A Human or Non-Human Companion? The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

By Maria Moss

Every so often, a book comes around by an author you’ve nev­er heard about – although you pride your­self on always fol­low­ing new, entic­ing, and award-win­ning pub­li­ca­tions from the U.S. Well, The Friend is a nov­el (the sixth!) by a woman whose name I’d nev­er encoun­tered before: Sigrid Nunez. Not George Saun­ders or Col­son White­head, not Joan Did­ion or Louise Erdrich, but Sigrid Nunez. And when I saw a Har­le­quin Great Dane on the cov­er, I knew I need­ed to read it. 

It would be easy to iden­ti­fy the first-per­son nar­ra­tor – a name­less writer in her late 60s from New York who teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at a uni­ver­si­ty – with Sigrid Nunez, also a writer in her late 60s who lives in New York and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at a uni­ver­si­ty. Although the book blurs bound­aries – for instance between mem­oir and essay – The Friend is a nov­el and shows its fic­tion­al­i­ty around every bend.

The Friend, a sur­prise suc­cess that won the Nation­al Book Award in 2018, is about loss, love, and lit­er­a­ture. Loss, because it opens with the death of the narrator’s much-cher­ished friend and life-long men­tor; love, because it depicts the narrator’s increas­ing infat­u­a­tion and even­tu­al love for Apol­lo, a 140-pound Great Dane; lit­er­a­ture, because Nunez pro­vides us with insight­ful thoughts on writ­ers and writ­ing. The Friend is a trea­sure trove for lit­er­a­ture con­nois­seurs: from Rain­er Maria Rilke to Hein­rich von Kleist, from Vir­ginia Woolf to Karl Ove Knaus­gård, emi­nent writ­ers from the past and present fig­ure promi­nent­ly. So when Apol­lo is bored and starts munch­ing away on Knaus­gård we can­not be sure that this isn’t actu­al­ly the author’s com­ment on mem­oir writing.

But who’s the ‘friend’ of the title? Apol­lo, the only one with a name in the entire book, is def­i­nite­ly one friend; the oth­er one is the dog’s for­mer own­er who’d killed him­self. This friend was not only a charm­ing wom­an­iz­er, but also an old-fash­ioned sex­ist pro­fes­sor who had mar­ried three times (most­ly his stu­dents) and had count­less affairs (most­ly with his stu­dents). He was also won­der­ful­ly non-pc.

When he com­mits sui­cide (this is not actu­al­ly a spoil­er), his wid­ow (or wife no. three, as she’s called) insists that he had want­ed the nar­ra­tor to take the dog. Shocked at first, she even­tu­al­ly con­sents. Yet, the man­age­ment of her tiny, rent-con­trolled apart­ment in Man­hat­tan does not allow ani­mals – at least not espe­cial­ly large ones. How­ev­er, she becomes attached to Apol­lo and man­ages – in a won­der­ful­ly tricky way – to con­vince her land­lord of Apollo’s mer­its. That’s more or less the entire plot of this nov­el – until you reach the sec­ond-to-last chap­ter that turns every­thing you thought you knew upside down – like great lit­er­a­ture does.

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