There is a difference between choosing solitude and being forced into isolation. From the writer’s point of view at least. But I think for the reader too. I have struggled in the last week or so to turn to the books on my TBR pile. My mind is searching for solace.
Before all the chaos started I had finally got into reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. But with the greatest respect to her genius, who the hell wants to read about 16th century plagues and beheadings at the moment!
History has left us littered with determined literary isolationists from Thoreau to Yeats, they perhaps were more easily able to arrange their lives to be free of any domestic responsibilities and never once had to go to Lidl or worry about standing six feet apart.
Now in our forced isolation we no longer have the luxury of popping home for Sunday lunch or nipping into town to get a packet of seeds for our nine bean rows.
Here are five books that find solace in isolation.
Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton
I first came across this journal of American poet May Sarton about a decade ago and I still return to passages. She could turn the simplest observation into a wonder.
“The autumn crocus is marvellous and the lavendar asters, blue flames among the fallen leaves. I picked crocus for the Venetian glass on the mantel in the cozy room, and a few late roses. Then I cooked supper. The puffball was a terrifying mustardy green and tasted rather bitter.”
Sarton said: The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the light of a changing room…
Of Virginia Woolf – inventor of A Room of One’s Own, the work that more than any forged an indelible link between peace and quiet and the writer’s art – Sarton says:
“Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless – not only the novels (every one a breakthrough form) but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, the social life…two houses…”
My second choice is the wonderful Olivia Laing’s meditation on the art of being alone which I reviewed some time back.
“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”
The author writes:
“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
Now here is something interesting. At the moment no-one is feasting. No matter where you might go on the planet (in your imagination of course) would it be possible to envisage any feast. Misfortune is a great leveller in that respect.
Maybe it is harder to feel lonely and isolated indoors when everyone else is in the same boat.
This story about a young woman trying to transform her life against all the odds is definitely an isolationist’s dream read.
When I originally reviewed this In April 2018 I wrote : ….
“This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.”
Many people loved this book and I was one of them with its message that even the loneliest of us can be fixed if we can just find the will to get up and out the door and address our problems, preferably leaving the vodka bottle in the bin where it belongs.
For me one of the most perfectly formed literary ‘outsider’ characters is the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.
Beirut is a city which has survived numerous attacks and invasions, sometimes from within, sometimes from without. As with most wars, to those trying to save their ordinary lives from damage and destruction, it hardly matters who the aggressor is.
Aaliya is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment in Beirut. She has lived there alone since her husband left, fighting off the impredations of various half-brothers, in-laws and her despised mother – who would like to take the apartment away from her.
Aaliya’s life has been books. She spent her working life in a bookshop and read her way through most of the stock and then some. All the learning she has acquired has been by reading. She has an intellectual life which manifests in translating great works of literature into Arabic, including Anna Karenina, and then carefully storing the results away from prying eyes.
Looking back over her war torn city and her life, Aaliya often feels small and worthless. She says:
“In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe.”
From the reader’s perspective this lady is no more or less infinitesimal anybody else. It does have an upbeat ending though. The narrator thinks she is friendless and alone but finds in her hour of most need that people pop out of the woodwork.
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (Corsair)
“The Marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labelled by early explorers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because riptides, furious winds and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina Coast.”
From a shack in this environment in the early 1950s, a young mother walks away from her life with a violent husband and from her children. The youngest child, Kya, is just 7 years old. For a couple of years she still has the remnants of her family but later Kya’s older brothers and sisters are driven out too. Eventually the father walks out, leaving Kya alone aged 10 years old, in a shack in the middle of a swamp.
Within the context of the story, Kya’s survival as the ‘Marsh girl’ as she comes to be known by the locals, is credible although from a modern sensibility it seems unlikely. Living on the ragged edge of a forgotten and derided community, at a time when there was no social services and certainly no surveillance. No one noticed much if a child was not in school.
But the scientist author is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the ecology of the marshlands and there are many passages of lyrical description which make up for any slightly suspect plot points.