A lot of fine readers I know really liked Vanessa and Her Sister, a fictional recreation of the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. But I resisted it, for some reason. I often dislike fictionalized biographies of my literary heroes – though David Lodge’s efforts in that genre are exceptional. However, when tidying shelves in the store during the Christmas rush, I stumbled upon a new title by an author I love, Sigrid Nunez.
It’s a slim volume called Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, and it makes a nice companion piece to Nunez’ previous work of recent fiction, The Friend, which is about a loving relationship between a woman and a dog, but the book is also a nod to Woolf’s own Flush, an imagining of the life of the spaniel belonging to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
There’s a lot to love in Mitz. The portrait of the daily domesticities of the famous marriage in its final years. The heartbreaking backstory, saved to the end, of a South American monkey snatched from her forest home and subjected to dreadful suffering. The fine detail of the loving care Mitz received from Leonard Woolf – she lived inside his jacket, picked dandruff from his scalp and was exceedingly jealous when Leonard showed physical affection to his wife. A sketch of background events in the lives of the Bloomsbury group in the years when war clouds gathered, including the heartbreaking loss of Vanessa’s son Julian in the Spanish Civil War.
But for me, most thrilling section of the book is Nunez’ imagining of what it might have been like to be the writer that Virginia Woolf was: “One morning while she was working in her studio in the basement of Tavistock Square, Virginia put down her pen, aware of a faint vibration, as of some deep nerve being plucked. She leaned forward, she held her breath. The eerie and rapturous feeling that something was about to be communicated to her, as from another world. She half closed her eyes and she waited. What came: a muffled music, like distant horns; a soft rising and falling, a rhythm to which she matched her breathing when she breathed again. Looking round her studio, she saw a kind of haze over all—and the next instant her mind took flight: people, houses, streets, landscapes, weather, seasons, friendships, passions, fates, patterns, necessities—A new novel.”