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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