Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, 1968.
A masterpiece of humor and understatement, based on Abbey's time as the lone seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, from the first of April until the end of September, living by himself in a trailer, eating canned food. The memoir was written later, after national parks had begun to become crowded with summer visitors and the solitude Abbey experienced was no longer possible, there or almost anywhere in the United States. In his introduction, Abbey declares:
"This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You're holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don't drop it on your foot—throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?"
Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, documentary directed by Mary Lance, 2003.
Agnes Martin (1912-2004) lived alone her entire adult life and was said not to have read a newspaper during the last 50 years of that life. She built her own adobe houses in the places where she lived in rural New Mexico, outside of Santa Fe. During the winters she lived mostly off of preserves that she canned. In this closely observed documentary portrait—the trailer is available here—she says:
"If you wake up in the morning and you feel very happy about nothing—no cause—that's what I paint about. The sudden emotions we feel without cause in this world."
Amulet, by Roberto Bolaño, 1999.
This novel takes place during the Mexican army's 1968 takeover of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, specifically and mostly in a fourth-floor women's restroom where the fierce Auxilio Lacouture, who calls herself the "mother of Mexican poetry," becomes the sole person to resist the invasion by hiding out alone for thirteen days without food.
"Do you know the feeling, as if you were in a horror movie, not the sort that has stupid women characters, but a film in which the women are intelligent and brave, or there is at least one intelligent, brave woman who suddenly finds herself alone, who suddenly walks into an empty building or abandoned house and calls out (because she doesn't know the place is empty) to check if anyone is there? ... I felt like that woman, although I don't know if I realized it at the time or if I'm only realizing it now, and, like her, I took a few steps as if I were walking on an enormous expanse of ice. Then I washed my hands, looked at myself in the mirror, saw a tall, thin figure with a face that was already showing a few wrinkles, too many, a female Don Quixote as Pedro Garfias called me, and then I went out into the corridor, and there I realized right away that something was going on: the corridor was empty, nothing but faded shades of cream and up the stairwell came a sound of shouting, a petrifying, history-making sound ... And then I said to myself: You stay here, Auxilio. Don't let them take you prisoner, my girl. Stay here, Auxilio, you don't have to be in that movie; if they want to make you play a role they can damn well come here and find you."
"Wants," from The Less Deceived, Philip Larkin, 1955.
Larkin seemed to love nothing more than being alone, and being left alone. His compassion consisted in being the kind of doctor who gives you the news straight.
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff —
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death —
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
The Walk by Robert Walser, posthumously published, 1957.
Walser, the Swiss novelist who ended his days in a mental hospital, was one of the most extraordinary voices of the 20th century. In a review of another of his books for The New York Times, I once described him as "stranger than Kafka, more elusive than Walter Benjamin" and I stand by that. This slim book follows Walser on a solitary walk through town and countryside. (Walser was found lying dead in the snow in 1956, after he left his asylum for a long stroll and didn't return.)
"All notion of the future paled and the past dissolved. In the glowing present I myself glowed. From every direction and distance, all things great and good emerged brightly with marvelous, uplifting gestures. In the midst of this beautiful place, I thought of nothing but this place itself: all other thoughts sank away ... The earth became a dream; I myself had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world. Everything outside me faded to obscurity, and all I had understood till now was unintelligible. I fell away from the surface, down into the depths, which I recognized then to be all that was good. What we understand and loves understands and loves us also. I was no longer myself, I was another, yet it was on this account that I became properly myself."