Brief encounter

Liverpool Street Station, London, in 1959. Getty Images

Dec. 12, 2014 12:51 p.m. ET

Wall Street Journal


The Life and Times of  Michael K

By J.M. Coetzee (1983)

1. During all my growing up, my mother had hanging beside her bed a piece of embroidery sewn by her great-aunt. It showed a little brown house with a tidy green garden and in red thread the motto: “Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” The hope implicit in this wish comes back when I consider J.M. Coetzee’s novel. In war-torn apartheid South Africa, a “coloured” youth, constantly threatened by internment, forced labor and general depredation, seeks to survive on the land, raising pumpkins that he waters only by night when he emerges from his home, a small hole in the ground. With few words for others, he is a “consciousness, isolated and adrift, turning in on itself.” Yet eloquent: “A pity that to live in times like these a man must be ready to live like a beast. A man who wants to live cannot live in a house with lights in the windows.” In devastatingly spare language, Coetzee sounds the depths of K’s loneliness, which bottoms out in the death of his mother: “To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.” That first bond matters for all bonds.


By W.G. Sebald (2001)

2. Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian raised by a Welsh minister and his wife, is on a quest for traces of his parents, Jewish intellectuals who perished in the Holocaust but saved him by sending him to England in 1939. He is profoundly lonely. His one chance of romantic satisfaction disintegrates under the pressure of submerged, still inaccessible memories. Yet for all that he is lonely—and says so—Austerlitz is not alone. “The border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think.” Fortresses, train stations, monumental domed public buildings—these are Austerlitz’s professional obsession, and they are full of the dead: “Gone now too are the millions and millions of people who passed through Broadgate and Liverpool Street stations day in, day out, for an entire century.” In Sebald’s capacious prose—eerily specific in its details of nature, architecture, clothing and artifacts, and studded with photographs—all are here, the dead as well as the living, alongside Austerlitz.

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

By Megan Marshall (2013)

3. Many have told the story of Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist, feminist author and foreign correspondent who covered revolutionary Europe between 1846 and 1850. But Megan Marshall is the first to excavate from Fuller’s public and private writings the distinctive loneliness of the female public intellectual. “A lonely child” who found no intellectual match among her peers, Fuller formed strong attachments to such cultured elders as Ralph Waldo Emerson. She sought initially to write and think with them, but none could return her ferocious seriousness. She found herself obliged, in the end, to write for herself alone. Marriage was its own complicated question, though she chose it finally. Then loneliness found its answer—Fuller had a child. Marshall writes: “Margaret realized the ‘great novelty, the immense gain’ of motherhood: ‘nothing else can break the spell of loneliness.’ ” It’s rare indeed that a biography can make you weep. Marshall’s beautifully written account does exactly that.

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison (1952)

4. You know the man of Ellison’s title is lonely from the simple fact that he is holed up in a basement with 1,369 light bulbs, gin and Louis Armstrong records—above all, from the fact that he talks to himself for 581 pages. The music of his language, the tragicomic humor and deep wisdom about the American nation’s flawed history are extraordinary. Why is Invisible Man lonely? Because white person after white person he encounters can’t see him for who he is or see what he has to offer. He had hopes for America: “Like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism.” He wanted to participate but found himself blocked at every turn. Still, he doesn’t want to give up, so he shrinks himself into the smallest of spaces and starts over: “What else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?”

The Unconsoled

By Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)

5. There are also social troubles in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel set in a dreamscape Central European town, in crisis because the person with the most to contribute to its cultural life has proved a mediocrity. Life and passion seem to drain away from the residents. But these troubles form only the vaguest of backdrops for the drama here, which includes a world-renowned pianist’s solitary descent through dreams into disappointment, guilt and failure. The great pleasure of Ishiguro’s prose is, as the protagonist Ryder says of a musical performance he admires, “the ease with which the tangled knots of emotion rose languidly to the surface and are separated.” Yet the book holds terror. Even when our dreams are full of people, as Ryder’s are, our dream life isolates us thoroughly. Each night our social selves pass away, and they can be reborn come morning only after we have done battle with our fiercest anxieties and strongest desires. And every night we fight alone.