Bastard Covid-19’s prohibition of our habitual touchy-feely ways – on a sliding scale from jovial shoulder slaps with a favourite Co-op assistant (we’re pretty tight with the Co-op crew round our way) to warm embraces for family and friends – has reduced our emotional world to include only that which exists between our four brick walls (if we are lucky enough to have four brick walls). Without the usual give and take of easy affection, we’ve very nearly become those islands John Donne’s insisted no (wo)man was, and we probably all feel a bit lonelier, perhaps without even realising it.
I can’t really grumble, living in a loving household, and being just about technically savvy enough to stay in touch with those outside of it. I do though have a new respect for the power of loneliness, realising relatively late in life that it’s not just about being alone, but also about feeling separate from the main in your experience of living: the neglected child who feels distant from the jollilities of childhood, the unconfident teenager who struggles to relax amidst the hi-japes of teenagehood, the adult who doesn’t feel they are ‘adulting’ as well as their friends are. Perhaps a positive spin on recent events is that, by feeling less connected with others at the very time we are battling some of the hardest months of our life, we may have a smidgen more empathy with those who are lonely in these aforementioned ways, lockdown or not.
So, much as I would like to cite the sixth sense afforded me by my gypsy ancestors ( I do see things that other people do not see. But that’s a story for another time) as directing me to some loneliness-heavy books this month, I may just be recognising loneliness in whatever I read. Elif Shafak’s 10 minutes 38 seconds In This Strange World imagines that the mind continues to work for a few minutes after death, allowing Leila, a prostitute in Istanbul, to run through the memories of her short life as she lies murdered. As she does so it becomes apparent that Leila has endured the most tragic form of loneliness – the child who is obliged to keep some unpleasant secrets – and that this early loneliness lead to her later existence on the margins of society, albeit alongside some heroic, if equally alienated, friends. Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear lays bare the unjust disjoin between the posthumous fixation on Van Gogh (demonstrated ably by the woman who knocked me out of the way with her phone while taking a selfie with Vince at the Musee D’Orsay) and his intense loneliness as an ‘etranger’ in Arles endeavouring to reach his artistic potential and create a ‘Studio of The South’ of likeminded creatives (quick bit of advice – don’t invite a wasteman like Gauguin to help you with that), while contending with the noise of mental illness busying his mind.
I know, it’s no surprise that if I’m going to insist on reading books about prostitutes and mentally unstable artists, there’s going to be a downside, even if the second half of 10 Minutes is best characterised as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World relocated to Istanbul’s Cemetery of the Companionless, and Ear is all Waking the Dead meets meets Kenneth Clark, where the identity of the woman Van Gogh gave his ear to (clue: don’t believe the myth), how much of it he actually cut off (clue: ouch), and the extent to which the people of Arles colluded to banish their most famous visitor post ear-gate (clue: it only takes a couple of arseholes to ruin a party) is dramatically revealed. But surely I can be forgiven for thinking I was on safer ground with The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt? How trying could I expect the diaries of a solidly middle class woman, written from her 1920s teenagehood until her death in the 1980s, to be? Oh gypsy psychic ways, how you failed me here.
On the positive side, the Romantic Journals are a great social history of middle class 20th century womanhood, the chapters where Jean opens a bookshop are pure bibliophile porn, and traversing an individual’s complete life journey through daily diary entries forces some perspective on how (hopefully) long our lives are, and how much of what worries us today will seem inconsequential in a few years time so, you know, cheer up gang! But the loneliness within these pages is far more troubling than Leila or Van Gogh’s, as it is so much more familiar. The contrast between the honesty Jean allows herself when writing in her diary, and the jolly image she presents to the outside world, is a reminder of the loneliness we all experience when harbouring those difficult feelings – jealousy, regret, unfullfillment – that seem inappropriate to reveal to others. So we keep them inside, and obsess on them alone, thus increasingly retreating into one of Donne’s islands. Maybe, then, it’s not the hugs that are so pivotal to our connections within and beyond our four walls, but the REALTALK. And we can do that, socially distancing or not. Virtual jovial shoulder slaps to you all.