The brilliant New York writer Sigrid Nunez‘s most recent novel is What Are You Going Through; her previous one, The Friend, (2018) won the National Book Award. She speaks with Tara Menon, of the Harvard English department, and author of a terrific article about Sigrid Nunez in the Sewanee Review.
The conversation ranges widely and then plunges into depths. Because life is defined by grief and mourning, so too are my novels, says Nunez. She thinks her upbringing with immigrant parents who felt adrift from their homeland and her own “failure” as a dancer (recounted in her 1995 debut novel, A Feather on the Breath of God ) are the ferment from which her vocation as a writer arose. The question of genre is tossed around:”fictional memoir” perhaps, which gets confused (insultingly, Tara thinks!) with auto-fiction. But Sigrid is fascinated by establishing a reality that is entirely made-up (“not a single friend angry!”), yet also documentary in nature. Perhaps the best tag for her work is “essay novel”: that allows one to do what Javier Marias calls “literary thinking.” And there’s a wonderfully non-Pavlovian answer to the treat question: sometimes you can just have the whiskey….
- Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (1979)
- W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (1995)
- V. S. Naipaul, Bend in the River (1979), Enigma of Arrival (1987)
- Annie Ernaux also writes a kind of auto-fiction that resonates with the fictional presence of a “real” first person
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
- Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
- “Docu-novel” of Svetlana Alexeievich (author of Secondhand Time, 2013, which while wonderful is not a novel…)
Listen and Read
Sigrid Nunez author website
Harvard University Department of English website