Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hangovers and the GDR

Anna Funder's Stasiland has been on the bookshelf beside my bed for, as far as I can work out, about the last four years. I always liked the look of it but it was never the right time. Then last week I took a break from Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, picked up Stasiland and haven't looked back. (Well, actually things have been complicated by the fact that I've started reading a books of short stories that arrived in Monday's post, creating a veritable nest of reading.)

Funder's book begins with her hungover, and thre's a description of being hungover which I find impressive:

...this is not one of those hangovers where you write the daty off to darkness. It is the more interesting kind, where destroyed synapses are reconstructing themselves, sometimes missing their old paths and making odd, new connections. I remember things I haven't remembered before – things that do not come out of the ordered store of memories I call my past. I remember my mother's moustache in the sun, I remember the acute hunger-and-loss feeling of adolescence, I remember the burnt-chalk smell of tram brakes in summer. You think you have your past filed away under subject headings, but, somewhere, it waits to reconnect itself.

I'm not taken with the specific memories, which are after all hers and not mine ('hunger-and-loss feeling' is lazy, and what does burnt chalk smell of). But the passage captures, or at least describes accurately, the vivid and complex experiences that can sometimes accompany a hangover. I don't know about the science of synapses reconstructing themselves, but the idea is a good one.

By chance I had my first really bad and really interesting hangover for months the other day, so the experience was fresh in my mind – the sense of being able to write something, for example, even though what you actually write is no more likely to be good than usual. A hangover is at least a jolt to the system. I wonder if the mind and body, in their poisoned state, lose their control a little and allow the poem room to emerge; the brain can't do any work, so it resolves to play. It's true for me at any rate that being drunk wipes out the capacity to write, but hangovers are another matter.


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