'Not the opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale'
Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
Opium doesn't get much of a look in anymore ever since its big brother heroin joined the party, so a book all about it is understandably compelling. The thought of opium seems to evoke images of impossibly elegant people languidly dreaming the day away in louche seclusion, and this book has that feeling in spades. But first, let me backtrack a little bit.
Published in 1821, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is Thomas De Quincey's autobiography, covering his teenage exploits (read: running away, starving half to death and whiling away the hours in the company of child prostitutes) as well as his opium addiction. I'd never even heard of it before I came to university but I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it - it's also only 79 pages long which is a bonus when you're studying one book per week and so carelessly neglected to read any of them before term started...
One of the most compelling things about Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is, surprise surprise, the opium. The book doesn't have much plot or structure, leaving De Quincey room to float around in his opium-induced fantasy world, which he describes in lavish detail. To be frank, sometimes I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but it all seemed so gorgeous that I didn't mind. De Quincey also provides interesting insights into the opium culture of the time, ranging from celebrity gossip about fellow addicts among contemporary public figures to statistics regarding opium use by the working classes. Confessions is regarded as the very first drugs memoir, paving the way for modern 'tell all' autobiography culture - one of my lecturers even spent a whole hour discussing the influence De Quincey had on Pete Doherty.
All of this praise is not without an addendum, however. This is probably going to put everyone off reading it, but I think that Thomas De Quincey is the most unlikeable person I have ever encountered, in real life or otherwise. He brags and lies his way through the entire book, constantly writing about how much of a genius he is and slipping in snippets of untranslated Ancient Greek because he can. Don't take everything he writes as truth without researching it. For example: he makes a big point out of his entirely innocent relationship with his prostitute friends, but his personal papers reveal that this relationship was not nearly as innocent as he tries to claim - 'go to the same fat whore's as I was at the last time; - gave her 1s and a cambrick pocket handkerchief; - go home miserable'. Oh dear. BUT! There is always a but. This doesn't make the book bad. In fact, it's probably one of my favourite things about Confessions: I gained inordinate amounts of pleasure from shouting 'THOMAS! STOP BEING SUCH A LITTLE BITCH!' at my book as though we were feuding siblings. I did this both often and out loud, and very much enjoyed myself. Maybe I need to get out more.
This book is hard to fit neatly into one category: it's partly an exposé on the seedy underbelly of Victorian London, partly a trust fund kid's memoir that tries to win sympathy from readers by blurring the line between truth and lies. But wherever it belongs, there is no denying that Confessions is one of the most fascinating and unusual books I have ever read.
(I know I said I'd have this post up on Friday and that it is now Saturday (nearly Sunday) but I ended up falling asleep during all my allotted blog writing time after I was taken on an unexpectedly long walk, so let's just pretend. In the spirit of De Quincey, I also have a confession of my own: this isn't actually one of my summer reading list books - I studied it for my exam this term. But cut me some slack, because I have to actually read something before I can write about it and DAMN those Victorian novels are long!)