Sigrid Nunez and the wry fiction of friends asking favours

What Are You Going Through is about another friend of another unnamed older single woman. This time the friend is dying and has asked the narrator to see her through. (Shoulder slump. Do we need another Grief story?) The dying woman is herself a writer, a public intellectual with high status in the narrow world they both inhabit. She has a daughter from whom she would never expect what she is expecting of the narrator. The narrator is the third person from whom she has requested this extraordinary thing.

It isn’t as if they were best friends, but they were roommates in college and that youth is the texture of their lives. Kind and thoughtful, the narrator tries to live her life accordingly, so it is natural that she will agree. She has the time. It is summer and she is on vacation from her teaching job.


It is also natural that a morally diligent, observational, perceptive woman will have thoughts that are other than kind. But how can these be expressed? The story is not primarily about her friend but the narrator’s own musings about life, with intercessions from her friend. She selects stories that she knows from other people and creatures. Reading, language, words of immersion in the rarefied high culture – or intellectual soap opera – of New York are her moorings.

Nunez was an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books and later a handmaiden to the dazzling and dazzlingly awful Susan Sontag. She wrote a discreet book, Sempre Susan, about those days with Sontag when she was also Sontag’s son’s partner.

The title comes from the Christian philosopher Simone Weil: “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’” A useful question if you sincerely want to listen, if you can flatten your own ego. The narrator believes she wants to listen, but listening, for her, has to be received, then sorted and catalogued through her lifetime of reading. Sincere but thwarted listening? It is an oblique way to connect.

Nunez’s entire approach is oblique. The opening chapter is the narrator going to “hear a man give a talk” held on a college campus. She describes him carefully and sums up his lecture. He is numb with the calamity of climate change, and although he writes and speaks about it, wanting to inform, he says, he won’t take questions from the audience. He is repellent. OK. So? Well, turns out they have an intimate history.

At the time she is visiting her friend in another city and staying at an Airbnb. The room at the condo, carefully prepared according to the airbnb instructions “that most people appear to have agreed will make a person feel at home”, doesn’t please her. Nothing escapes her and nothing quite pleases her. And the promised cat isn’t there. OK. Then we move along. Later a cat has a story to tell.

The book is an allusive feast. A series of anecdotes thread one lived life and the logical conclusions play out. Connect the gaps and you have a sort of life-jigsaw. Nunez scatters these colourful, small bricks of life along a path. It is, of course, the path she herself will be taking sooner rather than later. Wryness is her carriage. Graham Greene’s ever-alarming words that there is a splinter of ice in the heart of every writer are ever-present.

Books that are gripping me these days have a common dynamic. They come from a vital interior that is constantly refreshing itself, but the main preoccupation is external. Eyes wide open and turned outwards in these transformational days. Nunez remains interior. There is an old-world exhaustion about their work. We are well into the 21st century but the emotional architecture is calcified 20th century. Wryness, so often laced with superiority, won’t cut it these days. With me, anyway. I was never a fan of Woody Allen.

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