Virago, $32.99 pb, 242 pp
What does it mean to narrate the humiliations of ageing, loneliness, and death in the first person when your background is working class? For such a writer, saying ‘I’ is political too, said Annie Ernaux in her Nobel Prize lecture, because it involves claiming an authority rarely granted in other parts of life. Ernaux uses her incendiary, affectless ‘I’ not just to recount one individual experience, but to transcend it. For ‘I’ to speak to the reader it must become, she says, ‘transpersonal’.
Ernaux’s manifesto on the first-person voice appears in Sigrid Nunez’s The Vulnerables. It’s one of many moments when another writer consoles, guides, and inoculates the unnamed narrator from despair. She is a writer herself, with working-class roots, and her frank, confiding voice narrates her experience of ageing and intimacy during Covid. When the novel opens, she is struggling with lockdown isolation in New York and so agrees to pet-sit a parrot in a luxury condo, and soon her life is upended. Since they are rich, the bird’s owners have fled the city for one of three homes elsewhere. Whatever care you received during the pandemic depended on wealth and geopolitical luck. Think of Colm Tóibín, marooned in Venice, his walks passing through ‘the most beautiful city in the world now become the most beautiful ghost town’. Even so, he thought: ‘One of the subjects to muse on as old age begins is how unfair life is.’ Ahem. Instead of Venetian wonders, Nunez’s narrator moves in with the miniature macaw. In the condo, jungle scenes are painted on the walls: ‘bright butterflies and exotic flowers and other wild birds, all exquisitely drawn and vibrantly colored, as well as a pair of monkeys with keenly expressive, lifelike features’. This chimes with the themes of unhomely spaces, of wildness curtailed.