“Why writers drink” is the subtitle of a new book by Olivia Laing, praised this week by Paul Quinn for its insights, care and close reading of texts. There is always the danger in such a subject of “reducing writers who drink to drinkers who write”. Laing avoids the traps by concentrating on hard drinkers, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and others, who both thought and wrote about their needs for alcohol. Suicidal and resentful fathers play a part in answering the “why” question. Carver’s famously commanding editor, Gordon Lish, is charged with putting the good of the stories above the health of their author. Laing concentrates on men because her mother’s lesbian partner was an alcoholic and she does not want to go “too close to home”.
Daniel Heller-Roazen considers the history of personal identity from Descartes to Hume, noting the difficulty of tracking the issue before the early modern age. Plutarch may have wondered at the Athenians of his time who referred to a local tourist attraction as the Ship of Theseus even though every timber of their ancient hero’s craft was changed every few decades. But ancient philosophers offered little on the identity over time of thinking subjects. Theologians came to see problems for divine judgment. Lawyers wondered whether a man was responsible for forgotten actions committed when drunk, an escape clause rarely available to Cheever.
Charles Mosley is unimpressed by the efforts of Britain’s former Labour deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, to write about the Devonshires, one of Britain’s most enduring aristocratic families. His objections are not in the political oddity of the project. He notes merely an “embarrassingly slipshod family tree”, an ignorance of heraldry as well as history, and the misspelling of the Ottoman seat of government. The Sublime Port, he suggests, would be “a good brand name for a fortified wine”, the kind that writers drink when they are reduced to working on station platforms, the fate that, for a while, befell William D. Hamilton, the biologist, who is this week on our cover.