One of the happy offshoots of an unexpected late-career literary success is renewed attention to the author's earlier work. Sigrid Nunez's The Friend, a tartly tender novel about a woman mourning the suicide of a fellow writer whose bereft, slobbering Great Dane provides unexpected solace, won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction and sent many readers scrambling to Nunez's backlist. Now Soft Skull Press has reissued Mitz, a rich little fact-based fiction originally published in 1998, about Leonard and Virginia Woolf and their eponymous rescued pet marmoset — a tiny monkey native to South America.
Yes, another book about a pet — and another ailing pet, at that — who's lucky to land with kind caregivers. Mitz is also another wry, supremely intelligent literary gem about devotion — to writing, to other people, and between humans and their pets. As novelist Peter Cameron notes in his afterword, there are many famous nonhuman characters in literature, including Chekhov's lapdog and E.B. White's pig and spider, but they're mostly invented. Mitz, like Elsa the lioness in Born Free, actually existed.
With Mitz, Nunez has pulled off a diminutive but affecting biographical and historical novel. Set in England during the distressing buildup to World War II, it paints a resonant dual portrait of Bloomsbury's literary power couple, a hardworking pair dedicated to each other, their friends and family, their pets, their writing, and The Hogarth Press, which they ran from the basement of their home in London's Tavistock Square.
Nunez's sources include Leonard and Virginia Woolf's diaries, letters, and autobiographies, several biographies, and memoirs by their nephew Quentin Bell, who disliked Mitz. The novel opens during the Woolfs' visit to Merton Hall, Barbara and Victor Rothschild's lavish Cambridge estate, on a hot July day in 1934. Nunez swiftly sets the scene with a few well-chosen details: thinly cut tea sandwiches, gin-spiked lemonade, and "flowers set in large alabaster bowls." Pithy quotes from Virginia's diaries reveal the snobbish barbs she withheld in polite company, including her pronouncement on the Rothschilds' "pretentious uncared for garden."
But it's the sickly marmoset that wealthy Victor rescued, fairy tale style, from a junk shop window in the hopes of amusing his pregnant wife that ends up stealing the show. After feasting on strawberries and cream, the strange yet oddly adorable marmoset takes to Leonard — and vice versa; the Rothschilds are happy to hand her over.
Mitz, like The Friend and Sempre Susan, Nunez's memoir of Susan Sontag, explores the commitment it takes to be a writer, a vocation that often goes unrewarded. We meet Virginia soon after she's finished her 1933 novel, Flush, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel that was meant to be "a relaxation — something to cool a brain that had seethed and bubbled over during the feverish labor of completing The Waves." Virginia worries that "Now strangers would paw it. Critics would claw at it," and braces herself for bad reviews. She's all too aware that "The gods of literature punish writers who begin books in this spirit. Lightly though she took it at first, calling it a lark, a jeu d'esprit, it soon turned into what all book writing always turns into: work, work, work." So Mitz, on top of everything else, is a clever homage to Flush. It, too, may have been work, work, work to write, but it's a pleasure to read. Instead of Flush, a dog based on the Woolfs' spaniel Pinka, we have an impossible-to-house-train, elfin-faced, rodent-tailed little monkey who rides in Leonard's waistcoat pocket or on his shoulder, picks through his scalp for tasty bits of dandruff, and sleeps in a wicker birdcage with the door left ajar. Mitz repels many guests, though — surprisingly — not the fastidious Tom (T.S.) Eliot. She also unexpectedly charms a Nazi storm trooper when the Woolfs are stopped while driving through Germany during a continental holiday, averting a potentially dangerous situation for Leonard in particular, who was Jewish.
Virginia wonders what Mitz thinks, and we get an inkling when Nunez amusingly channels the marmoset's bafflement on hearing the writer call people "one name when they were present and other names when they were not. The 'uncastrated cat' coming to dinner was in fact Ethel; the 'great toad' and the 'dear old ass' both turned out to be Tom." Virginia jokes about how much she and Mitz have in common: "Two nervous, delicate, wary females, one as relentlessly curious as the other. Both in love with Leonard." Mitz is in fact jealous of Virginia; a hug between Leonard and his wife is all it takes to lure her down from a tree.
As Hitler goes on the march and England gears up for another war, Mitz catches a chill and relives the horrors of her abduction from Brazil — which subtly parallels the Nazis' roundup of Jews. The Woolfs, faced with the terrors of war and the loss of loved ones, "had their own trenches; they buried themselves in books."
Like The Friend, Mitz captures the heartrending downside of love and connection — loss. But it also reminds us, beautifully, of the "great solace and distraction" of literature.
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