Longitude's Book of the Month focuses on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Olivia Laing's The Lonely City. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.
The Lonely City
By Olivia Laing
Independent travelers understand that exploring the world alone can be an enriching experience, leading to unique encounters and new perspectives. Alone, the traveler is free to reflect on what he or she sees and may be more likely to engage with strangers. But while solitary travel can be enriching, it can often be lonely, wrought with feelings of discomfort and isolation. For anyone who has experienced the alienation of being alone in a new place, Olivia Laing's new book The Lonely City will be a welcome companion. Finding herself suddenly solo in New York City, recently rejected by love, Laing uses the space around her to research, reflect and write about loneliness in an urban landscape.
"There is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people," Laing observes, but loneliness is also "a populated place: a city in itself." Laing's medium for exploring her solitude is not just New York, but the lives of the artists who called the city home, particularly in the mid- to late-twentieth century. The figures she follows are selected by one identifying feature: they created art out of the space of loneliness. From Edward Hopper's discomfiting industrial landscapes to the painful past that informed Andy Warhol's pop art, Laing explores how artists express, combat and embrace solitude in the city. Through these creative outsiders—often relegated to the fringes of society by their gender, sexuality or mental illness—she charts "the complex relationship between loneliness and art."
Laing beautifully evokes New York with all its crude and inspiring spaces. "In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself," she writes, "the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the steam drifting up from beneath the streets." While she captures the experience of being a misunderstood outsider, she also celebrates the joy of solo travel. "In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure," she admits. "There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure."
These moments of joyous anonymity come when she is out walking in the city or losing herself in a piece of art, moments when "I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city." Like the artists she profiles, Laing embraces her solitude as she walks the streets to engage with the city and its inhabitants, following a route that begins with loneliness and ends in a work of art.
A Longitude Interview
Olivia Laing's books are not easily categorized. To the River is a survey not only of the Ouse River and the English countryside that spreads from its banks, but of the entire landscape of English literature, from Kenneth Grahame and Iris Murdoch to Virginia Woolf, whose complicated relationship to the river in which she drowned Laing delicately excavates and explores. In The Trip to Echo Spring she examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six American writers, traveling to the places that defined their lives. With The Lonely City Laing's pilgrimage continues in New York City on a lonely quest to uncover the secrets of the city's outsider artists.
LONGITUDE: Your books blend travel writing with biography and memoir. How do you categorize your work, and what role does place play in your writing life?
LAING: Place is key to me—it plays a substantial role in all my books. As for category, I like to burst them open and rove between them. I suppose hybrid is the word that makes the most sense to me.
LONGITUDE: Do you prefer to travel in groups or alone? What are the advantages of each?
LAING: Pretty much always alone. I travel a lot, especially to America, and I really like the experience of being out of place in some way, even if it's uncomfortable. It makes me much more alert and observant, which is vital for writers.
LONGITUDE: You write, "In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure." Are there positive aspects to loneliness? What is the difference between loneliness and solitude?
LAING: Solitude can be a very happy, contented state. Loneliness is very different. It can affect people who are alone, or who have friends, even people in relationships. It's really about feeling that you lack intimacy and closeness, that you're not as connected as you would like. It's a very difficult, painful state, at least partly to do with the shame that accompanies it. It's that shame I'm trying to dispel. Loneliness is painful, yes, but it's also an ordinary human state, and has all kinds of interesting elements if you can just stay with the feeling.
LONGITUDE: How did your British nationality influence your experience of New York City?
LAING: Quite a lot really—I talk in the book about the experience of being misunderstood repeatedly because of my accent, and how difficult that was during an experience of loneliness, when you're so hyper-sensitive to not fitting in. Loneliness is very much like feeling foreign, an alien, and so being a stranger did intensify it.
LONGITUDE: Window seat or aisle?
LAING: Aisle in the day, window at night.
LONGITUDE: You explore the city through some of its outsider artists, many of whom created out of the space of loneliness. How did researching the artists inform and enhance your experience of the city?
LAING: While I was working on the book, I spent months in artists' archives, including Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. They were such rich, extraordinary places, and they helped humanise the city for me, to make me realise it was full of remarkable ghosts.
LONGITUDE: "Marooned inside this unnatural landscape," you write of your apartment in Times Square, "I could have been anywhere at all: London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, any of the technologically modified cities of the future." The same might be said of the days spent surfing the Internet, looking for connection. How has technology changed not only our relationship to others, but also to the places we inhabit and travel through?
LAING: We use the internet so much to protect us from the risks of unfamiliarity. I refuse to have a smartphone—I like discovering cities the old-fashioned way, by stumbling across places by happenstance. Getting lost, meandering, following your nose: that's my favourite way of travelling.
LONGITUDE: What advice do you have for solo travelers who might fear loneliness as they explore cultures other than their own?
LAING: That there's no shame in loneliness, that other people are probably feeling it too, and that being open and not closing down is the best way of handling unfamiliar experiences.
LONGITUDE: What books do you recommended reading before traveling to New York?
LAING: Ooh! Sarah Schulman's Gentrification of the Mind, David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives and Andy Warhol's Diaries, for starters. I could go on forever though.
For more recommended reading on New York City click here.