Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Recovered American Classic: "The Lost Weekend" by Charles Jackson (An Interview with Charles Jackson Biographer Blake Bailey)

Novels are often overshadowed to the point of near oblivion by successful film versions. Forrest Gump. The Silence of the Lambs. Kramer vs. Kramer. Midnight Cowboy. In the Heat of the Night. True Grit. The Graduate. Would anyone think of this as a list of novels?

Similarly,The Lost Weekend  is remembered today, if it is remembered at all, as an Oscar winning 1945 film directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland as a struggling and not so young anymore writer on a harrowing, five-day drinking binge in Manhattan.

The even harder hitting novel The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson, upon which the movie is based, was published seventy years ago this month, in January 1944. The Lost Weekend sold a half million copies in its first few years of publication, was translated into several languages, and made its author famous, at least for awhile.

Jackson and his novel have recently emerged from the shadows. Vintage Books has brought out a trade paperback edition ofThe Lost Weekend. Also, a superb biography of Jackson -- Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson -- by Blake Bailey was published by Alfred A. Knopf.

The Lost Weekend, First Vintage Books edition, 2013. 
"Who would have thought that a biography of Charles Jackson, author of the novel The Lost Weekend, would turn out to be essential reading?" writes Rafe Vinton McCabe in The New York Journal of Books. "What Blake Bailey accomplishes in the pages of Farther and Wilder is no small thing. With this biography, he gives author Charles Jackson back to the American reading public, allowing us once more to celebrate both the life and the accomplishments of this fine writer."

Adam Kirsch of the Wall Street Journal says that with Farther and Wilder "Mr. Bailey has managed to turn such an unpromising subject into a brilliant and gripping book."

The Lost Weekend is an episodic and relatively brief story of a writer named Don Birnam -- middle class, dapper, cultivated -- hitting bottom. The terrors and humiliations of his alcoholism are searingly depicted. Absent are the established associations of boozing with humor or cocktail hour sophistication. In the course of the novel Don Birnam steals a woman's purse to get money to buy alcohol, tries to pawn his typewriter to get money to buy alcohol, wets his pants, falls down stairs, winds up in a hospital's drying out ward, and, in the book's climactic scene, suffers through horrifying hallucinations. All the while Birnam's feelings bounce between self-loathing and smug superiority.

Charles Jackson
Material in the novel about Birnams's conflicted sexual orientation is omitted from the movie version. Also, the movie offers a happy ending with Birnam clearly on the road to sobriety. The novel, which is told in the third person but from Birnam's point of view, ends ambiguously with Birnam assuring himself "God knows why or how but he had come through one more. No telling what might happen the next time but why worry about that? This one was over and nothing had happened at all. Why did they make such a fuss?"

Because the novel was seen as a lightly fictionalized memoir, Jackson, whose previous work as a writer consisted of a few published short stories and scripting a radio soap opera, was instantly propelled to fame as an authority on overcoming addiction. Preferring to be considered a talented fiction writer rather than an ex-drunk with a well-told recovery story, Jackson initially claimed that no more than one third of Don Birnam's story was taken from his own life. Later he admitted that almost all of the book was autobiographical.

Poster for movie "that dares to open the strange
 and savage pages of a shocking best-seller."     
In the spring of 1944, Billy Wilder, a successful screenwriter who had just moved into the top rank of directors with a screen version of James M. Cain's novella Double Indemnity, picked up a copy ofThe Lost Weekend at a railroad station kiosk and read it twice during his train journey to the West Coast. Wilder thought the novel would make an excellent film and brought the idea to his home studio, Paramount. The studio obtained the rights toThe Lost Weekend from a somewhat intimidated Jackson for a modest $35,000. After major box office draws Cary Grant and Gary Cooper turned down the unflattering role of Don Birnam, and Jose Ferrer was rejected for being insufficiently handsome, the part went to Ray Milland, a second-tier star under contract to Paramount.

In the meantime, Jackson went to Hollywood to help write scripts for MGM. Jackson's extraordinary charm won him many friends in the movie colony. He was especially sought out by those, such as Spencer Tracy and Robert Benchley, who were coping with their own drinking problems. Despite having a wife and two children settled on a farm in New Hampshire, Jackson -- bald, bespectacled, and in his early forties -- carried on a romantic flirtation with the young Judy Garland.

In California, Jackson also met the great German writer Thomas Mann who was then living in Santa Monica. Jackson gave Mann a copy of The Lost Weekend and was in return presented with an inscribed copy of Mann's new novel, Joseph the Provider. For years Jackson and Mann kept up a regular correspondence.

The Fall of Valor, Jackson's second most famous novel,
1964 paperback edition. 
Jackson followed up The Lost Weekend with a groundbreaking novel about homosexuality, The Fall of Valor (1946), which explores a married man's attraction to a young Marine, and The Sunnier Side (1950), a collection of short stories about small town life (Jackson grew up in the Upstate New York village of Newark, near Rochester) that was compared to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. After long period of inactivity, Jackson was back on the bestsellers list with A Second-Hand Life (1967), about a sex obsessed woman. None of Jackson's subsequent work, however, came close to the success of The Lost Weekend.

Jackson became addicted to prescription drugs, eventually drifted back into alcoholism, and was often hospitalized. He separated from his extraordinarily patient wife, Rhoda, the model for the girlfriend character, Helen, in The Lost Weekend (played by Jane Wyman in film version). In the mid-1960s Jackson took up residence with a young man at New York's legendarily bohemian Chelsea Hotel. In September 1968, Jackson committed suicide by drug overdose. He was sixty-five.

Farther and Wilder, Bailey's biography of Jackson, takes its title from a grand opus of a novel that Jackson toiled on for years but left unfinished. Jackson himself had taken the phrase from his friend Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus.

Bailey, who has written a biography of  Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates) and a National Book Critics Circle Award winning biography of John Cheever (Cheever: A Life), did not start out to write a full-scale biography of Jackson. "When I first considered writing about Charlie, I thought he would be one of several short profiles in a book about forgotten writers," Bailey explained to The Committee Room. "I'd encountered a number of these in my research on John Cheever and Richard Yates: Nathan Asch, Calvin Kentfield, Flannery Lewis. Any of these names ring a bell? No? Well, they were considered awfully promising in their time, and now you can hardly Google them."

Blake Bailey
(photo by Mary Brinkmeyer).
The audacious subject matter of The Lost Weekend, Bailey believes, contributed to its fall into obscurity. "When the novel was first published in 1944, it was a pioneering work: hitherto alcoholism was considered a moral failing known as dipsomania, and a portrayal of a rounded, sympathetic human being who was a helpless addict was a sensational subject to put it mildly...For the very reason of its success in demystifying alcoholism, though, the subject became less sensational and the novel of less interest to those who were apt to read it for purely topical reasons," Bailey told TCR.

Jackson's two daughters, now in their seventies, cooperated with Bailey's research. Their mostly happy memories of a kind, concerned father who carefully shielded his children from the unsavory side of his life, add an important layer to Bailey's portrait of the complex Jackson. Bailey says that the daughters were "maybe a little" surprised that someone was interested in writing a book about their father but it wasn't the first time they had been approached. "A very able professor at Syracuse University had wanted to write a biography about fifteen years ago, but they decided not to cooperate," Bailey explained to TCR. "I think they were afraid that an academic would overemphasize their father's homosexuality, and he'd be relegated to a Queer Studies niche in academia. Such an outcome, I hasten to add, is a lot better than total oblivion, but the daughters can be forgiven for wanting a more catholic following for their father's work,"

The Sunnier Side and Other Stories,
2013 Vintage Books Edition.
Bailey told TCR that despite Charles Jackson's troubled life Farther and Wilder "was a pretty fun project...Jackson saved carbons of almost every letter he wrote as an adult, and these were almost entirely to be found in one pleasant place: the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College. The daughters were both helpful, sweet-natured people, and that makes a big difference, too. So the challenge is the inherent challenge of all biography writing: the killing labor of amassing as much information about one's subject as humanly possible, then winnowing it way, way down and shaping it into a lively narrative."

Here's more information --

Blake Bailey. "Weekend in the Sun" (Charles Jackson in Hollywood). Vanity Fair. March 2013.

Mark Connelly. Deadly Closets: The Fiction of Charles Jackson. University Press of America, 2001.

Ian Crouch. "The Book that Will Make You Never Want to Drink Again." The New Yorker. 10 July 2013.

James Daubs. "Hammered in the Closet: The Gay Novels of Lost Weekend Author Charles Jackson." Punchnel's.

Irene Lacher. "Sunday Conversation: Blake Bailey Rediscovers 'Lost Weekend' Author." Los Angeles Times. 19 April 2013.

Donna Rifkind. "The Lost Novelist." New York Times. 19 April 2013.

The Committee Room.  Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.


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