This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Review: 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater'

Some of you may be wondering why I chose to call this blog 'Undertheinfluence'. Well, my intention was to emphasis the fact that as aspiring (or, to put it in a way which sounds less up-my-own-arse, 'wannabe') writer, I will always be unavoidably influenced in one way or another by whatever I happen to be reading at the time (and everything else I've ever read). In that spirit I've decided that it would be a good idea to stick the occasional book review up here. 'Occasionally' meaning whenever I finish reading a book, which is nowhere near as often as it should be. I'll also do a poetry review every month, in keeping with my earlier pledge to read a collection every month.

The first book I'll be reviewing is Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which seems appropriate given the name of the blog. I had to read this for my 'Romantic Century (B)' module at uni, but (if you're reading Ian) it could also sit nicely on the 'Life Writing' reading list. At eighty-eight pages it is more properly a journalistic essay than a book, and was initially published in two parts in the London Review in 1821. Despite it's short length though the book is full of interesting episodes which give a rich picture of life in early 19th century Britain. For example, we are told that Manchester factory workers would often spend their wages on opium because 'the lowness of the wages... would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits'. Times have clearly changed. I've never tried to buy heroin, but I imagine it would cost me a fair bit more than a pint.

De Quincey's descriptions of being essentially homeless in London and Wales are intriguingly juxtaposed with episodes where he is mixing with young aristocrats at Eton, and the hallucinogenic Opium-dream sequences build layer upon layer of hypnotic detail. What is really interesting about this work though is de Quincey's style of writing which is capable of both wit and seriousness. For a confessional autobiography he doesn't actually give the reader much detail about his life in the period when he was taking opium, partly because of his decision to remain anonymous. This lack of background information does not seem to matter though as de Quincey guides the reader through a whirlwind off different associations, often addressing them directly.

I once saw a review of Trainspotting which described it as 'the voice of punk grown elequent', but this heroin story gives us a voice which is truly elegant.

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