For all the High Modern sophistication of the writers who made up the Bloomsbury set in England in the early 1900s, there remains something creaturely about the collective. It is as if, beneath the frocks and tweeds, a simian itch lingered. To begin with, there were the names they gave one another, curious and whiskery terms of endearment: Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard called each other Mandrill and Mongoose; Vanessa Bell referred to her sister as Singe (ape in French) or Goat, while Vanessa herself was known as Dolphin; Virginia’s friend and sometime lover Vita Sackville-West gave her the private name of Potto, a kind of lemur; and several members of the group referred to T. S. Eliot in private letters as Old Toad. The impulse would occasionally manifest in their art. Take, for instance, Flush: A Biography, Woolf’s imaginative consideration of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.
The fictions of Sigrid Nunez are often similarly attuned to animals, though they serve different ends here. They are not, as in Woolf, an uncharted tributary into the river of animal consciousness. Instead, they act as a conduit for the unpredictable weight of self-knowledge. In her 2018 National Book Award–winning novel The Friend, a woman charts her course through grief by adopting Apollo, the Great Dane belonging to her dearly departed. It is a novel of tender transference, delineating intimacies between different species that are not precisely sexual, though also not without an erotic dimension. (In bed, the paw Apollo places on the narrator’s chest is “the size of a man’s fist.”)
An earlier Nunez novel explores similar, if more whimsical, territory. Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, a charming, airy, and disarmingly melancholy novel from 1998, has been recently reissued in a new edition by Soft Skull. It begins with an improbable rescue, based on true events. It is late July 1934, and Leonard Woolf has recently come into possession of his friend Victor Rothschild’s sickly marmoset. (Victor had procured the creature, whom he named Mitz, from a junk shop.) A pet-sitting appointment blooms into a longer arrangement. Good Leonard—“He was a man who healed sick animals and grew dahlias and wrote books taking on the biggest bullies of the world,” the fictionalized Virginia explains—nurses Mitz back to health. Spirited, loyal, and uncorrupted by shame or civility, the tiny primate becomes an unlikely fixture of the cultural life of Bloomsbury.
Mitz serves as an ingenious framing device, a sort of roving awareness perched lightly on the Woolfian hearth. A close-quarters Intimism reigns. There are wonderfully burnished scenes of Virginia and Leonard reading Shakespeare beside the fire, teas with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and even a visit from the surprisingly affable Eliot, who, having been bitten by Mitz, asks, “How shall I hold the little marmoset, if you devour first one of my hands, then the other?” The novel makes of Bloomsbury a kind of snow globe—diminutive, self-contained, beautifully agitated—within which major and minor figures are given room to float past at their leisure.
While Mitz and Leonard become inseparable companions—she could be found most often in the pocket of her master’s waistcoat—she was for Virginia something like a meditative object. (“I could never look upon a monkey,” William Congreve once wrote, “without very mortifying reflections.”) The thinness of the divide between Mitz and her own self fills Virginia with dread and wonder. She probes the little flicker of being before her:
She wondered about Mitz as she had wondered about the cats and dogs she had known all her life. What was it like to be an animal? How did the world look through a dog’s eyes? What did cats think of us?… Now it was Mitz’s walnut of a head she wished to crack. Did marmosets dream? Did they remember? Did they regret? What did marmosets want?
Virginia and Mitz share certain similarities—“Two nervous, delicate, wary females, one as relentlessly curious as the other. Both in love with Leonard … They both had claws.” Like twin moons, wife and marmoset closely orbit their beloved Leonard, Virginia often provoking Mitz to little fits of jealousy: “When Mitz was really piqued, her white tufts would erect themselves like a headdress; she would rock back and forth, smacking her lips, and sticking her tongue out at Virginia in the lewdest fashion.” Despite such antagonism, Virginia develops a grudging respect for Mitz and the many cruelties and reversals of fortune she has suffered. It is the shared sympathy of the anxious, both characters pulled taut as wires. When Vanessa asks why her sister doesn’t write Mitz’s biography, Flush-like, Virginia admits that what she truly wants is for Mitz to write her own.
Though she necessarily invents much of Mitz’s life, Nunez makes use of numerous published sources to thicken the telling, from Leonard’s Beginning Again and Downhill All the Way to Virginia’s diaries and collected letters. The fictive and the factual are here skillfully threaded as fibers of similar color. The result is historical fiction that avoids the stagy pitfalls of the genre by kindling life from recorded dialogue. (Less successful is the pilfering of Woolf’s own iconic quotes—Mrs. Dalloway’s “for there she was,” for example—which can read like knowing winks at English majors.)
Futurity haunts the novel. The rise of Hitler, the blitz over London, Virginia’s worsening depression and eventual suicide—these oblique shadows, known only to the reader, stripe the narrative. In one memorable incident, the Woolfs visit the German city of Bonn, where they find themselves in the middle of a military parade for Hermann Göring. When a Nazi soldier accosts them, it is Mitz’s charms that grant them safe passage: “They drove on—very slowly, as they had to. They crept along for miles—and still the bands played and the flags waved and the Jews Are Our Enemy and men, women, and children hailed Mitz with the Nazi salute.”
After a brutal flashback to Mitz’s capture in South America and her nightmarish voyage to London in a ship’s hold, the beloved marmoset dies suddenly during a spell of cold weather. Nunez does not linger too long on the damp little ball at the floor of the birdcage, “her eyes shut and her face very white like an old woman’s.” Whatever sentimentality exists at the novel’s end is eclipsed by death at a larger scale. Less than a year after Mitz’s passing, Hitler would invade Poland. Virginia would take her own life soon after.
Mitz, then, is a novel of intimate refraction. In plumbing the mysterious affections between species, it comes to represent the solace and fragility of human relations more generally. Synoptic gloss—a monkey’s antics in Bloomsbury!—would devalue the novel’s melancholy, which gathers quickly and darkly, like a weather. It is a confection that melts before our eyes. How we long to clothe Leonard’s naked heart, when we sense our own imminent pain within it: “He had known at once, he said, when, for the first time in four and a half years, she had not come at dawn to wake him.”
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California.