Here is a fun literary experiment: substitute the words ill or illness in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” (1930) with the words hung-over and hangover. It works, right? “Hangover is the great confessional”; “In a hangover words seem to possess a mystic quality”; “Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in a hangover.” And so on. But the best bit is this: “To hinder the description of hangover in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.”
Woolf couldn’t have known, but as she was writing her essay the great alco-bard of English letters was a young boy of seven or eight. I mean, of course, Kingsley Amis — who aside from his achievements as a comic novelist is the savviest writer about alcohol of the twentieth century. This is a fairly uncontroversial statement. His son, Martin Amis, in his memoir Experience, calls him “the laureate of the hangover”; by happy coincidence, Kingsley’s best passage on the hangover is nestled in the first third of Lucky Jim, his most famous novel (available in a new edition from New York Review Books next month). The passage in question 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 so 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.
So as you can see, the English language does indeed have words for the “vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure” (Kingsley, again) that is the hangover. The language was simply awaiting its poet on the subject. That said; as he wrote the passage above, Kingsley Amis probably felt he was addressing imaginative literature’s lacunae on the hangover. In his book On Drink, he devoted an entire chapter to it; a sort of survival guide for repeat offenders. It is plainly the best thing written on the subject. For starters, it differentiates between the physical and the metaphysical hangover (P.H. and M.H.), the way these two aspects intersect, and the various dos and don’ts of each (by all means have sex, but make sure it is with someone you should be having sex with: “guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H.” By the same logic, don’t beat off).
(Incidentally, “The Hangover” also broadens your understanding of Kafka: Kingsley is the only writer I know to suggest that The Metamorphosis is “the best literary treatment” of the hangover.)
Elsewhere in Experience Martin Amis also states — quite profoundly, in my opinion — that Kingsley “wrote about booze to salvage something from all the hours he devoted to it.” Booze was a current in much of his fiction, as well as the subject of three works of non-fiction: On Drink (1972), Everyday Drinking (1983), and How’s Your Glass? (1984), collected and published in America a few years ago as Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. These titles make for an interesting contrast with other writer-drinkers like Charles Jackson and Malcolm Lowry, whose alcoholism only ever found artistic, and therefore indirect, expression. They seem to have written in spite of it, whereas the elder Amis wrote a lot about drink for the simple reason that he spent a lot of time in the company of drink. There was compulsion, but there was also, sometimes control: the son recalls seeing his father busying himself with various drink gadgets in the kitchen, researching his column, etc. Whereas in the case of someone like Lowry, you are constantly amazed that he ever managed to write a legible grocery list, not to mention a novel as penetrating (and as penetrating about alcoholism) as Under the Volcano.
Still, the verb salvage suggests damage of some kind, and damage is undoubtedly what you’ll get if you feel, as Kingsley did, that the hangover is “a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization.” It’s another aspect of his drinking that marks him off from literature’s Lowry types. Asked why so many writers drink, Amis offered a pretty straightforward explanation: “the reason why so many professional artists drink a lot is not necessarily very much to do with the artistic temperament, etc. It is simply that they can afford to, because they normally take a large part of the day off to deal with the ravages.”
This seems fair enough, but I’d be surprised to learn that Lowry ever thought ahead to the next day. He measured his life out by the bottle, not by days or nights. In Amis’s case, the historical and cultural moment surely had a lot to do with the allure of drink (alcohol as a way of escaping England’s ossified post-war social system, etc), as Lucky Jim’s hero, with all his temptations to bad behavior, will surely tell you. Anyway, never mind the why. Some of us spend a lot of time drunk, getting drunk, or thinking about getting drunk. You might say intoxication, or the need for it, is a human condition. To read Kingsley Amis on drink is to get a little nearer to understanding that condition—and the morning-after’s nuclear flash of consciousness. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in a hangover, but he made sure that power didn’t extend to the language. It was never poor; it was just waiting for its poet.