Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)


22 thoughts on “Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

  1. I do like the sound of this, but I think I may read it and then end up with a huge number of new writers to explore, which is all good!

  2. Like the sound of this very much Simon – definitely my kind of book and I shall add it to the wishlist. I seem to be stumbling on a lot of autofiction and stuff that defies categorisation lately, and I think this would fit in quite well! 😀

    • I read about this on another book blog, can’t remember which, but like you thought it sounded good. I’m not sure non-dog people would like it. But any lover of literature would, I think.

  3. Sounds like something I would like. It’s been two years since our Luc died (three years since we lost Shanni), and a few months after that, I read a book called “Lily and the Octopus.” About a dachshund with a brain tumor. It was too soon after we lost Luc, and I cried buckets during and after reading it. There’s something about dogs. I get so soppy over all the dogs I’ve lot over the years. The “Lily” book had an interesting plot — a bit of magical realism — and got a bit twee at times, but it hit me really hard. I’ll try this one. We have Max now, so I can snuggle with him and read it with an calmer attitude.

    P.S. I’m currently reading “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, and it’s really intense. Think I’ll read something frivolous in between this and my next read.

    • We’ve only owned one dog – Bronte – and we still miss her, fifteen years since she died. She was a shaggy white retroodle – retriever crossed with a standard poodle, so tall and leggy and with a lovely nature. We still miss her snuggling in with us and stretching out to fill half the bed (on the covers, of course, not underneath!) I’m glad that Nunez warned the reader early on about Apollo (the Dane) and his inevitable fate, and that she spared us the account of it. I’ve been trying to avoid ‘intense’ reading lately, though I’m half way through a fairly intense Musil novel, and it’s ok. Also a Bernard MacLaverty, that I’ll post about next.

      • I want to avoid intense reading, but I keep finding these books! I just finished “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, and it was very intense. Very good. But very intense.

        Standard poodles are cool. Everyone I’ve known has been, and also has been very intelligent. Dachshunds WILL burrow under the sheets. We had one who’d sleep all night at the foot of the bed under the sheets and blankets. Dogs.

  4. Simon, this is a fascinating missive. It definitely piques my curiosity, suggesting great depth, and some interesting structural choices. There is a film that I need to dig up that reminds me of this, actually TWO. The theme of a good enough life, but a soul perhaps “parched” without being aware of it.

    I hope you are feeling fit after your procedure! Sending you happy and healing wishes. “Moe”

    Over to Merriam Webster to review exact definition of “demotic.”

  5. I hope things are well with you and I have seen a few reviews of this one but can’t cope with the end things still. Lovely tale of your dog in the comments, too.

    Glad you’ve remembered it and got the review down, too. In 2017 I read one book around an operation I had (I was out for quite a few hours) and one just after and recall NOTHING about them!

  6. Glad to hear all is well after your procedure, Simon. I’m intrigued by this book. It sounds like very much my type of thing, despite my being a cat person. And it’s short. That’s always good right now. Take care

  7. I’m reading it now. Almost done, but I fell asleep reading last night. For a small book, it’s chock full of nuggets that have me pausing to think…and slowing down. Really wonderful.

    Oh, and let me add my voice to the chorus, SO glad that your test results have proven “positive” for you. I’ve been in a similar situation, but with very low odds, so I shouldn’t have been as concerned as I was. It’s difficult to control those negative thoughts, so I’m glad you no longer need to.

    (I only put positive in quotes because of that insane doctor’s report that Trump presented during the last campaign where all his test results were described as “positive.” Proof “positive” that it was a Trump-written or -dictated document).

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