Book review: Olivia Laing’s latest work tackles loneliness in the most unexpected ways

Perhaps the most affecting and engaging aspect of Laing’s exploration arises from joining the author as her understanding and experience of loneliness moves away from the hellish abyss it seemed and becomes more complicated, more fecund, more affirmative.

What does it mean to be lonely? Studies of this most perplexing of emotional states can readily be found in western literary tradition. Drawing on Biblical themes, one thinks most readily of Edward’s view of soteriological (and sublunary) anguish in T.S. Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party (1950), in which “Hell is oneself, / Hell is alone, the other figures in it / Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from / And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”

Alfred Tennyson wrote of loneliness as a kind of refuge (his word is “bowery”), in which it is possible to live idyllically. Siegfried Sassoon said “The word is life endured and known”, the condition of being human: painful, perhaps, but also edifying and instructive.

And for Alice Walker and Saul Bellow, both talking in the 1970s, loneliness could be more emphatically desirable. For Walker, the “gift of loneliness” might offer “a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account”; for Bellow, it was possible that the lonely individual might feel “only his weakness. But if he accepted his weakness and his separateness and descended into himself, intensifying his loneliness, he discovered his solidarity with other isolated creatures.”

Although it is not primarily concerned with literary considerations of loneliness, many such attitudes inform British author and critic Olivia Laing's extraordinary, and extremely powerful, analysis of the phenomenon in her latest book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. But analysis is too dry, or too limiting, a word: it captures something of the book's rigour and incisiveness, but does not do justice to its range or tone, or to its status as a work of art and literature, and a celebration of the power of making.

Laing begins with memoir: with an account of the loneliness she felt after moving to New York to be with a man with whom she had fallen – “headlong and too precipitously” – in love, and of the feeling of radical uprootedness she was beset by when the man in question changed his mind about their relationship. “I found myself adrift,” writes Laing, “stunned by the swift arrival and even swifter departure of everything I thought I lacked.”

Having been so “cataclysmically dismissed”, as it is phrased later in the book, Laing found herself “clinging hopelessly to the city itself: the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the steam drifting up from beneath the streets”. She became a kind of flaneuse, fighting the surplus time she was faced with by going out for breakfast and walking “aimlessly through the exquisite cobbled streets or down to the promenade to gaze at the East River”.

After the walking came the difficulty – the “bad times” – of the evenings, when she would return to her room, sit on the couch, and “watch the world outside me going on through glass, a light bulb at a time”. In these twilight moments, Laing would be assailed by a feeling of acute loneliness, akin to despair: “If I could have put what I was feeling into words, the words would have been an infant’s wail: I don’t want to be alone. I want someone to want me. I’m lonely. I’m scared. I need to be loved, to be touched, to be held. It was the sensation of need that frightened me the most, as if I’d lifted the lid on an unappeasable abyss.”

It was while she was attempting to handle these feelings that Laing began to “fall in love with images, to find a solace in them” that she couldn’t find elsewhere. So immersed was she in these preoccupations – pictures on the one hand, loneliness on the other – that she had a vision of herself as a figure in a work of art: “I knew what I looked like. I looked like a woman in a Hopper painting.”

Hopper, of course, is the Ame­rican printmaker and painter, Edward Hopper, and Laing uses her recollection of her imaginative interaction with his work as an opportunity to modulate her narrative out of memoir and into a consideration of his life, his work, and their complex relationship with the question of loneliness. This establishes a pattern that is repeated throughout the rest of the book, in which Laing charts the evolution of her feelings about loneliness in relation to those raised by the lives and works of a number of artists, including (most notably) Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz and Zoe Leonard.

Perhaps the most affecting and engaging aspect of this exploration arises from joining Laing as, by way of the loving and sustained engagements she makes with her chosen artists, her understanding and experience of loneliness moves away from the hellish abyss it seemed when she first arrived in New York, and becomes more complicated, more fecund, more affirmative.

We see – in often beautiful, yet sometimes clichéd, prose – how her obsession with Hopper's painting, Nighthawks, helped her to become aware of the consolatory power of art and the act of looking ("as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness's strange, estranging spell"). We see how Warhol's art and difficulties with speech helped her to think of the loneliness of inarticulacy – of being misunderstood – as something that could enliven as well as quieten the heart. We see how her engagement with the example of Darger helped her to see loneliness as something that was not innate to a particularly shabby brand of human, but political, social, created, and thus combatable; and how these forces could be seen to inform the particularly pernicious kind of loneliness that afflicts – is made to afflict – women.

Finally, we see how loneliness might be understood not as something simply to be cowed by or endured, but as a force that allows us to lead lives that are rich in solidarity, thought and feeling.

Laing’s discussions of these matters are considered, authoritative, evocative, empathetic, and full of insight and illuminating comparisons. The attentiveness of her observations, the depth of her feeling, sharpens and enriches your own intellectual and emotional response to the questions she addresses, and does so in an atmosphere of intimate confession, and of gentle but restless rumination. To join Laing in that atmosphere is to enter a world that is at once dark and lambent, and in which loneliness features not just as an eternal fall, but as one of the treasures of what it is to be fully, briefly, human.

Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.