John Linklater

Death Writes

The Drinker

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The Legend of the Holy Drinker

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The authors of these two posthumously-published works both died alcoholic. Roth’s book was written during the first four months of 1939 in a Paris bar where he was dying. Fallada’s semi-autobiographical novel was written during a fortnight of the Autumn of 1944 in an asylum for the criminally insane, where he was held pending charges for the attempted murder of his estranged wife.

Both stories deal with protagonists who hit bottom, who have slumped beyond hope. Both, as Fallada’s hero terms himself, are great sufferers. They may be saved only by the intervention of a series of mercies, or little miracles, leading to death (in the case of Roth’s hero) or to a plan of suicide (in Fallada’s). Roth’s hero dies, drunk, with an hallucination of a saint before him – his creditress, Saint Therése of Lisieux. Death here comes into the category of blessed relief, and (we must forgive Roth who himself died within weeks of completing the story) is portrayed as being attended with a kind of grace. Fallada’s hero, confined like the author in a closely guarded institution, comforts himself with a dying request for a bottle and a vision of his own secular saint – his queen of alcohol, voluptuary of his self-abasement – to draw him into a last bout of intoxication and amnesia. ‘And if it happens thus in my hour of death, I shall bless my life, and I shall not have suffered in vain,’ he says in the final sentence of the novel. ‘May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death,’ writes Roth in the final sentence of his novella.

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