Having only recently (and narrowly) survived one, hangovers have been rather on my mind recently. In another post, I quoted Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim on the subject of the crushing feelings that make themselves felt after an evening’s overindulgence.
Martin Amis (Kingsley’s son) described his father as ‘the laureate of the hangover’ in the memoir Experience. Let’s have another look at the passage from Lucky Jim:
‘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 it once, never to move his eye-balls 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.’
There are three moments I particularly love in this passage.
The first is ‘not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection.’ Anyone who has ever had a hangover recognises that sudden, horrifying, agonizing moment of first wakefulness. If you haven’t ever had a really serious hangover, look at this: it will give you some idea…
The second great moment is ‘spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning’. It’s all perfect. Nothing to add to there.
But my favourite, my absolute favourite is ‘His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.’
What I love about that is the economy of the prose. We go from the rather vulgar (‘used as a latrine’) to the sublimely morbid (‘mausoleum’) in one beautifully balanced, effortlessly flowing sentence. Genius. Pure genius.
‘Economy’ is not a word that can be justly used in reference to Martin Amis’ description of a hangover in The Information, but let’s have a look at it anyway…
‘Just as there are genres of skies, and car alarms, and many other things, so there are genres of the hangover. Tragic treatments, enriched with various amounts and shades of irony. The epic frame, which finds the hero, towards evening on the second day, still sitting there wiping his eyebrows with his fingertips and still saying to himself things like dear oh dear. There are futuristic hangovers, there are chillers and tinglers, there are thrillers. There are bodice-rippers. Probably there are sex-and-shopping hangovers: there are hangovers made of junk and trash. There are hangovers as dull as rain… Nor all genres, on the other hand, correspond to a hangover. For instance there are no Western hangovers. In life, hangovers usually cleave to a genre which literature finds hard to do and rarely attempts: tragicomedy. Murphys and Metamorphosises, Third Policemans, Handful of Dusts…
At first it seemed that Richard’s hangover might find a relatively comfortable generic home: the country-house mystery. Every hangover, after all, is a mystery; every hangover is a whodunit. But as soon as he reared and swivelled from his bed, and placed a plumply quivering white sole on the lino, it was amply and dreadfully clear what genre he was in: horror. This horror was irresponsibly absolute, yet also low-budget: cheaply dubbed, ill-lit, and hand-held. Outside, the courtyard, the cold stamp of the hooves’ iron. A couple of centuries ago, Richard had raped the director’s girlfriend. He was now the cursed painting of a staked viscount, kept in a secret attic. Or else he was the ruined stableboy, all drained and scorched and peed-on, and left for dead in the owly hovel, under a heap of old straw. Something good had happened and something bad had happened. There was a mirror, above the washbasin: Richard went and stared at the gormless ghoul who lived behind the glass. Such hair as had not fallen out overnight now stood on end, and his mouth was crinkled like a frozen chip. Nor did he not perceive that he had another black eye.’
Personally, I love it. It has all of Martin Amis’ flash, dash and unflinching darkness. Not to mention the prose that’s as smooth, sleek and vicious as a tiger shark
But which Amis do you think is best at the gentle art of describing the morning after?