Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone focuses on four artists (Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz), their awareness of "the gulfs between people," and how loneliness can ultimately inspire creativity. Laing explores the link between loneliness and literature in 10 books.
I'm fascinated by loneliness – what it looks like, how it feels, what it does to people – and it seems I'm not the only one. There is a substantial literature of loneliness; unsurprising considering that separation and connection are among the abiding preoccupations of the novel.
The strange, almost magical thing about these books is that in examining loneliness they also serve as an antidote to it. Loneliness is by its nature a profoundly isolating experience. But if a novel or memoir succeeds in mapping its icy regions, then it can alleviate something of the acute, pain of feeling islanded, cut off from the world at large.
Here, then, is a community of lonely books. Together, they announce that if you've ever felt loneliness, you are by no means alone.
1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - Books about loneliness often involve monsters, the only one of their kind, hideous and unlovable (The Tempest's Caliban is another example). Who is sadder or more alone than Frankenstein's Creature, unloved even by the man who made him? The Creature only turns to violence when he realises he is absolutely despised by those he encounters – worse, that he is sexually undesirable, romantically beyond the pale. It's hard to think of a more powerful invocation of loneliness than the final pages, as he leaps from the window of the boat and is "borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance."
2. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys - Rhys is the queen of loneliness, its permanent citizen and unwilling bard. No one has written about its humiliations with more elegance or insight. In my favourite of her books, the slim, supple, extraordinarily deft modernist classic Good Morning, Midnight, she tells the story of Sasha, on her uppers and out of luck, keeling towards alcoholism and adrift in Paris with barely a franc to her name. Sasha stays in cheap hotels, sneered at by chambermaids, and drinks alone in bars, on the prowl for company. But nothing can protect her from her own pitiless vision of existence, as beautifully described as it is devastating to confront.
3. The Journals of John Cheever - I first began thinking about loneliness as a subject when I was working on my last book, The Trip to Echo Spring, about writers and alcoholism. Many of the writers I studied suffered badly from loneliness, and none more than the wonderful short story writer John Cheever. His gargantuan diaries are a monument to unspeakable loneliness, much of which stemmed from his inability to confront or accept his own homosexual desires.
4. The Wall by by Marlen Haushofer - One of the subsets of loneliness literature is the disaster that leaves a single survivor, a genre that dates right back to Robinson Crusoe, marooned on his island. It's frequently deployed in science fiction – I Am Legend springs to mind. But you might also consider Marlen Haushofer's The Wall, a 1963 Austrian novel that deals with the travails of an unnamed woman who must survive in the rural landscape where she has been vacationing, after an unexplained event creates a transparent wall that seals her off from the outside world, with only a cow, a cat, and a dog for company.
5. Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes - Bereavement is often a cause of loneliness: the loss of the beloved, without whom intimate connection is impossible. The French cultural critic Roland Barthes is best known as the author of Camera Lucida and The Death of the Author. Despite his wide-ranging mind, he spent his adult life cohabiting with his mother in Paris. When she died in 1977, he wrote this raw and anguished diary, originally on scraps of paper, about how it feels to inhabit the world when the cherished other, the loved one, has gone for good.
6. Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame - The New Zealand novelist Janet Frame is best known for her three-volume memoir, later filmed as An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion. As a young woman, she spent years in a mental hospital after a breakdown was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. There she was given 200 rounds of electro-shock therapy, and only released when her first collection of short stories won a national award. She wrote this spare, poetic, immensely distressing novel a few years later, while living in London. It was based closely on real events, and at her request not published in her lifetime. It deals with a single weekend in the life of Grace: like the author a cripplingly shy New Zealand novelist abroad in chilly 1960s England. Grace is mortified by her own sense of ugliness and absolutely incapable of ordinary social demands. I don't think I've ever read anything that deals so beautifully with extreme self-consciousness and the isolation it produces.
7. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin - Now I come to think of it, many of my favourite books as a child were to do with lonely children, from the orphan Tolly in The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston to shy Jeff in A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt. One of the most enduring is The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in the Earthsea series, about a young priestess who traps the titular wizard, Ged, in a labyrinth where prisoners are habitually starved to death. The Tombs of Atuan is concerned with magic and myth, yes, but also with loneliness and the dreadful consequences of self-isolating behaviour – and the way kindness can act to dissolve it.
8. Ice by Anna Kavan - Anna Kavan was a British novelist who wrote electrically strange and weirdly beautiful novels. A middle-class heroin addict, 1967's Ice was her masterpiece. Some kind of unexplained apocalyptic event has taken place, bringing with it an ice shelf that is engulfing the planet. In nameless frozen cities and across dangerously militarised borders, three people struggle with the bonds they inflict on one another. None of it makes sense, exactly; instead, it creates indelible landscapes and scenarios of paranoia and threat, where nobody connects or finds what they need. Chilling, in all senses of the word.
9. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus - The cultural critic and filmmaker Chris Kraus's semi-fictionalised 1990s novel is having a moment right now. Hardly any wonder. It's about unrequited love, female abjection, desire and power: a timely brew. In it, Kraus sets out her "lonely girl phenomenology", exploring the connections between her own intimate disappointments and the glaring power disparities between the sexes. Along the way, she turns the spotlight on several extraordinary female artists who were sidelined or disparaged, among them Hannah Wilke and Katherine Mansfield. An essential book, especially for those who have not yet realised that loneliness and isolation are political as well as personal.
10. Happy Days by Samuel Beckett - All of Beckett's work deals with isolation and language, the way words don't quite bridge the spaces between us. Buried up to her waist in earth, rooting in her handbag beneath a dazzling spotlight, Winnie is an tragicomic emblem of the human condition: each one of us alone, embedded in our own routines. Desperate for company, she chatters away to her taciturn husband Willie, telling him nervously: "Just to know that in theory you can hear me, even though in fact you don’t is all I need." As the play proceeds, her condition gets more and more impossible, and yet she retains her faith in the possibility of a happy day, both her tragedy and her saving grace.