The old man and his martini


A report by Kamalika Basu for India’s Telegraph.

Writing is arguably the least dangerous and most creative act that one might engage in when drunk. Sure, some feel that drinking is a vice, but it occasionally does lead to good writing. Perhaps that is why authors have seldom been deterred from making the Faustian deal with the spirit. One such example is the champion alcoholic, Ernest Hemingway, who – had he been alive – would turn 119 tomorrow.

It is said that alcoholics need only one excuse to have a drink, but for Hemingway there were one too many. He once advocated drinking by declaring that liquor is the “only mechanical relief” to the “mechanical oppression” that modern life is. Another time, he stated that alcohol made people seem more interesting to him.

Across the world, aficionados of alcohol have not only named drinks after him, but also attribute to him several iconic cocktails. Tales of Hemingway teaching the bar staff at the Grand Hotel et de Milan to mix a martini or his claims to have invented a special concoction of gin and vermouth still served at Harry’s Bar in Venice are now the stuff of legend.

Hemingway was, of course, well-accustomed to bar fights and drunken accidents. Even peers thought highly of his capacity for brawls. Whenever James Joyce picked a bar fight in Hemingway’s company, he would jump behind his friend for defence.

Drinking though, had a deeper connection with Hemingway than merely his inebriated antics. Like the scent of bitter almonds to Márquez’s hopeless romantic, the taste of an Italian red wine would become the symbol of unrequited love for Hemingway. Having fallen for a young countess in Venice, he composed almost the entirety of his book, Across the River and Into the Trees, at Harry’s Bar, polishing off crate after crate of Amarone della Valpolicella.

Hemingway was by no means the only alcoholic author of his time – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys, John Cheever, William Faulkner could all have given him a run for his money. Five out of seven American Nobel winning authors in that age were alcoholics, and several literary greats, including Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote, died of alcohol-induced complications. Hemingway, in his final years, reportedly downed a quart of whiskey a day. It is a wonder then that a different kind of shot, albeit self-administered, took his life.

Expecting liquor to rinse clean the memories of war was not surprising. But Prohibition in America in the 1920s made alcohol seem like forbidden fruit, a ticket to a paradise of jazz and forgetfulness. For authors, this lifestyle seeped even into their writing – they often portrayed their characters as every bit the drinker they were themselves. Ironically, the books created under the influence ended up reflecting the void in the human soul instead of filling it.

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