Ice in the heart and a grain of stupidity


Ice in the heart and a grain of stupidity

LOUIS GAIGHER loves to be transported by Sigrid Nunez's voice and sensibility.


SIGRID Nunez ushers in The Vulnerables, the new and final instalment of a loose trilogy, with a Virginia Woolf quote: “It was an uncertain Spring." The first-person narrator breaks the old rule of writing according to which the weather is a dull opening topic. Unlike when Oscar Wilde dismissed weather talk as imaginative, it is now a shared obsession and a “far more erratic, often apocalyptic event".

The Vulnerables is set in the first pandemic season of 2020. Pandemic time made us linger in memories and dream worlds, and in retrospect it feels more like a dream than a memory. But it gave us a chance to look at that which had escaped the gaze earlier. The Vulnerables evokes this experience of time. It acts as a container of impressions, ideas and speculations with a loose structure and controlled use of language and it proceeds with a rhythm rather than a storyline.

Narrated time extends associatively and discursively back to, among other things, the narrator's childhood and youth. Now, in the murky spring during which she finds herself in a vulnerable age group, an autumnal question occupies her attention: “I want to know why I feel as though I have been mourning all of my life."

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Start by breaking a rule

“It's always good to start off anything by breaking a rule," was Susan Sontag's advice to Nunez, then a skittish 25-year-old. That was when, in 1977, Nunez shared a spacious and spartan apartment on the Upper West Side with her lover, Sontag's son David Rieff, and Sontag. They lived together like graduate students. Nunez writes about this experience with humour, honesty, compassion and understanding, and about Sontag as an unlikely mentor, in Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (2011), the book that preceded the trilogy.

During their cohabitation, Sontag was 43 and writing On Photography, a critical work that sent her prestige soaring and is now a classic. Also, her relationship with French filmmaker Nicole Stéphane was unravelling and a new romance with Russian dissident poet Joseph Brodsky blossomed. In addition, she was treated for cancer after an initial poor prognosis, an experience she abstractly and remotely documents in Illness as Metaphor. In this extensive essay, she persuasively shows that war language and metaphors are undesirable and harmful in describing cancer: it is merely a disease and should not be mythologised as a battle that patients are blamed for if they “lose" it. As Sontag recovered and threw herself into projects and romance, it was as if she had grown younger over the course of 1977.

Sontag calls herself Rieff's “goofy older sister" and lays full claim to the young lovers' attention and time. “The duke, duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive," she calls the three of them. “I know that wasn't good," Nunez writes. With her introverted and dreamy nature, as an incomer and loner, she failed the test of their household and their intense triangular relationship, according to both mother and son.

Nunez was then still unpublished, a student of Elizabeth Hardwick and assistant at The New York Review of Books (the milieu that Darryl Pinckney writes about in Come Back in September). She had little affinity with Sontag's fiction and consequently did not attach much importance to her writing advice. Yet Sontag's unironic view of writing as vocation was formative and her enthusiasm, vitality and reading choices inspiring.


Sharing, upon request, a domestic space with an exceptional creature — this is the test imposed on Nunez in Sempre Susan and on the narrators of the trilogy. Almost like in a fairy tale.

With The Friend (2018), Nunez became “an overnight literary sensation, 23 years and eight books later", according to The New York Times. In this novel, a mourning harlequin Great Dane, the bequest of her mentor, fills the narrator's life in a tiny rent-controlled apartment.

The domestic space in What Are You Going Through (2020) shifts from an Airbnb (with a stray cat full of stories) to a New England home in a comfortable yet luxurious “shaker luxe" style and an apartment. The narrator turns her attention ever deeper to the impending death of a childhood friend with terminal cancer, whom she assists in ending her life. In The Vulnerables, the narrator forms a bond with Eureka, a parrot, and, more likely, with a sizable and tormented youth. This is while the three are confined to a hyper-stylised New York apartment and when the narrator isn't wandering through the abandoned city like a “dotty, driftless old lady" — indecent for an ageing woman, according to a critical friend.

Sugared Nouns

The name of the unnamed narrator of The Vulnerables autocorrects to “Sugared Nouns". She shows numerous biographical similarities to Nunez — both are loners of mixed immigrant origin who grew up in a depressing urban environment. They are also, like the narrators of the book's two predecessors, lecturers in writing in their late middle years. Again, the wry-ironic, aphoristic and intelligent narrator's company is delightful and her impressions, including about movies and books, stimulating. It's like encountering a friend again.

Thus, the narrator claims that the hippies of Haight-Ashbury probably pulled wool over Joan Didion's eyes about five-year-old Susan with white lipstick supposedly on LSD — the culmination of Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem essay and “gold" according to Didion's hindsight.

Does Nunez urge her readers to be vigilant about narrators, especially when the narrative voice is intimate and engenders trust? The subtlety and control with which Nunez creates a slightly unreliable narrator is fascinating: with blind spots, eccentricities and petty dissonances, while personality, an empathetic gaze and a sense of morality clearly emerge. Be careful, reader! The narrator then also notes: “I like the sliver of ice in the heart that Graham Greene thought every writer should have. I have it. And the grain of stupidity Flannery O'Connor said the writer of fiction can't do without. I have that too."

Drenched in literature

Which books are still essential and meaningful on our warming and turbulent planet? In the trilogy, steeped in literature, this question is explored in numerous ways. The bigoted mentor in The Friend seems to think, in a continuation of the Roth-Bellow-Updike tradition, that the end of his libido rings the death knell of literature. In contrast, the narrator's writing students subject themselves to self-censorship, create spotless characters and are painfully moralising — books should make them feel noticed. When she initially came to love their work, the narrator of The Vulnerables didn't care that the canonised writers, like Virginia Woolf, would look down on her, but “[n]ow in our brave new cultural world, I keep being reminded that's the only thing that should matter to me".

In her review of Garth Greenwell's Cleanness, Nunez quotes Karl Ove Knausgård as answering this question. The literature that is still significant “just consists of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet". The authenticity of the narrator's voice and Nunez's controlled prose and deep, human gaze make The Vulnerables meaningful and indispensable, like its predecessors.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez was published by Little, Brown and costs R430 at Exclusive Books

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez was published by Little, Brown and costs R242 at Exclusive Books.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez was published by Prentice Hall Press and costs R353 at Exclusive Books.

Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez was published by Hudson Street Press and costs R480 at Loot.

♦ VWB 

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