A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (Picador, 1995)
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez (Harper, 1998)
For Rouennaby Sigrid Nunez (Picador, 2001)
The Last of Her Kindby Sigrid Nunez (Picador, 2007)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2010)
Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2014)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2018)
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2020)
In 2018, Sigrid Nunez won the National Book Award for The Friend, her rousing novel about a woman who, after the suicide of her friend, finds herself saddled with grief and a two-hundred-pound Great Dane. Nunez is no stranger to prestigious prizes (she is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Rome Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or to critical acclaim (each of her seven previous books was widely lauded), but the combination of this award and the universally rapturous reviews of the novel finally found her, at the age of sixty-seven, the wide readership she deserves. (In my opinion, Nicholas Ortega’s gorgeous cover design with its regal Harlequin Great Dane and beach-ball-bright colors deserves partial credit for the novel’s commercial success.) Her modest acceptance speech at the awards ceremony displayed the same qualities—honesty, humor, warmth—that give the novel its appeal:
I was lucky enough as a child to have had a mother and teachers who taught me that whatever happened in life, however bad things might get, I could always escape by reading a book. I was lucky enough to keep on meeting them, people who believed that reading and writing were the best things a person could do with her life. And to learn what Alan Bennett was getting at when he said that for a writer nothing is ever quite as bad as it is for other people because however dreadful, it may be of use. I became a writer not because I was seeking community but rather because I thought it was something I could do alone and hidden in the privacy of my own room. How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible, to be removed from the world and to be a part of the world at the same time. And tonight, how happy I am to feel like a part of the world.
She was faultlessly gracious, but listening closely you got the sense she might have preferred to be at home with a book. Nunez views writing as an exalted vocation; it requires a lifetime of dedication and as few distractions as possible. She didn’t marry or have children, she supplements her writing income with adjunct teaching, and you will not find her on social media. She is, in other words, the kind of writer whose demise the man at the center of The Friend laments.
The man, who is the unnamed narrator’s friend, mentor, and onetime lover, is addressed as “you” throughout the novel. “You” is a writer and teacher who is full of contempt for his students. He rails against everything: the commercial ambitions of aspiring young writers, the desire for “safe spaces,” accusations about writing as cultural appropriation, and, especially, complaints about his inappropriate behavior in the classroom. For a man who has spent his life sleeping with his students, this political correctness thing really has gone too far. The old-fashioned word for “you” is womanizer; some might say shameless lech. Today, whatever you choose to call him, he’d be the subject of a Title IX investigation. For what it’s worth, Nunez doesn’t paint the young women as agency-less victims of his advances. Instead, the many willing participants are in it for “the thrill of bringing an older man in a position of authority to his knees.” (The novel teems with astute sociological observations.) The narrator paints a scathing picture of an out-of-touch and endlessly self-pitying man, but you also get the sense that she shares his dismay about the fragile youth, his contempt for self-obsessed, gossip-mongering New York literati, and his anxiety about the status of writing in this changing world.
This shared sensibility is one reason for the narrator’s anguish. Her friend’s suicide makes her feel freshly alone and, like her new canine companion, abandoned. The novel catalogues the emotions of mourning for both woman and dog—the suffering, the exhaustion, the depression, the confusion. In its careful dissection of the varied torments of grief, The Friend earns its place alongside the best memoirs about losing someone loved: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. Indeed, like most of Nunez’s novels, The Friend reads like a memoir. This is partly because the reserved first-person narrator could easily be Nunez herself and partly because of the digressive, diaristic, largely plotless structure.
Ultimately, however, questions about genre feel irrelevant. The Friend is an excellent book, deserving of the euphoric praise. But the widespread use of “unsentimental” to describe the novel’s tone misses the complexity that makes Nunez’s writing profound: it is mournful yet funny, scathing yet compassionate, full of highbrow literary and cultural allusions yet easygoing. In the hands of another writer, the novel’s litany of references might seem pretentious or distracting, but Nunez marshals each one to deepen her portrayal of grief. No sentence feels superfluous or out of place. In this tight, philosophical novel, Nunez distills the intellectual rigor that characterizes her writing into clean, direct prose.
Sigrid Nunez is an impressively versatile writer. She moves seamlessly between disparate genres and even mixes them at will to create original hybrids: a faux-biography-historical novel, a-memoir-cum-artist’s novel, a war-novel-that-is-also-a-paean-to-New-York, a female-friendship-social novel, a coming-of-age postapocalyptic novel, a grief-memoir-campus novel. She can do it all. She writes with clarity and conviction about essential social and political issues: immigrants, poverty, domestic abuse, war, race, class, gender. Her novels, each a work of philosophy, ask that we contemplate difficult but essential questions: What are our obligations to the people around us? What makes a good life? How should we grieve? Can art help us answer any of those questions?
Nunez’s debut, A Feather on the Breath of God, is the most explicitly autobiographical of her novels. Like Nunez, the unnamed female narrator grows up in a New York housing project in the 1950s, the child of a proud German mother and an emotionally reserved Panamanian Chinese father who barely speaks English. Like Nunez, the narrator desperately wanted to be a ballerina as a child. The first half of the book—divided into two sections, each dedicated to a parent—offers a stark but heartbreaking portrayal of two unhappily married working-class immigrants. It is an imperfect first novel, fragmented and untidy in places, but it showcases two qualities that give Nunez’s writing its power: uncompromising objectivity and a steadfast attention to everyday suffering.
Both of these are on display in the novel’s exquisite passages on ballet. The calculated authoritarianism of ballet—“the rules, the rituals, the intolerance of any slackness or leniency”—offer the young girl escape from the senseless authoritarianism of her home: “Ballet meant finally being taken seriously; meant being allowed to take yourself seriously. It gave me back some of the dignity that I felt was constantly being undermined elsewhere in my life.” Her experience dancing ballet also holds the key to another remarkable quality of Nunez’s prose: its ability to hold up seemingly contrasting ideas as equally true. Being a ballerina, Nunez teaches us, is to grow intimate with contradictions. Ballet is beautiful but brutal; it demands pain for pleasure, suffering for entertainment. Watching a childlike dancer go en pointe is mesmerizing; starving yourself and destroying your feet is torture. Choreographed by sadists, performed by masochists. A ballerina’s life is dominated by self-denial and anxiety, but it also has moments of unparalleled bliss. It is the narrator’s failure to realize her dancing dream, as much as her miserable family life, that suffuses this novel with melancholy.
Nunez’s ability to present contradictions is most clearly shown in her memoir, Sempre Susan, about Susan Sontag, her friend, mentor, and, for a while, the mother of her boyfriend. For a short, intense time, the three of them lived together in Sontag’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Several reviewers reacted to the memoir with aversion. They couldn’t reconcile the tone. Did Nunez worship Sontag, or did she resent her? The answer is both. Nunez manages to be both wide-eyed and clear-eyed at once, and it allows her to present an appropriately complex portrait of an exceedingly complex woman. Sontag generously, if sometimes condescendingly, gave the eager young Nunez an education she continues to cherish, and much of this slim book reads like a Künstlerroman. Sontag introduced her to filmmakers, writers, and thinkers—Kurosawa, Godard, Sebald, Borges, John Berger, Simone Weil—who continue to inform her writing today: “I cannot recall a single book she recommended that I was not glad to have read.”
Those cloistered few months with mother and son were mind-altering, but they were also suffocating. Nunez presents an unblinking catalogue of Sontag’s worst traits: she could be cold, needy, controlling, opinionated, even cruel. Yet none of this detracts from her conviction in Sontag’s convictions, especially about the writing life: “I am grateful to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation.” Above all, perhaps, for an ambitious young woman in a sexist world, Sontag was uncompromising about her right to be taken seriously: “Beware of ghettoization,” she warns. “Resist the pressure to think of yourself as a woman writer.”