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.

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Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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