Alcohol and the Writer
Donald W. Goodwin, M.D.
Andrews & McMeel
Kansas City / New York
Learning to Drink American Style
From one end of the country to the other
Patterns of drinking are variable and it is a mistake to associate one particular pattern exclusively with alcoholism. America's best-known authority on alcoholism, E.M. Jellinek, divided alcoholics into various "species," depending on their pattern of drinking. One species, the gamma alcoholic, is common in America and conforms to the stereotype of the Alcoholics Anonymous alcoholic. Gamma alcoholics have problems with "control." Once they begin drinking, they are unable to stop until poor health or depleted financial resources prevent them from continuing. Once the bender is terminated, however, the person is able to abstain from alcohol for varying lengths of time.
Jellinek contrasted the gamma alcoholic with a species of alcoholic common in France. The latter has control but is "unable to abstain"; he must drink a given quantity of alcohol every day, although he has no compulsion to exceed this amount. He may not recognize that he has an alcohol problem until, for reasons beyond his power, he has to stop drinking, whereupon he experiences withdrawal symptoms.
A French alcoholic describes himself:
The American alcoholic stereotype has two choices abstain or go on a bender. The French alcoholic stereotype does not go on benders, but cannot abstain.
Georges Simenon had the not very enviable distinction of being both a French-type and an American-type alcoholic, switching from the former to the latter in middle age. The Belgian-born novelist has some interesting things to say about alcoholism in America and how he caught the bug. Simenon's story shows the influence of culture on the drinking of a drinking writer.
Simenon started keeping notebooks when he was nearing sixty and feeling depressed. The notebooks were published ten years later under the title When I Was Old. By this time he had stopped feeling depressed and stopped keeping notebooks. It is too bad about the notebooks. They are full of information about writing. They also tell a lot about drinking. Simenon had vast experience with both.
Simenon may be the world's greatest underappreciated writer. Some European critics believe he deserves the Nobel Prize. Most Americans think of him as a detective story writer, the creator of Inspector Maigret. This is not fair. Less than half of his several hundred novels are about Maigret, and the best "Maigrets" are superb novels, not who-done-its at all. John Raymond, a literary critic for the Times (London), calls Simenon (now retired) the greatest storyteller of our day. Gide, Hemingway, and other famous writers have praised him extravagantly. Because Simenon is popular, rich, and easy to read, however, his stock among the literati has generally not been high.
Maybe it will rise as word gets around about his "drinking problem." As Leslie Fiedler said, every writer, really to be admired, needs a "charismatic flaw." Drunkenness appears to be the flaw most admired by Americans.
For many years roughly from 1935 to 1949 writing and drinking were inseparable for Simenon. In When I Was Old, he discusses how the drinking began and how it ended. The subject also comes up in his tasteless memoir of un-Simenon length published in English translation in 1984. Some years ago I had an opportunity to spend an afternoon with Simenon discussing his work and thoughts about drinking. Putting together these sources, the following story emerges:
"There will be legends about this too," Simenon wrote.
As a child in Liège, Belgium, Simenon was repeatedly warned about the dangers of drink; there was no wine or liquor in the house. The words "He drinks" were uttered with consternation, especially by the mother. Her father, brother, and two sisters were alcoholics.
Simenon had his first drink at fourteen, eau de vie used to seal jars with waxed paper. It made him feel good and he tried it again, replacing what he drank with water. Soon there was nothing but water in the decanter. For a long time it was believed the alcohol content had evaporated. Simenon minimized the importance of this experience while granting the "attraction of forbidden fruit."
Subsequently, he did little drinking until his twenties in Paris. There, as a reporter and budding novelist, he drank because it was the fashion: "All of the painters of the period were heavy drinkers, while the American novelists were even more so." Steadily, however, his consumption of wine increased. While traveling along the canals in France, writing Maigret stories, he used to fill a ten-liter demijohn with wine at pumps that "looked like gas pumps." Nevertheless, at the time, "I drank when I was thirsty, never to get drunk." Somewhat later, however, literary inspiration as well as thirst prompted drinking: "I got the habit of working on wine." Starting at six in the morning, he drank and wrote throughout the day.
From the mid-1930s until 1945, "the habit was formed ... white wine at Concarneau (cider in the afternoon), red in Paris or elsewhere, grog when I had a cold, brandy and water at other times." Simenon says he rarely got drunk but
needed, as early as the morning, especially to write, a pick-me-up. I was persuaded in good faith that it was impossible to write otherwise. And, away from work, I drank anything, apéritif, cognac, calvados, marc, champagne....Simenon spent the war in occupied France, then in 1945 came to the United States where he drank "American-style": "no longer wine with my meals, but before them, Manhattan after Manhattan, then dry martini after dry martini...."
With this came "painful awakenings, hangovers, attacks of gas pains during which I thought I was dying of angina pectoris."
In this period Simenon married his second wife and "we had two or three months of wild life." Eventually, however, she persuaded him to try writing without alcohol. To see if it could be done, they went to a snowbound cabin in New England where, "trembling," his wife waited behind the door of his study, "listening to the rhythm of the typewriter, and ceaselessly bringing me hot tea. I left the door half open, stuck my hand out and grabbed the cup without a word.... I was sure I would never come to the end of that book."
His wife had reason to tremble, for if the experiment had failed, Simenon said, he would, in all probability, never have tried it again, and "I would be dead at this moment." The experiment didn't fail. The book that resulted, Three Beds in Manhattan, is one of Simenon's best.
Afterward, the Simenons continued to drink "pretty seriously" from time to time, then "cut the liquor, allowing ourselves only beer.... Finally, one fine day we decided to put ourselves on the wagon ... not out of virtue, only because we knew that we were, both of us, incapable of stopping in time."
This was in 1949. Afterward, on occasion, they drank alcohol for two or three days "out of hygiene," so it would not "seem a deprivation, thus an obsession." Other times they drank Coca-Cola.
At the time he wrote the above, in 1961, Simenon still considered himself an alcoholic. "Few of my French friends understand it. And I resent those who have made drink the indispensable complement to every friendly, worldly, or even official meeting."
When I saw him years later, in his home near Lausanne, Switzerland, he was drinking tea (while pouring Scotch for his guest with a heavy hand). He said alcohol was no longer a problem. He had a drink now and then, especially in airports because he was afraid of flying. He looked ten years younger than his sixty-nine years: a bustling, animated, friendly man who likes doctors and may know more medicine than most. (A less attractive Simenon comes over in Intimate Memoirs, published in his eighties, but perhaps age explains it.)
Simenon believed that alcohol would kill him but that he could not write without it. It turned out he could. In neither quantity nor quality did his work suffer from abstinence. If alcohol was his muse, it was a dispensable muse.
Simenon has this to say about drinking in America:
... I did not become truly alcoholic with an alcoholic consciousness except in America....Simenon says that for twenty years in France he drank without remorse, without seeing anything wrong with it. "In the United States I learned shame. For they are ashamed. Everyone is ashamed. I was ashamed like the rest."
In my conversation with Simenon, he said that alcoholism was less common among French writers than among American writers, and ventured a possible reason: "Americans must experience what they write about. French writers work within a tradition."
Unlike a traditionalist such as Anatole France, whose work is elegant and reassuring, Simenon writes from personal experience, is rarely elegant, and almost never reassuring. He writes about people, places, and weather he has known, beginning in the reverse order.
"I first find some atmosphere. Today there is a little sunshine here. I might remember such and such a spring, maybe in some small Italian town, or some place in the French provinces or in Arizona, and then, little by little, a small world will come into my mind, with a few characters."
And somewhere in every Simenon novel is a problem that has worried him personally. "I know that there are many men who have more or less the same problems I have, with more or less intensity, and who will be happy to read the book to find the answer if the answer can be found."
Simenon apparently found an answer to his drinking problem. Nowhere in his several hundred novels does he tell, alas, how it was done.
Simenon's book When I Was Old (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) cannot be recommended too highly for anyone interested in writers and how they live and work.
Less recommended is Simenon's autobiographical Intimate Memoirs (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1984), an unfortunate book about, among other things, his daughter's suicide.
Fenton Bresler's The Mystery of Georges Simenon (New York: Beaufort, 1983) is the best book about Simenon's life and work available in English.
Pierre's story, at the beginning, was taken from my book Is Alcoholism Hereditary? (New York: Ballantine, 1988).
The evidence that 1949 was the exact year when Simenon achieved permanent sobriety is somewhat contradictory. In the biography by Bresler, Simenon's son, John, relates that, even after 1949, ". . . he would mostly start after lunch and then it would build up. There would be times when he was not drinking for as long as two months, but then I would come back from school in the afternoon and find him not himself. I have memories of specific scenes and of my father being very drunk and throwing glasses and my mother having hysterics." It is not clear in what years this occurred, but the bulk of the evidence indicates that Simenon's drinking decreased sharply in his fifties. In his eighties he was looking fit and healthy and showed no physical signs of alcoholism.