Sigrid Nunez’s Art of Noticing

We began outside on Adirondack chairs still heavy with dew, the 72-year-old American novelist Sigrid Nunez preferring the shade. It was a cloudless morning in mid-August in Middlebury, Vt., and I had gone to meet Nunez, a petite woman of almost suspicious good cheer, to talk about her half-century-long writing career. She had come up from her home in New York City to give a reading — from her new, ninth novel, “The Vulnerables,” which appears this week — at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Through time, Robert Frost, Toni Morrison and George R.R. Martin have all read at Bread Loaf. Nunez was joining those names, an unlikely advent. She didn’t publish a novel until she was in her 40s and wasn’t able to live on her writing until — 47 years after she began — she won the National Book Award, at 67, for “The Friend.” That novel became an international best seller, translated into more than 30 languages. I wondered how Nunez had managed such persistence.

Wearing a broad-brimmed hat that shielded her round, pale face, Nunez recalled a time, in the early 1970s, when she was taking an undergraduate writing workshop at Barnard. She went to college on a scholarship, her immigrant parents — a Chinese-Panamanian father, a German mother — raising her in a housing project on Staten Island. The Barnard workshop was taught by the celebrated novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick. Hardwick was a founder, in 1963, along with her husband at the time, the poet Robert Lowell, of The New York Review of Books, the literary journal that has been lighting fires small and large in the New York intellectual community ever since.

Delight and surprise still in her voice, Nunez recalled a meeting with Hardwick in her office, as if it had happened that morning. “She says: ‘I tried to read your story. I really did. But I just couldn’t. It was just so boring.’ Can you imagine?

“I wish I could remember whether the work was really that bad,” Nunez continued. “But I did learn a lot. I wrote this silly story about a betrayal: A woman discovers that her husband is having an affair, and then she goes out and she sees them through a picture window in a restaurant, and I describe the woman. Hardwick said to me: ‘She doesn’t have to be so beautiful. Don’t you see how much more effective the story would be, or at least that part, if she were ordinary?’ And I’ve never forgotten that when I’ve taught, because the students will do this — they make somebody a supermodel. How many supermodels do you know? I’d learned something significant. Even though it seems very obvious.”

So brutality was expected, but it always came with insight?

“Well, that’s why I kept coming back to her,” Nunez said, pausing as she recalled another experience with Hardwick. “I took a cab in New York City, and there was this maudlin cabdriver, and he was drunk — he was quite drunk — and told me a sob story about his wife. He stopped at a red light, and he said: ‘I want you to know, I never drink when I’m driving. I always wait for the red light.’ I thought I had a story. So I wrote the story, and at the end, I say that he said: ‘You know, my wife promised me that she would never leave me, but she did. She died.’

“Hardwick was livid over this story,” Nunez went on. “She was in a state. She was furious that I didn’t know the difference between a story and an anecdote. She was enraged I would write anything that bad. And I kept thinking: Well, why not? Why the high expectations? And yet by the time I left, she had a kind of grudging sense that I just might go on with this business because I seemed to be determined to learn something.”

Not long after Nunez and I began talking, the sun became intolerable, and we relocated to a huge yellow barn scattered with small tables and creaky bamboo chairs. Despite the move and some intervening chatter, she picked up where she’d left off.

“I think of people like Hardwick and Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf,” Nunez said, “all of whom saw writing almost as a religion, as this sacred thing you make all kinds of sacrifices for. Edna O’Brien said, ‘Writing is a vocation, like being a nun or a priest.’ I felt that way; my friends felt that way, too. And that, I think, is not how M.F.A. students now feel. They would see it as elitist.”

How Nunez was defining the word was made clear by another, well, anecdote.

“When I was teaching in Boston,” Nunez said of an M.F.A. program there, one of several in which she has taught through the years, “we read one of Flannery O’Connor’s lectures. The class, which was a very good class, took a lot from the piece, but there was one thing they objected to very strongly: her statement that ‘the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.’ And that was the one thing that they pounced on: They said it was gatekeeping.”

To Nunez, O’Connor’s statement was just common sense.

“I couldn’t help but think about people in other fields,” she continued. “I was kind of obsessed with Simone Weil. I’m so happy she’s back. She brings me such joy, because I just don’t understand how you get to be that — how you practice before you can do all that. There’s not another human being on the planet who can do what she does. It’s like — ”

“Wait,” I said, confused. “Simone Weil?” Weil, the French philosopher and activist who died at 34, in 1943, was a presence in Nunez’s previous novel, “What Are You Going Through,” whose title is a phrase of Weil’s.

“No!” Nunez shouted, delightedly, her laughter rising and dispersing into the vast barn. “No! The gymnast! Simone Biles!

“That’s great! That’s great!” she said, face flushed with glee. “I’ve been thinking a lot about her,” Nunez continued, “particularly because she had to have that break. But now she keeps coming up with these moves! She can do things that no one else on the planet can do. So, I’m wondering, can I say she’s gifted? People feel you can say that about certain people. Maybe they’ll say it about Taylor Swift? But for O’Connor to say that” — about writing — “is gatekeeping.” Nunez turned her palms upward and lifted them slightly, a gesture that said both “I give up” and “Come on.” “That word, ‘gift,’ makes them crazy.”

Through nine novels, Nunez has exhibited a gift for storytelling forms that smuggle dark matter into books, which, nonetheless, proceed with bright, good humor. They are as sophisticated as they are straightforward, as death-haunted as they are life-bringing.

“The Vulnerables” completes a kind of trilogy that began with “The Friend” (2018) and continued with “What Are You Going Through” (2020). The three books are united by the way in which the unnamed narrator — her voice the same, companionable tone in all three — notices the world, alert to human pain, to people undone by life, unmoored by death, lost. Each narrative is deceptively simple. “The Friend” relates the repercussions of the narrator’s loss of a mentor and former lover to suicide and her subsequent adoption of his beloved dog, a Harlequin Great Dane. The creature, named Apollo, is so bereft by his master’s death that the widow, finding it too painful to watch the dog grieve, asks the narrator to take him. “What Are You Going Through” tells the story of another kind of kindness: A woman, an acquaintance dying of a slow cancer, asks the narrator to assist in her suicide. “The Vulnerables” takes place in high Covid, New York City on lockdown. The narrator is asked to care for a macaw by friends of a friend who are marooned in California, moving into their apartment only to learn that the former bird-sitter, a troubled young man, has moved in, too. Complications ensue.

Credit…Ruven Afanador for The New York Times

“They’re like crime novels,” the writer Lucy Sante said of Nunez’s work. “Once you walk into them, you’re not getting out until you reach the end.” An animating event, one of violence or of the threat of loss, begs not just resolution but revelation. What happens to the dog; to the woman; to the parrot. What’s so cunning about Nunez’s strategy is how she milks our storytelling expectations. In “The Friend,” she explicitly addresses us to ask, Does something bad happen to the dog? Yet the book isn’t about what happens to the dog at all; rather, it is about what happens to the narrator as she grieves with the grieving animal.

“The story in every novel that matters,” Vivian Gornick, the critic and memoirist and a good friend of Nunez’s, told me, “is one of emotional deprivation. That is what’s pushing almost all human exchange, almost every loaded or dramatic situation that one can imagine. If you really look closely at novels and pare them down to the simplest of definition, that’s what it comes down to: the ability to make that deprivation feel powerful on the page.

“And Sigrid’s is, what,” Gornick said of “The Friend,” “180 pages? It managed to accumulate into a work of power and pain and was just deeply moving.”

“The Friend” isn’t slight for being slim. Which is to say, it is a shaggy-dog story of a most particular kind: one in which the narrator’s voice intrudes upon the plot to think out loud. It is regularly interrupted — as are all the books in the trilogy — by the very thing that Elizabeth Hardwick said wasn’t a story: anecdote. These interruptions are about people and moments recalled and, moreover, quotations from and reflection on a long, deep, varied life of reading. And yet they do not feel intrusive. Rather, essential, retrieved from the story’s undertow.

After a number of long conversations with Nunez on different days, it became clear to me precisely whom her narrators sound like: Nunez. They digress as Nunez does; they reflect in ways that Nunez reflects; they think about literature and film as Nunez does. Much of what informs that interstitial thinking in her novels is organic to her conversations with one of her “absolute best friends,” Marion Ettlinger, a photographer known for her silvery black-and-white portraits of writers.

“Some of the things,” Nunez said of the interjections in her books, “are part of Marion’s and my ongoing conversation about life and the world. The ideas in it about aging, for example, or writing, reading and so on, fears about the future of the world, are things that we do talk about.”

All of this can make it seem that Nunez is her narrators, and that the events recounted are real. “When I read her books,” Ettlinger told me, “I do feel like sometimes saying, Well, I know that didn’t happen, but did this happen?” She laughed. “Who knows, right?”

Gornick has experienced a similar uncertainty. Not long after “The Friend” appeared, she went by Nunez’s apartment building. “She comes downstairs. I say to her, ‘So they really let you keep a dog here?’” Gornick recalled. “And she says to me, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said: ‘The dog. You keep the dog here?’ I swear to God I was so sure that those details were straight out of her life. She says, ‘Are you crazy?’ She made the whole thing up! So I said, ‘You made the whole thing up?’ And then she said, ‘Yes, that’s why it’s called fiction.’”

Gornick balked. To her, “The Friend” was essentially memoir. “I think a fictional narrator has another agenda, one that doesn’t sound like the writer herself who is writing.” Yet in our talks, Nunez repeatedly returned to the idea that her books were not memoirs or examples of a mode that has come to be called autofiction. In the novels of Annie Ernaux, the French writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature last year, or Karl Ove Knausgaard or Emmanuel Carrère, the protagonist’s name is often the same as that of the author on the cover. Such novels announce that their facts are facts that are inherently fictions.

Nunez is adamant that her novels are not autofiction but just seem that way. It is not that she disdains autofiction — she does not — but that she finds the description “inaccurate.” For Nunez, memory is a less capacious mental mechanism than the imagination, one that, as often as not, Nunez has used to describe the private lives animals share with their people. Like all of Nunez’s characters, they are inventions.

In “The Friend,” Nunez told me, “this man who commits suicide: There was no one in my life who resembles that man.” What’s more, Nunez had no plans to put a dog in the story at all. “I was 30 pages in, and then the wife at the memorial says, ‘Come and see me in Brooklyn.’ And then I thought, I could put a dog in the thing! And some people have not responded well to that. ‘You mean there was no Apollo? And there was never … ?’ It ruins the book a little bit for them. They think of George Santos or something! ‘You mean, you just — there was no dog?’ They want that dog to be real.”

Growing up on Staten Island, Nunez was an outsider to the literary world. Her father immigrated to the United States illegally at some point — facts on his life are scant, according to Nunez — working in a hospital kitchen and Chinese restaurants. When he was in his 30s, he joined the Army to fight in World War II. At war’s end, he met and married a 19-year-old German. They did not have a happy marriage, as Nunez documents in the largely autobiographical first half of her first novel, “A Feather on the Breath of God” (1995). Home difficulties aside, Nunez was an avid reader and a strong student, which earned her the scholarship to Barnard.

Once Nunez was in college and into her 20s, Virginia Woolf became her household god, and she spent many years trying to write like her — one of Nunez’s later books, “Mitz,” is about the Woolfs and their monkey — which is to say not like herself. She got a job working as an editorial assistant at Putnam, in its paperback department. It was such a turnoff, she said, for anyone with literary ambitions. So Hardwick connected her with The New York Review of Books. “The paper,” as its founders called it, was started during the New York City newspaper strike. The founders — Hardwick, Lowell, a Harper’s editor named Robert Silvers and the book editors Barbara and Jason Epstein — wanted to offer nothing but in-depth book reviews written by the leading lights of the era. The early issues featured Mary McCarthy, Truman Capote, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, W.H. Auden and Susan Sontag (who later hired Nunez as a typist, a period memorialized in Nunez’s one memoir, “Sempre Susan”). The paper became an instant and, to literary New York, essential success. You could not be a serious intellectual without reading it — Martin Scorsese even made a documentary about it: “The 50 Year Argument.”

“I mean, here I was, always on the outside,” Nunez told me in her high, bright voice. “An outsider, but young — which meant everything — and, you know, in the midst of all these people. Here comes mail from W.H. Auden that we opened,” Nunez went on, astonishment still in her voice. “We were permitted to read Auden! Think about it! The whole world was there to be involved with — without any real responsibility or expectations.”

Even so, The New York Review was not an easy place to work. Silvers was notorious for yelling at his staff or barely noticing them, for expecting them to stay until all hours, as he would. And yet there was enormous loyalty and good will that flowed to the editors, Silvers and Barbara Epstein, from many of their changing cast of overworked elves.

“They were so admirable,” Nunez, who worked as one of Silvers’s assistants, told me. “You had these two people who were at the top of everything, who had no interest in anything except doing this amazing job. They were strangely without ego. People didn’t know anything about them, so they had this kind of fascinating editorial presence. It was always about the writer and the paper.”

Nunez, of course, had an anecdote for that. One day, she called Norman Mailer for Silvers. He wasn’t there, but she was told Mailer could be reached at the Jockey Club. “So I say to Bob: ‘Mailer will be at the Jockey Club this afternoon. You can call him there.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. Why wouldn’t he just call you when he got there?’ And he just looked at me, and he laughed, and he said, ‘It’s called big-shot-ism, kiddo.’”

Nunez left to pursue an M.F.A. in the middle of her time at the review, the job lasting less than two years all told, but it had a long tail. She continued to show stuff to Hardwick now and again and, in 1981, got her first piece of fiction, an excerpt from a fantasy novella called “The Bird That Ate the Stars,” published in a little magazine. She had shown some of it to Hardwick, who said: “Bad. Every word of it. Not worth writing.”

Hardwick’s discouragement didn’t discourage her. She worked at her writing, tried different things, wrote a short story that was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1985, took small jobs — a research assistant for this writer, a proofreader for that publisher — and had relationships, one of which gave her a few years of not having to work. But in the early ’90s, she began teaching English to Russian immigrants through the New York Association for New Americans.

Sigrid Nunez and Susan Sontag in 1977.Credit…From Sigrid Nunez

“There were a lot of writers, filmmakers, actors, artists who had this job,” said the filmmaker Todd Solondz, one of Nunez’s close friends, whom she met working at NYANA, “and many of them complained about it. But Sigrid and I were a little bit unusual in that we both loved working with these Russian immigrants.”

That love is palpable in the way Nunez draws on her experiences from NYANA for the final section of “Feather on the Breath of God,” which involves an affair between an E.S.L. teacher and one of her students, a married Russian man, a brutal character capable of great tenderness, whose English, as it evolves, is loved by the narrator, no less than Nunez must have loved that of her students. It was a move away from autobiography into fiction, an aesthetic achievement, if not a commercial one.

“Success in the literary world,” Solondz said, “did not get conferred upon her when she was, like, 23, with a story in The New Yorker. She really was serious about her craft and about her writing. She worked hard at it, and regularly, as a part of her life. She never let go of it.”

In mid-September, Nunez took me on an afternoon of walks through her Lower Manhattan neighborhood, to parks she visited at dawn and streets she all but wore ruts in through the early months of the pandemic. “The Vulnerables” draws on that time, a time of pain squirreled away behind apartment doors, as Nunez’s narrator takes to the street and, in her own way, into the thinking that happens, freely, regardless. It begins:

Nunez poaches the book’s first sentence from Virginia Woolf’s “The Years.” Her love of Woolf in her early writing, her attempt to imitate her cedes here to quotation. Nunez now sounds like only Nunez: her clarity, her sincerity, her unfussy rigor.

During our afternoon of walking through her neighborhood, we took a break to spend an hour at the Strand on 12th and Broadway. It was dense with shoppers around tables ziggurated with books. Nunez and I lingered at the new-fiction display, where in two months her book would sit.

Over the course of an hour, Nunez and I picked up new release after new release. We looked at first lines. Each of us had our separate copy; each of us read the first line. Nunez wondered aloud: What if this adjective were removed? What if these clauses were reversed? What if the first sentence were cut, and this second, wonderful sentence were the first sentence? I was watching the private work of a writer, which is also that of a reader. It was part of the commitment to figuring out what made a good sentence: an interdependence between form and feeling. Because if you can’t be sure what’s wrong with a sentence, how will you make one that feels right? A writer must become, as Nunez had, her own gatekeeper.

Nunez and I left the store, beginning another leg in another long walk through the city. Nunez noted how, since lockdown, things had changed. Garbage everywhere; noise; homelessness that can break your heart, people unmoored by life. As we walked west, we passed a man peeing into the center of the street; 100 yards on, a conspicuously fancy new apartment building. We settled for a final talk on a bench in the tiny triangle of Jackson Square Park, to which Nunez regularly returned during Covid. It was a pleasant place to sit. A woman across from us was absorbed in her lunch. Her noodles kept tumbling to the sidewalk below her bench, where a mouse, and then a family of mice, joined her, enjoying her lunch, too. Nunez was delighted. “I’m so glad we decided to sit here,” she said. “Because that is the most adorable thing.” Mice were all around us, it turned out. Under our bench, in the bushes. “Mouse heaven!” Nunez said. We discussed mice at some length; stray cats and dogs, which you don’t see in Manhattan, only stray people. Sitting there, I imagined Nunez during Covid — the park empty, streets empty, her mind full — happily alone.

Wyatt Mason is a contributing writer for the magazine who teaches at Bard College. He last wrote about the poet Shane McCrae. Ruven Afanador is a Colombian-born photographer based in New York. He has worked on numerous portraits for the magazine, including Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Jane Campion and Sharon Olds.

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