“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend hat it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

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“The House Of Sleep” by Jonathan Coe (1997)

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house-sleep“It was their final quarrel, that much was clear.”

When I was in sixth form I studied Psychology, and one of the most interesting aspects of the course was the module on sleep. It turns out that no one really knows why we sleep, what purpose it serves, what dreams are, why they happen, or what benefit sleep has. For something so ubiquitous in our lives, it seems insane to think that we have never worked out what it’s for. In this novel, we explore some of the more unusual aspects of what is already a very unusual scenario.

Ashdown is a house for students. They come and go, but the bonds they form are deep and long-lasting. In one room is the narcoleptic Sarah, who has such vivid dreams that she is convinced that they happened for real, getting her into trouble with others, not least housemate Robert, who loves Sarah deeply and will apparently stop at nothing to win her love. Elsewhere in the house is Terry requires fourteen hours of sleep a night, and there’s also Gregory, a psychology student who aspires to greatness.

Twelve years later, Ashdown is now a sleep clinic, where Dr Gregory Dudden now studies and treats people who are struggling with narcolepsy, insomnia, sleeptalking, sleepwalking and a whole host of other conditions. But he’s not the only one that has returned, and soon it seems that these four are destined to be reunited at the house where they grew up, only to find that things are not quite as they were. Chapters alternate between their student days, and a time over a decade later where they’ve all grown up and, for a time, lost contact with one another. But secrets have lain dormant for years, and soon their lives are interconnected once more, whether they want them to be or not.

I feared when the novel began that it was going to be another one of those novels where an author attempts to show off his intelligence through the well-read, political, culturally-aware student characters. You know the sort. While there is a little of this from one character in particular (two if you count a character who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film), I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t going to just be world-weary students sitting round like they’d got everything figured out. Like all good books, it treads that fine like of being very funny, as well as breaking your heart a tiny bit too, all while making you want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.

Gregory Dudden is entirely unsympathetic, a scientist with a one-track-mind and an obsession that has got out of hand and led him down a very dark path indeed. Apparently disrespected by fellow students and then later by his staff, he seems to care little about what people actually think of him and so hasn’t realised what an insufferable, unpleasant, smug creep he is. Despite dating Sarah presumably because he was attracted to her, it later transpires he mostly bothers with her so he can study her condition, as well as indulge in a sexual game that only he enjoys that involves pressing down on her eyelids. This act scars her for life and has a strong impact on her future relationships and psychology.

The other characters are more pleasant, although all flawed in their own ways. Terry has gone from being someone who needs a lot of sleep to an insomniac, and like Gregory, has an obsession that has consumed much of his life, although he at least seems to be handling it slightly better. Sarah is perhaps the least flawed character, but even she seems able to act in spite and not really think through what she’s doing. Robert is kind, but needy and can’t accept that Sarah won’t ever love him. Her relationship with him at university has a huge impact on his future and his life is changed forever by her vivid dreams.

The novel does seem to rely rather heavily on coincidence, and a small cast of characters keep overlapping one another and finding themselves magnetically drawn to others who have links to their pasts and yet, somehow, it works. It makes sense. Besides, I can’t complain about that. My own novel relies extensively on coincidence for the later plot to work. So despite this minor niggle, I really enjoyed the story. The characters feel well-rounded and when it ended I found myself wishing that there was more. The ending is somehow bittersweet, and you can’t claim happy endings for everyone, but there’s definitely a sense of hope there.

A dream, rather than a nightmare.

“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts (2012)

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my-policeman“I considered starting with these words: I no longer want to kill you – because I really don’t – but then decided you would think this far too melodramatic.”

Despite America’s attempts to drag us back into the past, we’ve definitely come a long way in the last few decades. My latest read was set in Brighton, a city notable for its collection of the weird and wonderful, as well as seeming to always have been a haven for anyone who felt like they didn’t fit in. It was for this reason, according to many, that it became home to so many of the LGBT community. But Britain wasn’t always so tolerant, even in Brighton, and this book explores the city in the 1950s.

Teenager Marion has just met Tom, the older brother of her best friend and she is in love. His blond hair, his strong arms – he’s perfect. They meet again when they’re a little older, and he teaches her to swim in the sea, and she becomes convinced that they are going to get married and her love will be enough to propel them though a beautiful future.

Elsewhere, Patrick has just met Tom, a policeman with an interest in art and culture, which seems very unusual. Immediately smitten, Patrick teaches Tom more about these subjects, and the two begin meeting more regularly until it becomes clear that there is a little more than art appreciation on their minds. But this is the 1950s, and so it will be safer for Tom to marry Marion. Both blinded by their love for their policeman and prepared to ignore what’s right in front of them for a sniff of happiness, they must share him, but it all becomes too much one day, and something’s got to give.

The novel opens with the three characters now living together in 1999; although while Marion and Tom are still married, Patrick is a guest and being looked after by them after his second stroke. Half of the book is narrated by Marion, writing to Patrick about what really happened back when they were young, as she hopes he’ll be able to hear the truth before it’s too late. The other half is from Patrick’s point of view, as taken from his journal in the fifties where he is very cagey about naming his lover, referring to him as simply “my policeman”. Despite the perfectly good reason the two have for hating one another, they are curiously similar, and it’s interesting to read their opinions on one another, and see the way they describe the same events from different points of view.

The world is conjured up beautifully, a slightly sad and tragic world in both the fifties and the nineties. We are given constant reminders of how homosexuality was viewed during the middle of the century, with a vast range of opinions on show, much like today. Still, this isn’t nearly as jolly as back then a man could still be imprisoned for being a “sexual invert”. The struggles they go through are writ large and people rarely seem willing to jump to their defence, while Tom, who is perceived by most people to be straight, coasts through life feeling loved by one and all.

Personally, I don’t understand quite what they both see in Tom. They both seem far more attracted to him physically than to who is he, Marion in particular, and while he does seem rather a kind man in some ways, he’s still willing to marry a woman just to act as a cover for his affair with a man. It’s heartbreaking to see both Marion and Patrick suffer, especially Patrick who suffers more than most. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful story and full of emotional truths that can resonate with anyone who has had to lose the person they love to someone else.

Charming and cruel in equal measure.

“Affinity” by Sarah Waters (1999)

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affinity“I was never so frightened as I am now.”

I occasionally catch myself saying, perhaps somewhat boastfully, that I’ll read anything. I’m usually only moments later forced to eat my words. Sarah Waters is, of course, an author whose name I know but historical fiction is something that I would never buy for myself. Fortunately, for Valentine’s Day this year, the other half and I bought one another books that we loved for the other to read, in an attempt I suppose to get to know each other better and understand where we’re coming from, via a literary perspective.

And so this is how I found myself suddenly reading Waters. Affinity is not one of hers I knew (although every time I’ve stepped into a bookshop in the last few years I swear I’ve seen at least ten copies of The Little Stranger on display) so I went into it basically blind, going only on the blurb.

Affinity transports us to London in the 1870s, a city shrouded in thick, choking fog and a class system so divided that it may already be the Morlocks and Eloi. The story has two narrators. The first is Margaret Prior, a well-to-do young lady who is struggling to deal with the sudden death of her father. She is perhaps a little disturbed and, to take her mind from her boring life – and to escape the endless wedding preparations of her sister Pris – becomes a Lady Visitor to the women’s prison of Millbank, attending to some of the inmates and hearing their stories, giving them a chance to speak out. One of these is Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who has been imprisoned for attacking a young girl and killing the lady she lived with. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and that the actions were performed by the spirit folk, in particular one brutish and dangerous spirit called Peter Quick.

Selina is the second narrator, although her chapters reveal what happened before she was put in gaol, explaining how she got herself mixed up in the sorry mess and how she developed her skills as a spiritualist. She learns tricks to make people believe that she is summoning those from beyond the mortal realm, but there’s a certain ambiguity about the whole thing – is she entirely a fraud, or is there some truth to what she says?

Margaret is captivated by Selina and, in a state of emotional weakness, begins to fall in love with her. Selina reciprocates her feelings and the soon neither can sleep or function because they are consumed with thoughts of the others. Selina begins using her powers to send gifts to Margaret, who is at first scared, but later realises that she cannot live without Selina. A plan begins to form, but escaping from gaol is not easy – not even with the guide of the spirits…

It’s a slow burner and takes a long while to get going, but once it does, it’s definitely enjoyable, and the twist at the end is a wonderful pay off. I had no idea where it was going until it happened, although I had a suspicion that, thankfully, turned out to be wrong. There is much ambiguity within the novel, both in the relationship between the main characters (this is, of course, Victorian London, and lesbianism isn’t exactly freely discussed) and in the talents of the spiritualists. Is Peter Quick real, or is he entirely constructed from Selina’s mind? There’s potentially a case for both sides of the argument, and Waters is certainly not going to give away all the answers.

The book also is notable for containing very few male characters of any importance. There are probably only five or six that recieve names and any sort of description, compared to the scores of women prisoners, wardens, family members, visitors to Selina’s “dark circles” and servants that populate the novel. This merely adds another reminder to us that this is a story about women and their struggle. Britain at this time is not yet as liberal as it will become (and, let’s be honest, we’ve still got quite some way to go), and the stress of hiding her true self does some dreadful things to Margaret. I’d be hard-pushed to call it a love story. It shows the more dangerous, but just as realistic side of love – all-consuming, all-powerful and prone to making even the most innocent-seeming people perform deeds that don’t align with their moral code.

All in all, it’s captivating enough to be a page turner, but don’t go into it for a quick read. The descriptions are great, and the characters realised enough – some more than others, of course, depending on their narrative importance – and the dense text sucks you into the horror that is Millbank prison. A nice touch is also the occasional mention of the cloying fog that shrouds the city, further emphasising that London is all about secrets and there is always something hidden from view. So while it’s a somewhat claustrophobic novel, and I wouldn’t say it’s particularly happy either, it’s well-written, powerful and generally a very interesting read.