Thanks to a moment of weakness when the children were small and mice would scatter across the kitchen floor each time I came down to make breakfast, I have two cats. The original pair were brother and sister, but the brother ran away, the sister got pregnant, and the children fell for one of her kittens – a male. We had him neutered and later managed to do the same to his mother. Even so, she made it clear that sharing her territory with male offspring went against her instincts. Now he’s twice her size and they live in a state of armed truce, punctuated by fights and chases, with jealously defended sleeping areas, much as the children do. My son sides with the male, who’s nominally his and, like him, can’t be trusted around certain foods. My daughter sides with the female, who’s nominally hers and, like her, often clamours for attention. My wife sides with the female too. She believes that the male – a handsome, competent animal, in my view – is vain, clumsy, unintelligent about many matters, and prone to sulking when he feels deprived of physical affection. Unlike the female, she sometimes tells me, he wouldn’t cut it in the wild. Still, as the narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend says, ‘people will tell you anything about their cats and dogs.’
The Friend has a dog, man’s best friend, on the cover. A Great Dane called Apollo plays an important part in the novel, and it makes skilful use of the slippages that occasionally cause you to wonder who’s really being talked about when people try to tell you about their pets. But it isn’t only a book that focuses on domestic animals in order to squint at aspects of their owners’ lives, a technique that Nunez first explored in a short book called Mitz (1998), reissued this month by Soft Skull. This took as its jumping-off point the fact that Leonard Woolf once had a marmoset of that name, acquired from his friend Victor Rothschild in 1934. In the novel, Rothschild sees an ailing monkey chained up outside a junk shop, feels sorry for it, buys it and tries to pass it off as a gift for his pregnant wife, Barbara, who isn’t impressed. Mitz passes into Leonard’s care, and her story becomes an elliptical way of looking at the attention he pays to other fragile presences in his household. ‘Too many soirées frayed her nerves and gave her a headache, and no matter how much fun she’d had she was always glad to be home, for really there was nothing dearer to her than those simple book-filled rooms, her own cosy birdcage, her own fire.’ As the birdcage indicates, this sentence, on a literal level, isn’t about Virginia Woolf.
One model for this portrayal of the Woolfs’ marriage is Virginia’s novel Flush, an imagined biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. Woolf started work on Flush as a relaxation. ‘The gods of literature,’ Mitz’s narrator remarks, ‘punish writers who begin books in this spirit,’ and she ended up writing it as carefully and painfully as her other novels. The same seems to be true of Mitz, an apparently whimsical offering that turns out to be tightly controlled. Nunez finds some great sequences in the historical record, chief among them Mitz’s role in the Woolfs’ drive through Germany in 1935. Nazi officials become quite friendly when they notice her, and a crowd sieg-heils her when the Woolfs get caught up in a rally outside Bonn. (‘It was obvious to the most anti-semitic stormtrooper,’ Leonard wrote in a memoir, ‘that no one who had on his shoulder such a “dear little thing” could be a Jew.’) Mitz’s subsequent decline – marmosets aren’t long-lived and don’t thrive in English damp – takes place in the shadow of Julian Bell’s death in Spain, the impending war and Virginia’s coming suicide. In an outstanding scene set in 1938, a sickly Leonard, kept awake by Virginia’s weeping, the dog’s anxious barking and the marmoset biting his ear, mumbles: ‘Don’t worry, ladies. I’ll live. You’ll see. I’ll outlive you all.’
Mitz is filled with images of both Woolfs either hard at work or sitting quietly by the fire, she with Shakespeare, he with Spengler. The privations of lives devoted to writing are as much part of the story as the pleasures. The Woolfs have so many animals around them in part, it’s implied, because they need somewhere to put the urge to look after things, which is at work in Virginia as well as in Leonard, the paternalist socialist who’s impatient with the servants. It’s not not to do with childlessness, which Nunez has written about elsewhere.Pregnant people like Barbara Rothschild are less likely to welcome unexpected marmosets. But the Woolfs’ menagerie seems more like a barrier against the rigours of their vocation, the kind of rigours that Henry James had in mind when he gave the dying writer his famous speech in ‘The Middle Years’: ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.’ Nunez dramatises the problem of not knowing whether what you’ve written is any good by way of Virginia’s doubts about The Years, and Leonard’s equivocations. No matter, the familiar sound of pen on paper continues to comfort Mitz. The Woolfs are exemplary followers of what their circle can still picture, in Bloomsbury’s dying days, as a noble calling.
James, along with many other authorities on the writing life, has his tiny part in The Friend: ‘Not for nothing did Henry James say anyone who wants to be a writer must inscribe on his banner the one word loneliness.’ This time, though, the idea of a noble calling is further out of reach. The James-quoting character – an unnamed, deceased ‘you’ to whom the unnamed narrator’s ruminations are addressed – was a writer and a teacher of creative writing, as is the slightly younger narrator. The novel is set in the present in New York, and neither the culture at large nor the student body is much inclined to allow large claims for writers’ special status. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which, as a student, the narrator had felt was talking directly to her, leaves her students cold. They accuse Rilke of ‘excluding them. They say it’s a lie that writing is a religion requiring the devotion of a priest. They say it’s ridiculous.’ One student is ‘concerned that so much of the assigned reading includes books that failed to make money or are now out of print. Shouldn’t we be studying more successful writers?’ Morale isn’t high among the faculty or on the dinner-party circuit: ‘Fair or not, asserted our host, opening a third bottle of wine, many writers today admitted to feelings of embarrassment and even shame about what they do.’
These things mattered particularly to the man the narrator is recalling, her former mentor and oldest friend, because stirring lines from Flaubert and the like were an essential part of his repertoire as a charismatic teacher who didn’t discourage his students, early on, from thinking he might win the Nobel Prize. Also, perhaps, though she doesn’t quite say so, because a heroic self-image compensated for a career that didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped. It seems that he was British: he had a ‘BBC accent’ and liked to quote George Steiner, his former teacher, on eros’s role in the classroom. But for decades he lived in Brooklyn, turning into the kind of man who understands the attraction of the idea that ‘no truly good book would find more than three thousand readers.’ He had the usual gripes: that students didn’t know good sentences from bad ones, that nobody in publishing cared about the way things were written any more, that ‘books were dying, literature was dying.’ Worse, for a man who couldn’t get his sentences going without the aid of daily walks, his back was in poor shape. He’d recently retired from teaching, which for all his grumbling he’d enjoyed, and there was a spell of depression. His suicide takes place just before the novel’s opening; at the memorial someone says that he’s now ‘officially a dead white male’.
The narrator, who’s meant to be writing a magazine piece about a centre for victims of human trafficking, finds that she can’t do it. Instead, she produces what we’re reading: jottings directed at him. ‘You were not the unhappiest person we knew. You were not the most depressed … You were not even – strange as it now sounds to say – the most suicidal.’ Was his suicide a purely literary matter? Common sense, and her knowledge of what she calls ‘your proclivities’, leads her to believe that it was not. It seems that he was, or used to be, a writer-professor of the type who feels that his obligations to the muses license him to fuck his students as well as any other young women who cross his path. ‘With you, the beginning of an affair often coincided with a spell of productivity. It was one of your excuses … I was blocked and I had a deadline, you once told me. Not even half joking.’ But this side of things hadn’t been going so well lately. One girlfriend scarcely bothered to feign desire, and he had a moment of truth concerning his sagging flesh: ‘This is not a body to turn any woman on.’ Students had also begun to complain about his habit of addressing them as ‘dear’. ‘You made a prediction: if I go on teaching, sooner or later I will come to grief.’
He didn’t keep any of this back from the narrator, though she ‘hated it when you talked about women’. Their relationship was ‘a somewhat unusual one, not always easy for others to grasp’. She was one of his first students, along with the future Wife One, and became a friend and protégée after she’d started publishing. Wife Two, who ‘never would believe we weren’t fucking’, called the friendship ‘incestuous’. In those years they had to meet on the sly, ‘as if we really were secret lovers. Crazy making. Her hostility never waned.’ She saw less of him after the advent of the coolly neutral Wife Three, and she doesn’t know if he told any of his wives that, ‘in fact, we did fuck. Once. Years ago.’ Afterwards he’d pronounced it a mistake and set about turning her attractive friend into Wife One. Mortified, the narrator kept her distance, but the next time they met ‘a certain tension, a distraction I hadn’t even been wholly aware of before’, was gone. This effect, she reasoned, ‘was, of course, precisely what you’d been hoping for. Now, even as you completed your conquest of Wife One, our friendship grew. It would outlast all my other friendships … And I felt lucky: I had suffered, but unlike others I never got my heart broken.’
All this is on the narrator’s mind when Wife Three summons her to a café near ‘your brownstone. (It is still your brownstone.)’ How much does Wife Three know about his affairs? How much does Wife Three care? Wife Three, when she finally gets to the point, wants to talk about his dog. He’d adopted a Great Dane he found wandering in the park, and after his death it spent every day by the door, refusing food and making unearthly noises. It would be cruel to keep Apollo in the house: ‘You can’t explain death to a dog.’ And the dead man, it turns out, had weighed up the possibilities in the event of something happening to him. ‘Your name came up a few times,’ Wife Three says. ‘She lives alone, she doesn’t have a partner or any kids or pets, she works mostly at home, and she loves animals – that’s what he said.’ The narrator thinks of Greyfriars Bobby and the Japanese dog that spent ten years at Shibuya station waiting for its dead master. Stories like these are ‘one of the main reasons I have always preferred cats’. But Wife Three won’t be deflected, and in no time the narrator is secluded with her grief, a dog that’s seven feet tall on its hind legs, and the question of how to hold on to her 500-square-foot, rent-stabilised Manhattan apartment, which is subject to a strictly enforced ban on dogs.
‘There’s a certain kind of person,’ the narrator writes, ‘who, having read this far, is anxiously wondering: does something bad happen to the dog?’ Another kind of person might be wondering about Nunez’s crossbreeding of two sturdy but familiar kinds of story: of working through a life crisis by communing with an animal (see H is for Hawk etc), and of a writer and/or academic who’s undone by confusing the problems of high culture with the problem of sex (see innumerable campus novels and many of the works of the postwar American writers whom David Foster Wallace derided as ‘the Great Male Narcissists’). On the page, though, the resulting hybrid is anything but ungainly, and in any case the narrator is out ahead of both types of reader, pointing to Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, a touchstone both for her and her dead friend. ‘Something very bad,’ she observes, ‘happens to a lot of dogs in Disgrace.’ David Lurie – ‘same age, same job, same proclivities’ – hears the clock ticking on his sexual being and forces himself on a student. Later he seeks to cope with the polyvalent shame that clings to him by helping to euthanise unwanted cats and dogs. ‘He has learned by now,’ Coetzee writes, ‘to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.’
The Friend isn’t pitched at that level of intensity, but it’s quite similar to Coetzee’s more playful novels – Diary of a Bad Year, say, or Summertime – in the way it half-conceals a dense weave of thought behind what appears to be a loosely assembled exercise in fake biography and pseudo-autofiction. The reader isn’t discouraged from identifying the narrator, a respected but not hugely famous writer who subsidises her scrupulous ways by teaching, with Nunez herself, and the suppression of proper names reinforces the illusion. The topics can be as scattered and the storytelling as organised as Nunez needs them to be without straining credibility, and the casual form of notation allows for some fine observations and running jokes. The adverts that follow the narrator around the internet are a story in themselves: ‘Are you writing a book? Click here to learn how to get published.’ ‘Alone? Scared? Depressed? Call 24-Hour Suicide Hotline.’ ‘Are you depressed? Are you looking for a pet? Is your pet depressed?’ And, everywhere, ‘the bestselling author in the world’, offering video lessons. ‘What are you waiting for? You too can write a bestseller. James Patterson. Always popping up, urging, coaxing, promising the world. Like the devil.’
Nunez rings every possible change on the dog, an embodiment of the narrator’s grief that weighs nearly two hundred pounds and, left too long in her apartment once, shreds a Knausgaard paperback. The whole place ‘smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.’ Her attempts to cheer the dog up take on a manic quality. She tells a friend ‘about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m sceptical about pet shrinks, and he says: That’s not what I meant.’ In time she discovers that she can soothe Apollo by reading aloud, and he becomes an ideal audience of the kind that’s lacking in her professional life. (‘There was a time when it would have been clearer to me whether reading Rilke’s letters to a young poet to a dog was a sign of mental unbalance.’) She’s aware that the dog, with his gloom and need for daily walks, is standing in for her friend in some way. Has she also ‘taken a dog husband’? The question doesn’t perturb her as much as it might, though she finds it unsettling when a woman in the street ‘calls Apollo sexy and tells me she’s jealous’.
Running in parallel with the dog story, which is wittily developed in a way I don’t want to spoil, there are additional questions which seem to be near the heart of Nunez’s enterprise. Wasn’t the narrator in love with her friend in a way she doesn’t want to acknowledge? Wasn’t her ‘precisely what you’d been hoping for’ deluded? Wasn’t he, at some level, a jerk – or worse? And don’t the students have a point when they complain that his heroic doctrines are self-serving, an expression of occluded social privilege and so on? Here it’s helpful to remember that the narrator isn’t Nunez, who once came out with a neatly balanced judgment on her own self-serious mentor, Susan Sontag:
When, recently, I see that Javier Marías has said that the worst thing a writer can do is to take himself or his work too seriously, I think I understand. I think I even agree with him. I think if I had thought this way myself when I was young, my life could have been happier. I might even have turned out to be a better writer. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation. (‘And you must think of it as a vocation. Never as a career.’)
‘Do not search for answers,’ the narrator summarises Rilke, ‘but rather love the questions.’ Coetzee tends to speak of ‘interrogating’ questions, with a suggestion, if not of thumbscrews, then at least of cold water treatment. Nunez goes at them in a gentler manner, like Columbo or George Smiley, but she still gets them to talk, and her narrator’s responses to Great Male Narcissist behaviour are no less deadly for being quiet. (On her friend’s complaint that his estranged daughter didn’t understand him and felt ashamed of him: ‘What made you think she didn’t understand?’) It’s possible that her real subject, or counter-subject, is the piece she isn’t writing, a profile of a former writer who became a psychologist after looking around the literary world and wondering: ‘Why did it have to be like that? Why were the men all so arrogant, and why were so many of them sexual predators? Why were the women all so angry and depressed?’ That profile’s real subject, in turn, is the undisclosable suffering of the human trafficking victims the psychologist now works with: women who can look at Lukas Moodysson’s unremittingly dark sexual slavery drama Lilya 4-Ever and remark only that it isn’t brutal enough.
In the penultimate chapter, Nunez turns the illusion inside out. The narrator temporarily resurrects her dead friend. In this scenario he has survived a suicide attempt, and he’s appalled to learn that she has been fictionalising him. (That she made the character English, and his miniature dachshund a Great Dane, offends him all the more: ‘Couldn’t you at least have made me Italian?’) They argue about her abandoned piece, and about Svetlana Alexievich: ‘The reason people now cringe at the idea that you have to be gifted in order to write,’ she says, ‘is that it leaves too many voices out. Alexievich makes it possible for people to be heard, to get their stories told, whether they can write beautiful sentences or not.’ She’s in favour of self-effacing documentarianism, he’s in favour of the imagination and the novelist’s ego, and as the argument goes on he comes to seem defensive and pompous. It’s easy to forget that their debate is being staged inside a fiction, just as it’s easy not to notice, at the start of the closing chapter, that the ‘you’ has transferred itself from him to the dog, which you might have got quite fond of by this stage even if you don’t like dogs. ‘Find the right tone,’ as the narrator says, ‘and you can write about anything.’