The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

lonely city

Subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, The Lonely City is a fascinating hybrid of memoir, philosophy and biography in which Laing explores New York city by way of art in an attempt to understand her state of loneliness.

When in her mid-thirties Laing finds herself alone in New York (having moved for a relationship that failed), she falls into a deep loneliness, the kind that can happen in a big city. She manages to explore this state with curiousity, observing her behaviour in a non-judgmental fashion.

It was the sensation of need that frightened me the most, as if I had lifted the lid on an unappeasable abyss. I stopped eating very much and my hair fell out and lay noticeably on the floor, adding to my disquiet … I was keeling towards the midpoint of my thirties, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.

As someone who has has experienced loneliness post-divorce and when my children left home (sometimes hit sideways by it, left breathless, puzzled as to how I can feel so lonely in my home town), I found Laing’s descriptions of this state to be exquisite in their accuracy:

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. It feels shameful and alarming … It hurts, in the way that feelings do …

My life felt empty and unreal, and I was embarrassed by its thinness, the way one might be embarrassed about wearing a stained or threadbare piece of clothing. I felt like I was in danger of vanishing.

Stuck in an apartment in which she can’t close the blinds, watching other people live out their lives in front of her, but aware that they can also look in and watch her, Laing is reminded of Edward Hopper’s painting, particularly one:

I knew what I looked like. I looked like a woman in a Hopper painting. The girl in ‘Automat’ maybe …

automat
Automat by Edward Hopper

As a way of  trying to understanding her loneliness and seeking solace in the experiences of others, Laing explores the lives and works of four artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. All of these artists were lonely or reclusive, had no intimate relationships or had intimacy issues, and all lived in the  city that didn’t care whether you lived or died. She writes about their lives with the accuracy of a biographer, always in light of loneliness and solitude; she describes and interprets their work as an art lover.

When I read the book, I had to have my phone or laptop nearby to google the works of art; I was only familiar with a few of them. I didn’t know much about any of these artists – a little about Andy Warhol – and was struck by how tragic their lives were, by how violent and disturbing some of the art is, and by the cruelty humans can inflict on each other and on themselves.

large_portrait-self_portrait_of_david_wojnarowicz_1983-85_2
Self Portrait with Collage by David Wojnarowicz

In the course of describing the artists’ works and lives, Laing introduces a range of other personalities, such as Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo, Diane Arbus and Zoe Leonard among others. As a result, she covers a wide range of topics, including AIDS, music,  the role of cities in providing space for the lonely and the homeless, and the disadvantages of gentrification. She also researches loneliness as a subject on its own, drawing on authors such as Virginia Woolf and the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the first pioneer into the study of loneliness, who said of it:

Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.

darger
By Henry Darger

In her explorations on the subject, Laing considers the role of technology in our lives, looking at its dual function – offering relief to the lonely by giving them a private bubble in which to sit when in public, while allowing to them interact with others when  alone. She writes about Josh Harris, one of the early pioneers of the internet in the late 1990s:

… Harris predicted the internet’s social function, and that he did so in part by intuiting the power of loneliness as a driving force. He understood the strength of people’s longing for contact and attention and he also grasped the counterweight of their fear of intimacy, their need for screens of every kind. 

Laing’s exploration into these four artists, and other individuals, did not cure her loneliness per se, however she acknowledges that (when referring to a photographic portrait of Warhol):

… like Wojnarowicz’s diaries and Klaus Nomi’s voice, that painting of Warhol was one of the things that most medicated my own feelings of loneliness, giving me a sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration that one is human and as such subject to need.

laing 2
Olivia Laing

She concludes the book with the thought that she doesn’t necessarily think the answer to loneliness is to meet someone:

I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seems to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

The Lonely City is such a wide-ranging book that I cannot begin adequately to cover all the topics here, and it is one that deserves a second read as it is richly detailed. In the way she applies herself so intelligently, philosophically and personally to an array of subjects, Laing reminds me of another of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit. Perhaps more than with other books however,  I related on a personal level to the basic tenet of The Lonely City – the state of loneliness and its implications for oneself and society – and I was in all other ways was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved.

 

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.

light-cover

Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ –  but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.

Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus  (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.

ficre
Ficre Ghebreyesus

Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).

art
One of Ficre’s paintings

Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:

His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.

And:

He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.

In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.

Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:

“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”

The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:

We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.

The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.

elizabeth-ficre1_custom-680694d4b6ae42ee8cc77a526c775add1d5e7781-s300-c85
Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons

http://www.ficre-ghebreyesus.com/about/