Saturday 17 August 2019

Sigrid Nunez’s portraits of animal intelligence

Sigrid Nunez, like Virginia Woolf, is a writer known for her intellectual rigor and her ability to capture, insightfully and unsentimentally, the myriad complexities of human life in beautifully written prose. In the ambition and variety of their work, they have much in common. Something else that they share: neither Sigrid Nunez nor Virginia Woolf is thought of as a warm-and-fuzzy writer, and yet both, quite literarily, are.

And I mean warm and fuzzy in every sense of the phrase. For while both Nunez’s marmoset Mitz (from her 1998 novel Mitz) and Woolf’s spaniel Flush (the hero of Flush: A Biography, published by Woolf in 1933) are warm-blooded and furry creatures (although they suffer the indignities of lice and fleas), they are also engaging characters based upon actual animals. Many famous nonhuman literary characters are inventions: Chekhov’s lapdog, E. B. White’s mouse and pig and spider and swan, Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, John Steinbeck’s Red Pony, and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Elsa, the lion who was born free, did exist, as did Tulip, J. R. Ackerley’s beloved Alsatian bitch. Nevertheless, real or imagined, few animals have literary pedigrees as noble as Flush and Mitz.

Both animals embark upon an incredible journey to arrive at their ordained homes: Mitz is captured in a Brazilian jungle, almost fatally shipped across the ocean, cruelly displayed in a junk store, whimsically purchased by a Rothschild, and finally brought home to Tavistock Square by the concerned and devoted Leonard Woolf. Flush wends a less dangerous, but similarly circuitous, route to Wimpole Street. And both creatures thrive in a sort of literary animal heaven: Flush with the mid-nineteenth-century power couple (poetry) of Barrett and Browning, and Mitz with Woolf and Woolf, their mid-twentieth-century counterparts (prose).

Do some writers appreciate or understand something about animals that others do not? I think that perhaps they do, for fiction writers are always attempting to penetrate and plumb the depths of alien consciousness. Both Nunez and Woolf make the leap from human mind to animal heart with gazelle-like certainty and grace. Flush and Mitz are as real and engaging as the humans with whom they cohabit, and the reader delights in these interspecific ménages. John Chamberlain, reviewing Flush in the New York Times in 1933, wrote: “In seeking to record the states of consciousness of a dog, Mrs. Woolf is more successful, it seems to us, than she ever was at adumbration of the psychic life of human beings.”


As a child I was forbidden from reading any books in which an animal even flirted with mortality because of the devastating effect such books (or films) had on me. The rapport that exists between animals and people is in some ways deeper and more consistently affirming than human/human affection because it is not dependent upon the constraints of language or eroded by the tribulations of everyday life, and so it is spared the tension and damage that miscommunication and irritation often wreck upon those relationships.

Mitz poignantly and charmingly explores this mysterious and life-affirming bond. We are never told exactly how Leonard feels about Mitz, but the reader understands the tender intimacy that they share because Nunez depicts it. Leonard and Virginia sleep in different beds in different bedrooms, but there is Mitz, stowed in the pocket of Leonard’s waistcoat, safe and warm against his heart, and here is Mitz, delicately removing the dandruff from Leonard’s scalp. They may not sleep in the same bed, but Mitz waits on Leonard’s pillow until he falls asleep before retiring to her birdcage, and returns to wake him in the morning.

Our relationships with animals may be simpler than those we have with fellow humans, but that ease in no way diminishes the devastating sadness that accompanies their loss. And I feel that a deeper and more profound sadness enshrouds the conclusion of Mitz. For as imagined by Sigrid Nunez, the death of Mitz seems somehow to represent, or parallel, the loss of something much larger than a marmoset but equally precious: peace. Europe had narrowly avoided war in September of 1938 by allowing Hitler to annex the Sudetenland. “Leonard called the pact a national disgrace and gave it six months.” He was right: Mitz died in December of 1938. Three months later, in March of 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and in September, with his invasion of Poland, the war officially began. And less than two years later, in March of 1941, Virginia Woolf took her own life.


I knew that Sigrid Nunez is a cat person, but where did this surprising appreciation and understanding of marmosets come from? And dogs, as well—The Friend, Nunez’s most recent novel, is a book about many things, but at its heart it is a love story between a woman and a dog. Yes: love. Whether it be a cosmopolitan woman’s deep affection for her gigantic dog, or a man’s devotion to the little monkey that warms his breast, the love that is shared between humans and animals has informed many of our most beautiful and heartbreaking stories. Sigrid Nunez knows this, Virginia Woolf knew it, and knew that Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew it as well, for on the last page of Flush she quotes Mrs. Browning:

… I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness, —thanking the true PAN
Who by low creatures leads to heights of love.

(Source: The Paris Review)

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