Paperback reviews: 'How To Be Alone', 'The Investigation', 'The Examined Life: How We Lose And Find Ourselves', 'The Library Of Unrequited Love', 'Zuleika Dobson: Or An Oxford Love Story'


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"How To Be Alone" By Sara Maitland Macmillan £7.99

Why do we look down on individuals who want to live alone? Why do we exalt the individualism of genius, but see something pathological in an ordinary individual’s decision to step away from the herd? Sara Maitland, author of Gossip From the Forest, is well-placed to ask these questions, given her decision to live alone in a purpose-built house somewhere in the Scottish hills, but she answers these questions, too.

Creative accomplishment and religious inquiry all have a history of individuals who like, and even need, to live alone although, as group studies of the Bloomsbury set and the Romantics have shown, artists enjoy a busy community as much as time to themselves. For the rest of us, though, fear is her answer: society’s fear of non-conformity and of what isolation may mean. Not a surprising answer, perhaps, but Maitland goes further, to argue that every human being has a spiritual need, and that isolation, or solitude, can fill that need.

In this “School of Life” series of books, there is a welcome mix of the personal and the philosophical, an attempt to make us think about our lives in more meaningful ways. Maitland perhaps surprises herself in the process: she advocates “rote learning”, while acknowledging this is a conservative attitude to education, because it helps an individual cope with isolation (she cites the extreme example of Hungarian journalist Edith Hajos Bone, who was kept in solitary confinement but maintained equilibrium by reciting poetry that she had learnt).

She also argues that being alone “strengthens personal freedom”, abolishing the inhibitions we feel when others are present. As she reminds us, solitude works best when it is chosen, and not when it is imposed on us. How the widowed, divorced, or just lonely cope with their solitude is another matter.

"The Investigation" By Philippe Claudel Maclehose Press £7.99

Such a bleak vision shouldn’t be such an enjoyable read, but Claudel’s Kafkaesque tale of one man set against institutional madness is both scarily and amusingly recognisable. The familiarity of The Investigator’s trials and tribulations, sent as he is to an unnamed town to probe the suicides of a series of employees of “The Firm”, lies mainly in the mundane and human detail: the failed pick-up, the walk through a maze of unmarked streets, the hotel that seems to practise a kind of anti-customer service, where breakfast is a ghastly experience. Once at the firm’s building, he must negotiate the tricks of the watchman, the guard and the manager, each of them a horrible parody of the real thing. At the heart of this tale, though, is the question of what marks our existence, what makes us real, most uncomfortably portrayed when, on an alternate day at breakfast, he meets The Displaced – starving families whose very presence seems to be diminishing before his eyes. A suitably tragic moment in the midst of the farce.

"The Examined Life: How We Lose And Find Ourselves" By Stephen Grosz Vintage £8.99

There’s a risk of voyeurism about these real-life case studies that psychoanalyst Grosz opens for us to peer into as he relays different encounters with a series of patients over the years. But, because of his skill at getting to the heart of the matter, we forget the distance separating us and become quickly involved in the lives of those he discusses. Psycho-analysis is about constructing a narrative out of our experiences: the client who invents a magic house in France to retreat to, or the little girl who loved her teacher more than her mother. The most heart-breaking case is that of Tom, the little boy who knows his brain isn’t like everyone else’s, and whose narrative remains a broken, impossible one.

"The Library Of Unrequited Love" By Sophie Divry Maclehose Press £6.99

Few lovers of books will be able to resist Divry’s lonely yet passionate librarian, who veers from extolling the virtues of the Dewey Decimal System of categorisation to denouncing it as a “secret code invented by the Axis of Evil”. The librarian is in the basement, in charge of Geography, and she is talking to someone who has been, possibly accidentally, locked in overnight. She longs for one library user, Martin with the delectable neck, to notice her, but so far they have only exchanged a few words; she is older, she is invisible, she is a lover of books but books don’t love her (“they’ll kill us all, the damn things”). Idiosyncratic but reflecting with comic accuracy the relationship we all have with books.

"Zuleika Dobson: Or An Oxford Love Story" By Max Beerbohm Melville House £9.65

Beerbohm’s tale of beautiful conjuror Zuleika and her time at Oxford University, gives Oscar Wilde a run for his money in wit and fin de siècle rakishness (although it was actually published in 1911). Zuleika is tired of men throwing themselves at her; she falls in love with a young duke because he seems to ignore her, but when he falls in love with her, too, she cannot bear it. The novel follows the trajectory of their romance as he pursues her and she refuses him, with Beerbohm’s waspish assessment of class distinctions and divisions between the sexes keeping things on their toes. There’s an innocent thoughtfulness, though, behind the sparkling banter, that reminds us this is the Edwardian afternoon, before the guns of war sound.