Thursday, August 29, 2013

Staff Pick - Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer

Let's be honest. If a writer put in a solid workman-like eight hours of sober work, did the laundry and then watched a little TV before bed we wouldn't be all that interested in reading their stories. Andrew Shaffer's Literary Rogues: a scandalous history of wayward authors (M) is a witty and light-hearted look at some of western literature's bad boys (and some girls) and the role, for good or ill, their bad behaviour played in their success.

In yet another example of short-attention-span biography Shaffer offers up brief glimpses of authors ranging from 18th century's Marquis de Sade and his many, many vices to present day's James Frey, who excesses seem a little weak after reading about all of the rogues in between. As a group, their sins were many and various. Honore de Balzac drank as many as fifty cups of coffee a day - and chewed on coffee beans when he needed a little extra lift - you can't argue with his output, however. In the course of twelve years he wrote seventy-nine novels. Ernest Hemingway, a hard drinking man, wrote sober and drank copiously when the work was done. On the other hand, his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald just drank and behaved outrageously. Whiskey was the choice for William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas and Dorothy Parker, while the partying crowd in the 80s and 90s which included Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis, favoured cocaine as they partied their way through New York clubs.

Shaffer addresses their behaviour in the context of the morals of their time and the effects on their work and ultimately their health. Thomas De Quincy would not be known today if not for his opium addiction. Although he worked as an essayist and a translator, his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (M) is his work that remains significant today.
Although Shaffer's tone is witty and light, he does not play down the harmful role of these addictions, showing how the writers ultimately became unable to work, became ill and many died young.

In a book I read recently, Art and Madness: amemoir of lust without reason (M) by Anne Roiphe, Roiphe, as a young woman, believed that a writer had to drink in order to write, Shaffer, on the other hand suggests that a writer has to drink because he has become an alcoholic. While all of these writers had their stimulants of choice, they also had another thing in common. They all belonged to a community of like-minded artists and each generation influenced the one to come both with the inspiration of their creativity and by setting a dubious example of how to live life.

Perhaps next in my quest for short attention span biography will be Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: the medical lives of famous writers (M) by John J. Ross.

"The Bard meets House, M.D. in this fascinating untold story of the impact of disease on the lives and works of some the finest writers in the English language. In Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, John Ross cheerfully debunks old biographical myths and suggests fresh diagnoses for these writers’ real-life medical mysteries. The author takes us way back, when leeches were used for bleeding and cupping was a common method of cure, to a time before vaccinations, sterilized scalpels, or real drug regimens. With a healthy dose of gross descriptions and a deep love for the literary output of these ten greats, Ross is the doctor these writers should have had in their time of need." publisher

And Lord Byron, the rogue-iest of them all has inspired me to add Byron in Love: a short daring life (M) by Edna O'Brien to my list.

"She follows Byron from the dissipations of Regency London to the wilds of Albania and the Socratic pleasures of Greece and Turkey, culminating in his meteoric rise to fame at the age of twenty-four on the publication of Childe Harold. With her prismatic eye and novelistic style, O'Brien eerily captures the spirit of the man and creates an indelible portrait of Byron that explodes the Romantic myth. From his escapades with John Edleston, the fourteen-year-old Cambridge choir boy, to those with a galaxy of women that included his half-sister, his wife of one year, and the Italian countess who forsook her satyr-like husband for "the peer of England and its greatest poet," Byron scandalized the world and inspires "Byronmania" to this day. Byron, as brilliantly rendered by O'Brien, is the poet as rebel, imaginative and lawless, and defiantly immortal." publisher

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