cheever, says that “Many writers have had indifferent school careers and a fairly dismal home life; perhaps imagination, like the mushroom, needs a dark, neglected area to grow in”. And it does seem true that, if the lives of several of those pinned down on the pages of Palmer’s book are anything to go by, they didn’t exactly flourish in the classroom, and you couldn’t say that their childhoods were models of happiness and enlightenment. Still, it’s surprising what can provide the spur to creativity. It may be a price worth paying if the result is a finely-written story or a well-crafted poem. Cheever, “all of his life a haunted man, troubled by feelings of duality and bisexuality”, in Palmer’s words, once said of his writing: “It has given me money and renown, but I suspect that it may have something to do with my drinking habits. The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar”.

It does need to be said that the drinking wouldn’t be of interest if it wasn’t for the writing it inspired, if it did, or the damage it caused to the quality of the work. Only a doctor, or family and friends in the direct line of fire from drunken incidents, might have been curious about Patrick Hamilton’s intake of whisky, had he not been a writer: “His daily consumption can seldom have fallen far below the equivalent of three bottles”. It’s relevant to the reader in relation to Hamilton the novelist who, among other works, including highly-successful plays, wrote at least two novels that have retained their appeal – Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square. The latter, with its brilliantly-accurate descriptions of pubs and their customers, might well be forever associated with Hamilton’s name because of its title and his alcoholism. It’s noteworthy that Hamilton’s novels may additionally have attributes as social documents, in that the pubs and places and the atmospheres they describe are part of a lost world of simpler tastes and expectations.

Hamilton’s novels are often set around pubs and drinking, so it could be argued that they reflect his own habits. But they can’t be seen as directly autobiographical in the way that Jean Rhys’s first four novels, and many of her short stories, were. A later novel, and it’s the one she’s best-known for, Wide Sargasso Sea, moved away from the facts of her own life. It brought her some late-fame and success. I have to admit to a preference for the earlier works, perhaps because the worlds they deal with – experiences as a chorus girl in London before the First World War, the expatriate bohemia of Paris in the 1920s – and the way they were written (in a clearcut, direct style) interest me more. It was in her early days that she began to drink and alcohol gripped her for the rest of her life. When she was older she was frequently at loggerheads with neighbours and was an abusive and sometimes violent drunk.  

Was it the rackety nature of Rhys’s life that drew her to drink as a kind of protection against men who used her, the seedy surroundings, and an inner loneliness? A combination of all three would be a powerful incentive to try to blot out the world or provide a temporary refuge. For the poet Elizabeth Bishop, the only other woman surveyed, Palmer suggests “she must have found in drink something other than a chemical or genetic imperative”. He says she was “intensely shy” and “uncertain of her social position”. Her childhood was certainly “broken”, with her father dying when she was a baby, and her mother eventually committed to an asylum. She was shuttled around various relatives and sent to boarding schools. Palmer also thinks that initial uneasiness about her lesbianism might have had something to do with her drinking. If so, then “coming out” didn’t resolve her difficulties with drink and she continued throughout her lifetime. But, as Palmer says, she never used the drinking in her life as a basis for her work: “When she drank self-destructively it was for reasons we can only guess at”.

A reason for drinking in the case of Charles Jackson could be his repressed homosexuality. He’s now only remembered as the author of The Lost Weekend, a novel regarded as one of the “classics” about the curse of alcoholism. Malcolm Lowry, who Palmer also investigates, and who wrote Under the Volcano, certainly thought that Jackson knew what he was talking about when he described the horrors of delirium tremens and incarceration in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Lowry had himself been there. The interesting thing about Jackson is that, according to Palmer, “his early childhood seems to have been happy and uneventful”. But when he was twelve his father “deserted the family” and shortly after a sister and baby brother died in a car accident. There may also be hints at Jackson’s unsettled sexuality in the story “Palm Sunday” in the collection, The Sunnier Side and Other Stories. Jackson published a number of novels and stories, but his reputation rests on The Lost Weekend.

In the same way, Malcolm Lowry is best-known for Under the Volcano even though he wrote other works, some of which only appeared after his death and, it’s suggested, might have been better left unpublished. Lowry appears to have actually enjoyed being an alcoholic, and is quoted as saying, “I love hell. I can’t wait to get back there”.  He did have periods of sobriety but they often ended when old friends and drinking companions turned up. There was an occasion in 1937 when Lowry and his wife Jan were living in Mexico, and he was “mostly sober” and working. Conrad Aiken – described by Jan as “that bottle-a-day bard” – came to visit, with the inevitable result that he and Lowry promptly embarked on a drinking spree.  Jan recalled that her husband would drink anything – “ tequila, mescal, whisky, gin, beer, rubbing alcohol, after-shave lotion, and hair-tonic”.  Was there a reason for his addiction to alcohol?  Palmer records some indications of shyness and feelings of sexual inadequacy, but they don’t seem a totally useful explanation.

What impelled Dylan Thomas to drink like he did? Did he, as an outsider of sorts, feel out-of-place and inhibited when in the company of established writers and intellectuals, and so compensate for it by getting drunk? Or could it be that the drunkenness provided an excuse for his failings in terms of petty thefts, unreliability, cadging, and much else? Or was there an awareness in Thomas’s thinking that he had probably written many of his best poems when he was young? His reputation mostly rested on his performances on and off the platform by 1950 or so. Palmer thinks that Thomas probably drank less than the rest of the writers he examines, but he died younger than them. And his death wasn’t really due to an over-extended drunken episode but more likely because of inept medical treatment.

Kingsley Amis detested Dylan Thomas, both as a person and a poet. By the time Amis was beginning to make a name for himself, both with his novel, Lucky Jim, and his poems, Thomas and many of his contemporaries were out-of-fashion. The 1950s were the years of The Movement poets and the so-called Angry Young Men novelists. The Soho bohemians of the 1940s were fading fast, and the university-educated taking over. Surrealists and the New Apocalypse poets were looked on with suspicion and common sense and plain speaking came to the fore. None of this explains why Amis, described as “a charming and extremely funny man” when he was a young academic in Swansea, turned into an alcoholic “capable of gross and unforgiveable behaviour”. Palmer does say that he had a “sort of defensive shyness which could easily change to the offensive” when he was drunk. Many of his novels are located in pubs, as Palmer notes: “By 1986, drink flows like a river through The Old Devils”.

“Writing is an agony mitigated by drink” said Anthony Burgess, which some might see as more of an excuse than anything. I’m not sure that it is, and when I look at his output (it included a fair amount of what would be considered hack work – Palmer says Burgess wrote around “350 reviews in two years for the Yorkshire Post alone”) it may be that he needed the stimulus that drink provided to keep him going. There were novels, general journalism, broadcasts, film scripts, trips to London, and he additionally had musical involvements. When did he get time for the affair he was engaged in for four years prior to his alcoholic wife’s death? Palmer asserts that Burgess’s drinking “assumed more or less reasonable proportions” as he got older and he lived until he was seventy-six. Will his work survive?  Palmer points to several of the novels that he considers have lasting value, and it may be that A Clockwork Orange, “his most famous and notorious book”, will ensure some sort of recognition in years to come.

Someone who could be excused for considering that he had valid excuses for drinking was the Irish writer, Flann O’Brien, famous for At Swim Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, though the latter only found its way into print after O’Brien had passed on. Both were written before he was thirty, and though he was well-known for a newspaper column he wrote under the name Myles na Gopaleen, his books did not attract wide attention among general readers. A job in the Irish Civil Service, the routines of family life, and the restrictive and repressive nature of Irish society, with the Catholic Church dominating social and cultural activities, pushed O’Brien into the refuge of the pub, “a licensed and necessary relief”.  Here, for a time, at least, he could escape into the company of like-minded friends, such as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, though it’s mentioned that he “rarely joined in the general conversation”. He drank steadily until it was time to go home. Generally, for O’Brien, it was a choice “between drinking and being bored to death”.

Palmer is of the opinion that, if only one of Richard Yates’s novels survives it will be Revolutionary Road. Perhaps so, but he wrote some other good books and short-stories. They weren’t given the right kind of attention when they were published, and Yates was sometimes unfairly said to be covering the same ground as John Cheever, a fellow-alcoholic who looked at the lives of suburbanites and found them wanting. But Cheever had a greater “range of emotion and character: Yates’s work was almost entirely based on his own life and he used family members and friends in his fiction, making little effort to disguise them, or his contempt for them”.  Yates had grown up in a household of drinkers, with his mother, a would-be sculptress, especially prone to taking to the bottle. Yates seems to have been an awkward youth and it could be that his drinking was an attempt to put himself at ease with other people.  But he drank enough to find himself in the same place where Charles Jackson and Malcolm Lowry had been residents – the alcoholic wards of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Palmer doesn’t think that Yates will ever be a popular writer, despite a revival of interest in his work in recent years. He’s too often “grey and depressing”. 

In Love with Hell is a fascinating if sometimes frightening book. And yet, it’s hard not to accept that, despite all the problems that alcohol brought, the writers mostly produced fairly substantial bodies of work and survived into surprisingly reasonable old age. Would they have written as well if they hadn’t drunk? It’s impossible to tell, and their work would almost certainly have been much different. A lot of the novels that Palmer refers to are still worth reading, and he does a good job of analysing them in an informative way and relating them to the alcoholism of their various writers. His book ought to interest anyone who likes to know about writers and their experiences. It’s the work that’s of key importance, of course, but the lives add to its appeal.