Book clinic: which books best examine the nature of loneliness?

From Proust’s explorations of consciousness to Olivia Laing’s meditations on isolation, solitude is literature’s friend

Q: Which books best examine the nature of loneliness?
Thomas Edwards, 21, third year student of international relations at Exeter University

Alex Clark, critic, writer and broadcaster, writes:
You might argue that the vast majority of novels study loneliness in one form or another, given that they spring from an attempt to explore an individual consciousness and its relation with the outside world.

Perhaps the most celebrated is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which, although it frequently portrays its narrator’s interactions with family, friends and lovers, is essentially concerned with the complexities of managing the unruly desires and pains of selfhood. And isolation, too, haunts such classic novels as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in the person of the shellshocked first world war veteran Septimus Smith, and the existential agonies of Albert Camus’s antiheroes.

Elsewhere in the world of fiction, Anita Brookner, Mavis Gallant and Jean Rhys are connoisseurs of solitude; Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and the stories of Raymond Carver introduce us to a succession of drifters and grifters; and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners takes us into the lives of a generation of immigrants immediately post-Windrush.

In memoir, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is not simply an account of the author’s sense of isolation but a meditation on the nature of creativity that explores the work of artists Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz. And one of my favourites is May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, which brings us up close and personal to the seismic shifts that can happen when we are alone.

Submit your question for Book Clinic below or email bookclinic@observer.co.uk

Contributor

Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Book clinic: which books examine modern masculinity?
Writer Darran Anderson bypasses Houellebecq in favour of fiction from Édouard Louis to Hanif Kureishi

Darran Anderson

07, Mar, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: recommended books about the best of humanity
From a redemptive tale set in Norfolk to classic Michael Frayn, our expert selects books that are funny and inspiring

Kate Kellaway

24, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what are the best titles for LGBTQ+ representation?
Armistead Maupin, Jeanette Winterson and a host of other good writers have brought gay literature into the mainstream

Hannah Jane Parkinson

10, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books distil the essence of fatherhood?
From 19th-century letters to a graphic novel, here are the works that define dad-dom

Sam Miller

25, Aug, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books best explain why life is worth living?
From Aristotle to the existentialists, the greatest minds have focused on what it means to live well

Julian Baggini

23, Jun, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what books can help me to love my enemies?
Buddhist wisdom and Anita Brookner help make sense of those annoying others

Julie Myerson

27, Jul, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books will help me navigate singledom in my early 20s?
Guidebooks to love and life from Nora Ephron to Bryony Gordon

Candice Carty-Williams

08, Jun, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what can I read after work instead of watching TV?
From Jane Austen to medical memoirs, books that will help leave thoughts of the office behind

Hannah Beckerman

08, Feb, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books will restore my faith in politicians?
With confidence in our MPs at an all-time low, a choice political biography or two can put things in perspective

Sonia Purnell

03, Aug, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books can best help me deal with noxious colleagues?
From chin-stroking modern psychologists to Herman Melville, help is at hand in the battle to survive office politics

Sam Leith

18, Aug, 2018 @5:00 PM