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Green fairy liquid

15 May 2004

12:00 AM

15 May 2004

12:00 AM

Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle Jad Adams

I. B. Tauris, pp.294, 18.95

A gushy woman told Whistler that she thought he was the greatest artist since Velazquez. ‘Why drag in Velazquez?’ Whistler drawled. One of the bonuses of any book on absinthe is that it drags in — corrals — more or less all the great French artists and writers from the 1860s to the early 1900s, and a few English ones too, such as Beardsley and Wilde. But it also brings in less celebrated figures, like Charles Cros, who died from his 20-glasses-a-day absinthe habit in 1888.

The son of a French doctor of law and philosophy, Cros was a poet. Adams devotes an appendix to Cros’ poem ‘Lendemain’, about the effects of absinthe-drinking. Like so many French poems, it is swooningly mystical and sonorous in the original, but seems magniloquent and over the top when rendered into the language of John Bull:

Absinthe drunk on a winter evening
Lights up in green the smoky soul;
And the flowers on the darling one
Exude perfume before the bright fire.

Cros was not only a poet. Adams tells us that he taught himself Hebrew and Sanskrit at the age of 11: studied philology, medicine and astrology in Paris; and became a prolific inventor. The phonograph he developed in 1877, called a Paréophone, preceded Edison’s. Cros also invented an ‘automatic telegraph’, discovered a method of synthesising rubies and was a pioneer of colour photography.

He was a lover of the salonnière Nina de Callias and a friend of Manet, Verlaine and Rimbaud. (He was with the two poets in the Rat Mort café in Paris when Rimbaud stabbed Verlaine’s wrists deeply. Verlaine later called him ‘the dearly lamented Charles Cros’.) His poetry included a symbolist monologue, ‘The Green Day’, in which the green man goes through the day experiencing nothing but green, his drink inevitably being absinthe. In 1883 Cros formed the Zutistes, dedicated to ‘incoherence and paradox’: the surrealists regarded him as a significant predecessor. Adams adds:

When he created the Zutistes, Cros left behind a poetic grouping who, not to be outdone, called themselves the Jemenfoutists (the ‘I don’t give a fuckists’).

Marie Corelli, in the 1913 novel she entitled Wormwood (in reference to one of the prime ingredients of absinthe), paid tribute to Cros, ‘whose distinctly great abilities were never encouraged or recognised in his lifetime’. Jad Adams calls him ‘the great polymath of his age’.

What is the difference between a polymath and a dilettante? Answer: a polymath can embrace many — and very different — disciplines without prejudice to any of them; and a dilettante can’t. Jad Adams is himself an extraordinary polymath. Most people to whom that label can be pinned at least confine their expertise to, say, beaux arts with a dollop of belles lettres on the side. But Adams has written a first-rate biography of Tony Benn and ditto of the 1890s poet Ernest Dowson — the man who gave us

… I was desolate and sick of an old passion


and

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine

not to mention

I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

A is for absinthe and B is for Benn, and alphabetical order is the only place the twain are likely to meet. (As the old army saying goes, ‘You’ll only find sympathy in the dictionary, between “shit” and “syphilis”.’) It is hard to visualise Benn’s laying aside his pipe for a moment to take a voluptuous swig of absinthe. (George Melly or Sir Roy Strong might, perhaps, indulge?) A few weeks ago I found myself in the same carriage as Benn, on a southbound train from Waterloo. He was deep in conversation with Jonathan Dimbleby, and I felt he would not be charmed if I suddenly reared up from my seat and demanded, ‘Mr Benn, have you ever had a glass of absinthe?’ So I continue to believe that the subjects of Adams’s books are polar opposites, and that he is a true polymath.

Whether writing about Benn or absinthe, Adams faced stiff competition. In Benn’s case, there were the diaries, tape-recorded by the politician each night. With absinthe, there are two very recent books to contend with: Phil Baker’s The Dedalus Book of Absinthe (2001) and Marie-Claude Delahaye’s L’Absinthe, son histoire (2002). Adams acknowledges the work of both authors, but is slightly more complimentary about that of Delahaye, who has set up a Museum of Absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise, the town where Van Gogh — an avid guzzler of the green stuff — killed himself.

You can tell from Adams’s bibliography that he did not need to rely on anybody else’s book on absinthe for information. His research has been omnivorous and meticulous. The sources he has drawn upon include Nicole Albert’s ‘Sappho Mythified, Sappho Mystified or the Metamorphosis of Sappho in Fin de Siècle France’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 1993; Herbert L. Bonkovsky et al., ‘Porphyrogenic Properties of the Terpenes Camphor, Pinene and Thujone’, Biochemical Pharmacology, 1982; Leslie Choquette, ‘Homosexuals in the City: Representations of Lesbian and Gay Space in 19th-Century Paris’ Journal of Homosexuality, 2001; Karin M. Hold et al., ‘Alpha-thujone (the active component of absinthe): Gamma-Aminobutyric acid type A receptor modulation and metabolic detoxification’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 2000; and Lucy H. Hooper, ‘Parisian Maniacs and Madhouses’, Lippincott’s Magazine, 1878.

Jad Adams has assimilated all this material, and much besides — historical, medical, social, cultural — and melded it into a most beguiling book. As those who have read his biographies know, he is the master of a classically lucid style enlivened by dashes of the colloquial and by entertaining detail. He begins this book by defining his subject. In the 19th century absinthe was a liqueur with alcohol, wormwood (in Greek apsinthion) and anise as essential ingredients. It had an alcohol level of up to 75 per cent. The wormwood gave it a bitter taste, so sugar was often added, sometimes with a silver ‘absinthe spoon’. The addition of water to the emerald liquid freed plant oils suspended in the alcohol and made it a cloudy pale green drink, an effect known as ‘louching’. ‘Many dreamy hours were spent in observing this magical process taking place in a glass.’ The mind-expanding properties of absinthe were to some extent confirmed by research in the 1970s and 1990s, which suggested that the chemical thujone found in wormwood has a peculiarly stimulating effect on the brain’s chemistry.

Absinthe had a part in the creation of the French overseas empire in North Africa and Indo-China when it was used as a disinfectant and anti-malarial by the troops. The military brought a taste for it back from their campaigns. It became a ‘patriotic tonic’ for the bourgeoisie, at first too expensive for the working class. Adams points out that absinthe figures not at all in Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, first published in a review in 1848, then in book form in 1851 — the basis of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. But the drink became associated with artists soon after the mid-19th century.

It is tempting for anyone who writes about absinthe to over-dramatise the subject. In the late 19th century, many held that it caused madness, even ‘degeneracy in the entire French race’. It was referred to as ‘the devil in a bottle’; ‘filthy decoctions’; ‘villainous stuff’; ‘a vile green lubricant’; ‘the green fairy’; and ‘the queen of poisons’. Adams is scrupulously careful, in general, not to blame absinthe for the decline and fall of the
famous writers and artists of whom he gives marvellously evocative thumbnail sketches. Most of these people, he thinks, turned to absinthe not for any mystical qualities, but because of its high alcohol content.

French doctors of the 19th century made elaborate experiments with absinthe and wrote learned and damning papers on what they called ‘absinthism’. A Dr S. D. Lalou of the Sorbonne administered powerful essences of absinthe to dogs, which duly suffered agitation, minor convulsions and then ‘epileptiform seizure’. (One presumes the poor mutts were given ‘a hair of the human being’ on the morning after the night before.) ‘Absinthism’ was hardly to be distinguished from common or garden alcoholism; but the wine-producers, badly hit by the vine-pest, were happy to foster the idea that absinthe was ‘leprous’, a unique menace. In the early years of the 20th century, the drink was banned in Switzerland, Belgium, France and the United States (a harbinger there of all-out Prohibition) — but, oddly enough, not in Britain, where, Adams records:

Absinthe became so unpopular, so associated with the decadents and with the hated French, that no government felt a need to take steps against it…

In the naughty 1990s, the fashion for absinthe was revived in English bars — Adams gives a chapter to this development. The revival came from Czecho- slovakia. The musician John Moore set up ‘Green Bohemia’ with the businessman George Rowley to import absinthe to Britain, brokering a deal with a Czech firm headed by 81-year-old Radomil Hill. (The Hill family’s distillery had been taken from them by the communists, but Radomil had memorised his father’s recipes.) The product was cleverly advertised — ‘Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1899’, with a warning to licensees not to sell anyone more than two shots. I thought I’d better do some practical research for this review, so ordered a Hill’s absinthe in the Rib Room bar of the Carlton Tower hotel. Delivering it, the head barman, Rey, did his bit for the drink’s abiding image by saying, ‘Let us know if you have any hallucinations.’ Before water is added, Hill’s absinthe is an exquisite pale greeny-blue — I can’t think of any precious stone to compare it with. (Sorry if that sounds rather fin-de-siècle, but I was very struck by it.) When I added water, the absinthe didn’t ‘louche’ — turn cloudy. The beautiful pale colour just got a little paler. I liked the taste, which was neither pungently aniseedy, like a Pernod or ouzo, nor so bitter that I felt the need of sugar. No hallucinations.

Like Adams’s other books, Hideous Absinthe is salted with funny anecdotes. One is of the absinthe-quaffing art critic Theodore Pelloquet, who was ‘never without an absinthe until he died at 48, half paralysed and able only to say “abs…”’ Some of his grieving friends chose to assume that he was calling for absolution. Then there was the Bostonian millionaire playboy Harry Crosby, who wrote in his diary in March 1925: ‘Jasper invented Enosinthe, half-absinthe, half Eno’s Fruit Salts.’

Adams’s research has been so comprehensive that I can add little to his findings. However, when he mentions the absinthe-toping artist Adolphe Monticelli, who influenced Van Gogh (in both painting and drinking), he might have quoted what Walter Sickert said about him in the book A Free House. Monticelli favoured a thick impasto, like tinted porridge: Sickert wrote bitchily of ‘his paddled palettes, jewelled mud pies of fancy’. And again, though Adams mentions Henry Harland, editor of The Yellow Book and friend of Henry James, I suspect that one of the few books that have escaped his net is Karl Beckson’s Henry Harland: His Life and Work (1978). Beckson quotes a letter of July 1895 in which Harland urges the publisher John Lane to join him in Dieppe:

We’ll bathe in the sea, and drink absinthe on the terrace of the casino, and lose our money at petits-chevaux, and do all sorts of amusing, foolish things.

Beckson also gives us Harland’s letters of July 1900 to Edmund Gosse, sent from Lago Maggiore: ‘There are white peacocks in the garden … though (alas!) there’s no absinthe to feed ’em with.’ Beckson explains: ‘This alludes to an anecdote told about Harland who once taught a peacock at a café in the Bois de Boulogne to eat cake soaked in absinthe.’ Harland made use of the incident in his novel The Lady Paramount (1902). One of the characters, a Miss Sandus, tells the Countess of Sampaolo of a literary man who had trained a peacock to eat sponge cake soaked in absinthe. The countess asks, ‘What happened to the poor peacock?’ Miss Sandus replies, ‘When you’re married and come to stay with me in Kensington, I’ll ask the literary man to dinner.’

Those small grace-notes are hardly missed in Jad Adams’s book, which gives us so many more. Hideous Absinthe is a model of how to convey the exhilaration of an exciting subject without getting all melodramatic. In reading it — whirled through encounters with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Verlaine in aniseed-scented cafés — I almost experienced the hallucinations that failed to materialise at the Carlton Tower.


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