‘What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.’
Laing is one of the authors whom I wanted to focus upon reading during 2017. The Lonely City is the book of hers which I’ve heard the most about, so it seemed a good choice with which to begin. The entirety of the essay collection, woven around the central theme of loneliness at play within the city, is beautifully written.
I’m not personally somebody who suffers with loneliness, but having recently moved to the centre of a big city, I’m conscious that mixing with neighbours and the like is something which seems rare. It’s astounding that people can be so lonely within the bustle of the city, when so many people live and work close by, but I have a fuller understanding of the reasons which drive one to feel alone since reading this.
Well-measured, and with a series of great examples given, Laing, who focuses upon a lot of famous people as well as her own story within New York City, is rather enlightening upon the subject. In taking into account art, the homeless, and feeling acutely alone whilst using the Internet, for instance, Laing really makes her readers think, and reconsider those around them.
‘At twenty-six, Emma Roberts comes to the painful realization that if she is ever to become truly independent, she must leave her comfortable London flat and venture into the wider world. This entails not only breaking free from a claustrophobic relationship with her mother, but also shedding her inherited tendency toward melancholy. Once settled in a small Paris hotel, Emma befriends Francoise Desnoyers, a vibrant young woman who offers Emma a glimpse into a turbulent life so different from her own. In this exquisite new novel of self-discovery, Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner addresses one of the great dramas of our lives: growing up and leaving home.’
I purchased Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home with my thesis in mind, without quite knowing if it was literary enough to include. Prior to this, I had only read Hotel du Lac, which I chose for a book club I was part of several years ago. Whilst I enjoyed it, I also found it a touch underwhelming. From the very beginning of Leaving Home, however, I was captivated. The narrative voice is strong, and it says a lot about interiority whilst following a single female character, Emma, who is trying to make her place in the world. Emma is rather unusual at times in her outlook; she does not permit herself to fall in love, but cultivates platonic relationships with two men.
In some ways, Leaving Home does feel rather dated; it has antiquated dialogue patterns, in which nobody seems to use any colloquialisms whatsoever. Despite this, Emma is rather realistic. She has rather a lot of freedom, and spends her time flitting back and forth from London to Paris. In the sensitively wrought Leaving Home, which is a coming-of-age novel of sorts, Brookner demonstrates what it is like to be a lonely young woman.
There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers… her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.
The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child… Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.
Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction. At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’. Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments… She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.
Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience. This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects. In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies… Such women are boring even to themselves’.
The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively. Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too. Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start. Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.
In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life. The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima. He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life. As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for. Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison. Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s. Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.
The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read. The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.
Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within. There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime. The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing. Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used. Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.
Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection. First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes. In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.
The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business. Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness, she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’. Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold. Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses. She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.
Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi. She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela. The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head. When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela. But she’s not at that point quite yet.’ She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis. Not Gilgi. She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.
Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks. Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns. The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy. Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary. They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.
Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis. So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood. It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’. Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.
Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent… At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’. She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.
Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence. The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything. Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself. Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.
I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner. There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places. Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character. Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude. Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig. It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.
At the end of 2016, I reread Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; I thought it would be an interesting idea to present my previous review, which probably dates from around 2013, along with my current thoughts.
Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work. It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles. The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released.
I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced. Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information. One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written. Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts. There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.
Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully. As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things. We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week. We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’. She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to. Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.
Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean. Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story. Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes <i>Girl, Interrupted</i> a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.
I reread Girl, Interrupted for my Goodreads book group in December 2016. The work was far more fragmented than I remembered, and at times, Kaysen’s own condition and diagnosis felt a little overshadowed by those she was living in close confinement with. This approach, and her choice to use others in her own journey of mental illness, was fascinating. The scenes which she presents are almost disjointed on the face of it, but one soon gets the impression that the piece has been well structured. The introspective sections which discussed Kaysen’s own health, and her place within the world, were those which I found of the most interest.
The historical and social context which Kaysen presents, from the Vietnam War to Kennedy’s assassination, firmly anchors the whole within the mid- to late-1960s. What is surprising about the piece is both how different treatment appears to be in the twenty-first century, and the similarities which we can still recognise within our own societal treatment of the mentally unwell. Scotland, for instance, still uses electroshock therapy, which sounds old-fashioned even in Kaysen’s account. The smoke and mirrors which often surrounded which treatments were being given was surprising to me; there appears to be very little honesty with the patients, and little understanding of their own conditions at times. The gender distinctions here are fascinating – for instance, musings of experiences which have occurred to Kaysen within the workplace – particularly from a standpoint almost fifty years in the future; again, similarities can be recognised within our own global society. Upon my second reading, the camaraderie of those around Kaysen surprised me too; rather than being separated, the patients are encouraged to be together, from their leisure time down to their rooming.
Kaysen’s telling of her story is brave and heartfelt, and the insight which she gives into the institution of McLean and its treatments is fascinating. She is essentially laying herself bare for the world to see. I was left wondering whether any of the information which she relays has been partially or fully fictionalised, and whether the names of patients and nurses were changed due to anonymity. This does not matter on the whole, I suppose – we must remember that I absolutely adored James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the furore surrounding its fictionalised scenes didn’t bother me at all – but I do like to think of Girl, Interrupted as a brutally honest account. It has been highly well-styled, and intelligently written. The advantage of hindsight, and her discovery of her patient notes detailing her Borderline Personality Disorder twenty-five years after she was released, are startling, and demonstrate how much treatments had moved on just in that relatively short space of time. Kaysen’s ability to talk in a relatively removed and understanding way about her experience was a fantastic asset to the whole, and definitely one of the strengths of the whole piece for me.