The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Cover image I was attracted to Olivia Laing’s new book partly because of its setting – that old New York lure – partly because I’d enjoyed her exploration of the relationship between writers and drink, The Trip to Echo Spring. In The Lonely City she explores loneliness through the work of four artists – Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger – prompted by her own descent into chronic loneliness after a love affair collapsed leaving her untethered.

Laing applies the same forensic research skills to her artists as she did to the four writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, videos and the artists’ works. Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of Nighthawks will understand why she chose Hopper as one of her subjects. Warhol may seem a less likely choice given the incessant party that seemed to surround him but, as she persuasively argues, that was a symptom of his loneliness. Both David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger were new to me although when I googled him I was struck by the familiarity of an image of Wojnarowicz, lips stitched together as part of his work as an AIDS activist. You may recognise the svelte young man shot at various New York locations wearing a Rimbaud mask which seems to be his best known work. Darger’s art seems the most strange with its watercolours depicting children rebelling against their enslavement by adults. Darger spent much of his life as a janitor and was almost certainly mentally ill. His paintings were found by a neighbour just weeks before he died. Woven through her studies of these four are Laing’s own experiences and her exploration of urban loneliness in the modern age.

I remember being struck by Laing’s graceful writing style in The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City is marked by the same elegance of expression – her descriptions of some of the artworks make you want to get on the next plane to see them. That said, this is not an easy book to read: it’s intensely cerebral at times but that’s not the reason. Laing’s own experience of loneliness is raw and painful, and her eloquence makes it all the more so. She unflinchingly articulates the shame loneliness makes us feel, the assumption that only the pathetic are lonely despite statistics which suggest its increase in modern society. Her exploration of loneliness during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is particularly affecting – the isolation of both the bereaved and those stigmatised by the ignorance of others, starved of touch or company, is heartrending. As she points out her observations on our love affair with connectedness via the internet and its effects on our increasing physical alienation may not be original but they’re no less persuasive for all that and her exploration of its history is fascinating, if hair-raising, with its descriptions of internet entrepreneur Josh Harris‘s willingness to put every aspect of his relationship online. Laing concludes her study with the observation that ‘loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive’ – comforting words for those who need it and wise ones, too.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for Laing’s book you might like to read an extract and the feature it prompted in the Observer a week or so ago.

23 thoughts on “The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone”

  1. I’ve got this book on my ‘very soon to be read’ list. I am considered an extrovert, and yet I relish the loneliness in big cities – or the art of being alone. Am never bored. Although it is easier, I suppose, to feel lonely in a city than in the countryside. Sounds like a very thoughtful and well-written book.

    1. It’s beautifully expressed, Marina. Very raw at times but so elegantly expressed. I also enjoy the anonymity of big cities – I always know, however, that I have someone to go home to.

  2. Nice use of links to expand on the key artists Laing covers. I just read and reviewed this myself – the book struck very deep chords with me and has informed some of the writing I am engaged in. I also enjoyed Trip to Echo Spring, as an essayist Laing has a way of bringing people to life with just the right amount of depth and detail, balanced against a journey informed by her own life experience.

    1. Thank you – I shall pop over to your review shortly. Yes, it struck a chord for me, too, particularly when she talks about the loneliness of grief. I think that in less skilful hands it might have become mawkish but she manages to combine eloquence and rawness in a way that’s most affecting. Her writing on the artists’ work was wonderfully vivid too.

  3. In an unusual step for me, I’ve been reading reviews of this although I haven’t written my own for it yet. Mostly because I think everyone’s going to have a different, personal reaction to it but also because I want to know if everyone feels the same way I do about Laing’s writing and her ability to make connections where you might not expect them. I loved this book for so many reasons. Pleased to see you felt the same way!

    1. Yes, I think everyone’s reaction will reflect their own experience. She has that rare quality of blending the personal with her subjects’ lives without turning the book into a confessional memoir. I think she did the same with The Trip to Echo Spring but this is even more raw at times. Looking forward to seeing what you made of it.

  4. lonesomereadereric

    Great to read your thoughts about this. In one way, I sped through reading this book as I felt so intensely involved in the subject matter. But, in another way, you’re right it’s difficult to read about because the subject matter is so personal – both to the author and the feelings it draws out of the reader. I’m really looking forward to reading her previous two books.

    1. Thank you, Eric. I admire her bravery in writing about loneliness in such a raw, intensely personal way yet combining it with an erudite exploration of her subjects. I haven’t read To the River but I think if this one spoke to you you’ll enjoy The Trip to Echo Spring.

  5. Loneliness is such an interesting topic (and the shame of feeling lonely). You can be alone without feeling lonely, or you can feel lonely while surrounded by people. And it’s so interesting to wonder about how the internet contributes to the subject. Does it make lonely people more lonely; preventing them from going out to make real-life connections? Or does it help (any connection is better than none)? The answer is probably somewhere in between and different for everyone. I’d love to read what she has to say about it!

    1. She’s particularly articulate on the shame of loneliness, Naomi, and how hard it is to admit to it. I know what you mean about internet connections – I’ve worked from home for years and have found social media very helpful in alleviating the loneliness of that during the day but I’m fortunate enough to have friends and a partner to turn to in the evening and at weekends. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have those real-life connections.

  6. Great review – I really want to read this and Laing’s other books sound really interesting too. Loneliness and the shame of loneliness are more pertinent than ever in modern society. I watched a BBC documentary called The Age of Loneliness a couple of months ago which was fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure – it’s a must-watch if you haven’t already seen it.

    1. Thank you, both for your kind words and for pointing me in the direction of the documentary. I’ll see if it’s still on iPlayer.

  7. Great review Susan. I’m pretty desperate to read this book, I’ve loved everything I’ve read of Laing’s. Not sure if you’ve read To the River, but that is also an excellent read and one that propelled me to finally get around to reading Woolf. I also loved The Trip to Echo Spring. Now I’ve read your review of this, I want to read it even more.

    1. Thank you, and how lovely to hear from you! It’s been a long time. I haven’t read To the River but I think I need to complete the set. I so admire the way Laing manages to combine elegance of style with a raw honesty and erudition.

  8. Superb review Susan… already intrigued by this one, you’ve not only confirmed my initial interest is warranted but managed to introduce addition reasons for reading… SOLD

    1. Thank you, Poppy! Lots hear to keep you interested and make you think. I wonder what she’ll tackle next.

  9. This is one of a handful of new books that I would like to read at some point this year. I loved Echo Spring, so it’s great to see your thoughts on this one. Like Roughghosts, I really like the way Laing balances her thoughts on these topics with reflections on her own experiences.

    1. That balance is such a hard trick to pull off, too, but she does it beautifully. I read Roughghosts’ excellent review yesterday. We finished with the same quote which encapsulates the book’s message, I think, and gives hope and comfort to those who need it

  10. I haven’t read this one, but last summer I read To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, which tracks her journey that follows the course of the River Ouse, narrating different historical events that occurred and changed along its banks, most famously of course, it was the Ouse River that claimed the life of Virgina Woolf.

    There was an underlying reference to her own journey, it was a turning point in her life, but she did not dwell on that.

    1. I haven’t read that yet, Claire, but I’ve added it to my list. She seems to reveal something of herself in each of her books. This one seemed to me to be the more intensely personal of the two that I’ve read although not cloyingly so.

  11. Excellent review! I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to read this, but your review has pushed me over the edge. I enjoy this kind of thoughtful mix of cultural history and autobiography, and the writing of the excerpt is superb.

  12. Pingback: Trading Futures by Jim Powell: The unravelling of a betting man | A life in books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.