Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.

36 thoughts on “Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

  1. Brian Joseph

    There seem to be lots of interesting themes contained in these books. I am also interested In literature that touched upon other art forms. There is a long history of this in literature. Isolation within crowds also seems to be common. That is something that I think a lot of people can relate to.

  2. madamebibilophile

    These both sound so interesting! I’m a lifelong city-dweller so I don’t feel particularly lonely within it, but I often wonder how it must be moving to a fast-paced city and trying to make friends. I wouldn’t want to do it. The points about social media are so true – I think bonds can be forged but it can also masquerade as connection which leaves people feeling empty.

    The quotes you pulled for Babitz are just a joy – so witty and sharp. I’ll definitely look out for her writing.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s a really interesting point about how it might feel to move to a busy city, especially if you were used to living in a smaller, potentially quieter community. Personally, I’m not sure how I would have coped had I been in Laing’s position, with no real friends close at hand and the break-up of a relationship to deal with. She uses her time very wisely, I think…

      As for the Babitz…yes, it’s a joy – eminently quotable. I think you’d like it. :)

  3. Simon T

    Glad you like the Laing so much! I thought it was such an intelligent and interesting book. I’d have liked a bit more memoir – her To The River was stunning – but I did really enjoy its scope.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To the River – that’s the one I’d like to read next. She’s a brilliant writer, so thoughtful and erudite. I’d be happy to read her on pretty much anything!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Both of these sound excellent, Jacqui. I’ve read and loved Laing’s writiting – “To the River” was an amazing book – and I’ve meant to explore her work further, so this may be the best place to go! :D

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If you have any interest in the New York art scene, then the Laing is worth considering – especially as you enjoyed her ‘To the River’ so much. That’s the one I’d most like to read next as it’s about Woolf. That said, I also have a proof of her latest book, Funny Weather, on the shelf – and its connection to art makes it seem like the natural follow-on read. Decisions, decisions…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! She’s a terrific writer; it all feels so natural and effortless, qualities that almost certainly belie the level of skill going on below the surface.

  5. Cathy746books

    I have Laing’s A Trip to Echo Springs lined up for the summer and am really looking forward to it. I’ve heard her on R4 a few times and she’s always so interesting. The Lonely City sounds wonderful too.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I loved that one! I read it pre-blog, so no review I’m afraid, but I do recall it being very absorbing. As a writer, Laing has a wonderful knack for combining the personal with the professional, weaving everything together in a way that feels so seamless and natural.

  6. A Life in Books

    Olivia Laing’s writing is so impressive, isn’t it. The Lonely City managed to be both raw and elegant. Fascinating in its exploration of art, too. Have you read The Trip to Echo Spring? Well worth looking out for.

  7. heavenali

    The Lonely City seems like a perfect read for these times we’re in, and I love that quote you’ve taken from it too. The Babitz also sounds fascinating, I remember your previous enthusiasm for her.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Laing’s themes of loneliness, isolation and a lack of meaningful connection do seem all the more relevant in the current crisis. Maybe that’s why it resonated with me so strongly – that and the fact that our art galleries are closed at the moment, just at the time when we need them the most…

  8. Caroline

    I read Laing’s book and also think it’s terrific. And very honest. People don’t normally want to admit they are feeling lonely.
    Eve Babitz sounds wonderful. I like the sound of this one even more than the one you reviewed before.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that sense of openness really comes through in the Laing. There’s something quietly compelling about her style; it feels very natural. Modest, too. There’s nothing showy or bitter about it, which could have been a danger given the break-up of her relationship when she moved to New York.

      I think you’d like the Babitz a lot; another wonderful writer with an effortlessly natural style.

  9. Radz Pandit

    I loved Slow Days when I read it last year. Babitz is indeed a stylish writer. The Laing looks wonderful too, have yet to try any of her non-fiction. I have only read Crudo, which despite the mixed reviews, I ended up liking.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      For some reason, Crudo didn’t appeal to me at the time, possibly because I thought it might be in a similar space to Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline, which I hadn’t particularly clicked with despite all the praise. Now that might be a complete misunderstanding in my part, I really don’t know. Have you read any of those Rachel Cusk novels? If so, are there similarities with Crudo, or am I way off the mark there?

      1. Radz Pandit

        I did read Cusk’s Outline trilogy and really liked it. I found those novels definitely superior to Crudo. They are similar in the sense that they feel very contemporary novels of ideas with no real plot. But in terms of voice, they are completely different. One of the striking features in Cusk’s novels I felt was the narrator being more in the background. It’s the other voices that dominate and the narrator is like a sponge for the most part absorbing various viewpoints. Crudo is nothing like that. I think Crudo was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize which is how I heard about it. It was mostly not rated highly, however, so I read it with low expectations but ended up thinking it was not that bad. The sense I get though is that with Laing it’s best to go with her non-fiction.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s very interesting about the similarities and differences between Crudo and the Cusks. The lack of ‘visibility’ (for want of a better word) of the narrator was one of my frustrations with Outline. Everything was refracted though her perspective, and yet we never really got to ‘know’ her directly, only through her interactions with others. I know I’m very much in the minority here as so many other readers whose opinions I respect have praised it very highly. Maybe it was timing thing for me. I had to read it for book group and wasn’t particularity in the mood for something oblique or elusive at the point. It might have been a completely different experience for me had I read it at a time of my own choosing. Ah well, that just how it goes sometimes…

          As for Laing…yes, I think non-fiction is her real strength. She has a wonderful ability to combine the personal with the observational, if that makes sense.

  10. Jane

    I haven’t read anything by either of these writers and I must put that right. Loneliness is such a personal thing isn’t it? How you can feel lonely in a situation where everyone around you seems connected (connection is the key, Laing is right) sometimes we can’t even explain it to ourselves – I must read this book.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! The Lonely City feels like the type of book that will elicit quite personal responses from readers depending on their own experiences with loneliness. Somewhat inevitably, it makes you think of those times in your life when you’ve felt isolated or disconnected from your surroundings. That’s very much part of its power, I think – a sense of personal resonance for each individual reader.

  11. buriedinprint

    I’ve got the Laing on my TBR but I’m not in a rush for it. I’m one of those who grew up in small cities and towns, even a village for a few years, and now live in a city and love it to bits. I’ve never felt as lonely here as I’ve felt in all of those other places, but, having said that, I can imagine how people’s experiences would vary. There’s a 2010 book by Emily White, called Lonely (published via HarperCollins, so it might be more widely available than many books by Canadian writers), that takes on this subject too, about her experience living in Toronto and not really finding a way to connect, and I really enjoyed it. Babitz I read a little of last year; I found her very interesting, but I wasn’t drawn to investigate further. Also, I’m not entirely sure how one distinguishes between auto-fiction and memoir…is it like the novella/long-short-story question, in that it’s a subjective call?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I haven’t come across Emily White before but will endeavour to take a look, especially as her book ‘Lonely’ seems to be in a similar vein to the Laing. Thanks for that. As you say, individual experiences of living in cities is going to vary quite significantly from one person to the next, thereby dictating their responses to the Laing – to some extent, at least. I live about 20 miles from London’s West End, so I’m close enough to get there in less than an hour by train, but far enough away to feel close to some lovely countryside. That suits me quite nicely, almost as though I have a foot in each camp, so to speak. That said, I very much doubt I’ll be visiting London again in the foreseeable future, particularly as I don’t need to travel there for work. The Laing really resonated with me because I have felt that sense of internal loneliness/disconnection in the past, especially after my mother died 30 years ago. All very much in the past now, but I can still recall that feeling of isolation while being in the midst of several other people.

  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Pingback: My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. Pingback: Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.