Sigrid Nunez: The Friend


The three quotes at the beginning of The Friend are a kind of triangulation, three lines drawn towards the point where the writer is to be found.  But where is she to be found? She doesn’t know that herself.

You have to realise that you cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.  (Natalia Ginzburg)

You will see a large chest, standing in the middle of the floor, and upon it a dog seated, with a pair of eyes as large as teacups.  But you need not be at all afraid of him. (Hans Christian Anderson, The Tinderbox)

The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living? (Nicholson Baker)

N, the narrator of this most unusual work, is a writer and teacher of writing mourning the suicide of her friend and mentor. More than a friend – it’s clear to us though it isn’t to N herself, that she’s been abjectly in love with this man ever since he was her teacher at university. He isn’t an appealing character: a vain, womanising type we probably all knew among our university teachers, who seems, in the end, to have killed himself out of a dyspeptic contempt for the modern writing industry and students of writing, combined with his awareness that his ageing body is not longer desirable.  His final act of selfishness is to tell his wife that his friend N would take his dog Apollo if he ever needs a home. He has never discussed this with N, she lives in a rent-controlled apartment that doesn’t allow dogs, and Apollo is an enormous Great Dane.  The wife never wanted Apollo. N. is heartbroken at Apollo’s suffering for his lost master – “love deserves better than that.” She takes the dog.

Does anything bad happen to the dog? Nunez imagines the reader saying from time to time. I can put your mind at rest there. The bad has already happened, and Apollo is marked by it, but the regal creature and the broken N bit by bit put together a life.

What are we, Apollo and I, but two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other? (146)

And in fact Apollo as a friend throws an unflattering light on the kind of friend his owner was.

The book is steeped in Nunez’ lifetime of reading and thinking about writing. On the subject of the writing industry of today, she’s sadly entertaining:

Student A is frustrated that the program requires so many reading courses: I don’t want to read what other people write, I want people to read what I write. Student B is concerned that so much of the assigned reading includes books that failed to make money or are now out of print. Shouldn’t we be studying more successful writers?  (142)

I keep finding more reasons to admire this subtle, elegant work, which has just won the National Book Award. Here’s an excellent review by Laura Kipnis that says it all:

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