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Writers bemoan the demon drink

The literary greats suffered their fair share of hangovers, writes Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 4:54pm

As the drinkers among us recover from Christmas and approach the traditional January 1 headache, we can take some consolation that we are not alone. Paying the price for the party is nothing new.

Hangovers have been around for as long as alcohol, and for much of that time writers have been recording not only their intoxicated euphoria, but their queasy morning-after penitence, too.

"Life is a dream," wrote Chinese poet Li Po in the 7th century BC, on waking, as he often did, in a state of profound alcoholic disorientation.

"No need to stir. Remembering this I'm drunk all day. Lying helpless beside the porch. Waking to see the deep garden. One bird calls among the flowers. Ask myself what's the season?"

Anybody who has ever spent the first nausea-racked minutes of a new day trying to figure out where they are, how they got there, and what some other person who looks like them did or said eight or nine hours ago, will know how he felt.

Not much had changed 2,000 years later, and 8,000 kilometres away, when William Shakespeare started taking on the subject. We cannot know whether the Swan of Avon woke up after the first night party for Hamlet groaning "To be or not to be?" but booze looms large in his work.

Sometimes he celebrates drunken revels. In the comedy Twelfth Night, the colourfully named Sir Toby Belch rebukes the strait-laced butler Malvolio with the sharp question: "Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

However, he also explores the darker side of having one drink too many, and the attendant risk of unusual behaviour - particularly for those who know they have no head for it. Othello's lieutenant Michael Cassio is one example. Having been plied with drink by the master manipulator Iago, Cassio gets into a drunken brawl and, as he slowly sobers up, assimilates the implications: "I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly; a quarrel, but nothing wherefore. O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should, with joy, pleasance revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!"

It is this sense of impotent remorse confounded by pain and nausea that Kingsley Amis- who experienced more than his share of mornings after - described as a "metaphysical hangover", an "ineffable compound of depression, sadness [these two are not the same], anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future". Many of us will recognise those symptoms.

Amis wrote extensively on drink, and many of his thoughts on the subject are now collected in a single highly readable volume, Everyday Drinking, published in 2009 by Bloomsbury. But his best evocation of a straightforward physical hangover is to be found in his first and best novel, 1954's Lucky Jim. It is worth quoting in full.

"Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning.

"The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.

"During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad."

Amis' view of the morning after falls somewhere between the wry but lighthearted descriptions of P.G. Wodehouse, who, in 1949's The Mating Season, identified the hangover as falling into six types - "the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie" - and the more clinical analysis of writers such as Charles R. Jackson, whose The Lost Weekend Amis described as "marvellous and horrifying" and "the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read".

It probably wasn't all fiction. Jackson also had plenty of first-hand experience of the heavy drinker's self-inflicted agonies, to which the following account in The Lost Weekend (published in 1944 and filmed, left, in 1945 by Billy Wilder, starring Ray Milland) of a hung-over attempt to forswear the demon booze bears eloquent witness.

"It was going to be for good, this time, there was no getting around that. It meant bed for several days, bed and frightful hangover and shattered nerves. And it was something he wasn't going to go through without liquor to help him, liquor to taper off with gradually, a few bottles cached here and there in secret places about the flat, aid that he could turn to when the mornings got too bad.

"He'd get half a dozen, somehow, somewhere. Nobody would believe, of course, that it was liquor to be used medicinally only. Nobody would believe that he would drink just enough of it and no more, just enough to keep his sanity. They'd be certain that it meant he was off again and that the long weekend was to stretch to another long week or longer. But he knew better. Knew when he was licked (temporarily). Knew when it was time to stop and recoup and get back on his feet and stay that way for a while."

Amis and Jackson are part of a long roll call of heavy drinking 20th century writers who include F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan (who called himself "a drinker with writing problems") and Malcolm Lowry. The latter's 1947 novel Under the Volcano vies with The Lost Weekend as the definitive harrowing "fictional" account of alcohol dependency, with a grim ring of personally experienced truth.

Like Amis, Lowry found hangovers a source of occasional inspiration - but with a catch.

"With a bad hangover, your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can't put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing," he reflected. "When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good."

Faulkner, on the other hand, thought writers and artists should use their work as a sort of substitute for aspirin. A writer, he thought, "If he gets to work, the first thing he knows, he don't remember that pain, that hangover - he's too busy."

If he's lucky. Perhaps the single most painful aspect of the hangover is the way fragmented recollection of the evening's uncharacteristic behaviour returns in fits and starts throughout the following day, or even week - sometimes in the form of first-hand witness accounts.

As Fitzgerald succinctly put it: "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."

For the slowly recovering drunk the major problem is often getting the previous evening's excesses into perspective. Drinkers who consider themselves scintillating after the third or fourth glass of their chosen tipple often form a more realistic appraisal of their performance the next day. In the words of Dylan Thomas, "Somebody's boring me. I think it's me."

Things could be far worse, though. One of the best accounts in literature of drunken bad behaviour, and morning-after reconstruction, is to be found in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short story A Most Unfortunate Incident (sometimes translated more bluntly as A Nasty Story), which recounts at length the wrecking of a wedding celebration by a drunken gatecrasher.

Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky, having drunkenly passed out, awakes the following morning in the home of his reluctant host, who is one of his subordinates at work.

"For some time the headache, vomiting, and other most unpleasant attacks would not leave him for a minute. These were the torments of hell. Consciousness, though barely flickering in his head, lit up such abysses of horror, such dismal and loathsome pictures, that it would have been better not to regain consciousness.

"However, everything was still mixed up in his head ... He shuddered, imagining various pictures to himself. What would they say about him, what would they think, how would he enter the office, what whispering would pursue him for a whole year, for 10 years, all his life?"

Although it takes a few days, Dostoyevsky's protagonist's unwarrantedly good opinion of himself gradually recovers. But it is while languishing in the depths of his hangover that he briefly achieves some real self-knowledge.

Amis, on the other hand, thought recovering drunks could be too hard on themselves. So in the spirit of New Year goodwill, and in the hope of not having too many mornings in 2013 racked with sobering self-recrimination, let's leave the last word to him.

"Start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a s*** you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is."

Let us hope he is right. I'll certainly drink to that.

foodandwine@scmp.com

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