American writer Sigrid Nunez, in 2018. © Beowulf Sheehan / Bridgeman Images
Simone Weil said that "the fullness of love for one's neighbor" consisted in being able to ask others a question: "What is your torment?" This quote gives the title to the latest novel by Sigrid Nunez (New York, 1951), a respected author, but with a somewhat discreet career, which was propelled by the success of her previous book,
, about the unsuspected friendship between a writer Lonely Girl and a Dog, with which she won the prestigious National Book Award in 2018. Suddenly, Nunez ceased to be the best-kept secret in American literature and became a best-selling author. His previous books had been translated into six languages.
managed to multiply that number by five.
“I always felt that I could have a larger audience, especially in Europe.
Other writers received more attention abroad.
Yes, I felt a little undervalued… ”, admits Nunez by video call from his airy apartment in Greenwich Village.
“I love self-fiction as a reader, but that word makes me uncomfortable as a writer.
I make up many things "
The narrator of
What is your torment
(Anagram) is a woman who visits a friend from her youth who suffers from terminal cancer and faces an impossible dilemma when that former classmate asks her for a favor: to help her put an end to her agony in a flirty Airbnb, owned by hosts with the category of
. The firmness and intimacy that Nunez's literary voice exudes is very reminiscent of
, as well as a falsely confessional tone that has caused certain misunderstandings: although Nunez plays to confuse, the book has (almost) nothing autobiographical. “I love self-fiction as a reader, but it's not a word I'm comfortable with as a writer. In autofiction, the author tells his life, while I invent many things, "he says. For example, she never inherited a Great Dane from her mastermind (actually, Nunez prefers cats) nor did she have a soulmate who wanted to end her days. “But the narrator is my age and my job. Your sensitivity is mine. When he thinks, feels and speaks, he does so with my thoughts, feelings and opinions ”, he acknowledges.
The narrative engine of the book are the successive encounters of this woman with different individuals and her stumbles in different situations, almost all of them everyday or banal. At times, the plot matters much less than the anecdotes and digressions of that character who is her and, at the same time, is not. And that she is willing to comment on anything, from Ingeborg Bachmann's theses on gender separatism to Bernard-Henri Lévy's "shameful open shirts", to the usefulness of FaceApp as a public service - because it helps to get used to the idea. of growing old in a society like that of the United States, which is clouded by the passage of time— or the story of an indefatigable activist for human rights who, turned senile old man, spent his last days shouting two insults: “Fagot” and "Black".
This hybrid device is inspired, according to Nunez, in the work of Milan Kundera and WG Sebald and in the “literary thought” of Javier Marías, but also in the prose without argument of Rachel Cusk. “She says that autobiography is the only possibility to create art today. It seems a bit exaggerated to me, but it is true that the pure invention of characters and situations is no longer convincing, neither for the readers nor for the writers themselves. It is as if he no longer adjusts to the present. Sometimes I start writing like that and I have to throw it all away, because it doesn't work, ”says Nunez. His
in the novel says nothing different: “I never care how a mystery story ends. That is always the least interesting part ”.
“I can't think of a single great book that doesn't contain a bit of humor.
Even Primo Levi has it when talking about Auschwitz "
What is your torment
It is distinguished by a surprising caustic humor, with a corrosive acidity, in direct contradiction with the dire experiences that the book collects. "Comedy is not something planned, it comes up when I write," says Nunez. “I can't really think of a single great book that doesn't contain a bit of humor. Even Primo Levi shows that he has it when he talks about Auschwitz ... Writing and not letting humor break out is one of the things that most concerns me as an author ”. He suspects that it comes from his mother, a German immigrant in the postwar United States. “He was a very unhappy person, who hated his life and his marriage. He missed his native country, and that he grew up in Nazi Germany. Maybe that's where his sense of humor came from… ”he laughs.She believes that being exposed to the idyllic youth stories of that unhappy mother and also to the mysterious story of her father, a Chinese merchant of vaguely Panamanian origin - hence the Hispanic surname, despite the absence of an accent - of which she knows very little. and nothing, they turned her into a writer: she learned to fill in the blanks of the story of one and to deactivate the beautifying filter of the memories of the other.
cover 'What is your torment', SIGRID NUNEZ.
Her book is a critique of a dehumanized society, where it is increasingly difficult to connect with the other or show empathy in the face of the pain of others, as her first supporter, Susan Sontag, would say, whom Nunez met when she was in her twenties, when she left for a time with his son, David Rieff.
“In other times, in this country, people built stables with the rest of the town and made quilts as a group.
Today we continue to connect with others, but at a distance, behind a screen, in isolation.
The Internet has made life easier for us in many ways, but more difficult emotionally ”.
Social networks have caused, according to Nunez, a brutalization of human relationships: "They should bring us closer, but they have divided and polarized us."
His novel also opposes the war rhetoric that exists around cancer, which speaks of the disease as a battle and of the patient as a soldier or survivor, which may remind some of Sontag's theses, which some critics have taken as a model for the character of the sick friend.
"That's a lie.
She would never have taken lethal drugs, she was the opposite of the character ”, dismisses Nunez, for whom the great writer was“ a tremendous influence ”, but also a counter-model.
“She took amphetamines to write, went out every night and traveled all over the world, even when she was sick.
For me it was not a desirable life.
My writing would not have supported it ”.
What is your torment
Translation by Mercedes Cebrián.
Anagram, 2021. 200 pages.
Buy for € 17.95 on Amazon
Look for it in your bookstore
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