I first noticed the loneliness when the daily Zoom calls dried up and I started talking to the birds in my garden instead. I’d been lonely before, but lockdown loneliness felt different. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t have a support network, more that I did, and like all of us during the coronavirus pandemic, had been painfully isolated from them.
It’s no secret that reading is a source of escapism, especially in times of crisis. In May the Guardian reported that Britons doubled the amount of time they spent reading in lockdown, and once I’d slogged through my reading lists, I found myself sinking into fiction. Except I also noticed something curious — I wasn’t only reading more, but the books I selected were often defined by themes of loneliness and isolation. I didn’t initially pick up on this phenomenon in my reading habits, but it soon became apparently clear that I wasn’t just seeking solace in fiction, I was explicitly reading books whose protagonists were isolated, whether physically, mentally, or spiritually, from the world around them.
The novels of Virginia Woolf are meant to be savoured, each lingering sentence a beautifully crafted story of its own, and lockdown gave me the time needed to enjoy To The Lighthouse. Following a family summer home and its inhabitants through the restless tides of the years, To The Lighthouse is infused with wistful nostalgia and emotional turbulence. Like much of Woolf’s work, the narrative jumps between the consciousnesses of a chorus of characters, which includes an anxious female artist, a wealthy middle class couple, and a host of children. Yet they are not truly a united group. Even when seated beside each other, emotionally they are voids apart, and time also works to divide them.
A passage in the centre of the novel entitled ‘Time Passes’ perfectly conjures the experiences of time slipping by lockdown: ‘Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers.’. The rhythms of lives and locations are reduced to little more than ceaseless waves in an expansive sea. As with much of Woolf’s writing, To The Lighthouse is at once unsettling and deeply comforting, reminding the reader that connection is a tentative, tender thing, to be respected and prized once found.
By contrast, my next read, Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight, is entirely unsettling and lacking in comfort. The errant protagonist, Sasha, is an alcoholic living in a stifling Parisian hotel room. Sasha ricochets through the city, and Rhys’s narrative slips between times and locations, establishing the turbulence of her past and the chaotic melee of her present to reveal the problems she has chosen to medicate with alcohol. Romantic, sexual, financial, the situation of urban single womanhood… Sasha’s life is a tragic farce.
The style unnervingly evokes the feeling of having had one too many drinks — for the whole novel. Rhys was an alcoholic, and it’s hard not to read an element of autobiography in her works, in which single, vulnerable women grapple with the heavy pressures of society. I couldn’t help but feel warring emotions of pity and disgust at Sasha’s actions, and a deep awareness that the world has failed her. She is trapped in a situation which mirrors her lonely hotel room; even houses become ‘tall cubes of darkness, with two lighted eyes at the top to sneer’, their doors forever ‘frowning’ closed.
By the time I picked up Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I’d noticed the pattern (I mean, it literally has lonely in the title). Another female alcoholic writing in the mid twentieth- century, McCullers’ novels are often labelled Southern Gothic, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter sets individual isolation against a backdrop of failing industry and scorching sun. The shadow of fascism is never far away.
McCullers weaves together the lives of a group of individuals: a drunk vagrant, a depressed cafe owner, an African American doctor striving for civil rights, and a young musical prodigy stifled by abject poverty. Each of these characters is deeply isolated, able to pierce the veil of American society and see the oppression and exploitation fuelling it, which relegates them to dire conditions and disenchantment. The characters coalesce around John Singer, a deaf-mute, onto whom they impose their own assumptions and desires. Singer is a tragic, deeply sympathetic character, alone in a world which does not speak his language. Despite being published in 1940, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a relevant novel today, not just in its relatable depiction of loneliness, but because of the way it cuts to the core of the so-called American Dream.
The burning sun also beats down in The Outsider, the seminal absurdist work of Albert Camus (I avoided The Plague, for obvious reasons). L’Étranger in the original French explores the alienation from acceptable society of a young French-Algerian man who fails to express emotion at the death of his ailing mother, before committing a senseless act of violence on a sweltering beach. Meursault is literally a ‘stranger’, able to see through society to the ultimate meaninglessness of the world. Trapped in a prison cell, he is equally trapped in his own head — “I could hear clearly the sound of my own voice. I recognised it was the voice that had resonated in my ears throughout all those long days, and I realised I had been talking to myself.” Thought-provoking and uneasy, evoking the oppressive late colonial Mediterranean setting, The Outsider is a fascinating read.
While lockdown may be easing in the UK, the books I read in isolation have stayed with me, perhaps more so than they would have if I’d read them in normal times. I cannot recommend these four novels enough. They’re not cheery reads, but sometimes, when you’re feeling lonely, you don’t want to read about other people’s happiness.
You read to know that while you might be lonely, you are not alone.