Attention to others by Sigrid Nunez

American writer Sigrid Nunez, in 2019. MARION ETTLINGER

English has an expression, “late bloomers” (literally: “late flowering”), to designate artists whose talent is not revealed in early youth. Sigrid Nunez is one of them: born in New York in 1951, she has always written but only published her first text, A Feather on the Breath of God (“une plume sur le souffle de Dieu”, untranslated), only in 1995. She got the wide recognition she deserved – as French readers of the novels know. For Rouenna (Flammarion, 2002) or And our eyes must welcome the dawn (Rue Fromentin, 2014), as well as stories Semper Susan (13e Note, 2012) – with his eighth book, The Friend (Stock, 2019), awarded the National Book Award in 2018. A marvelous demonstration of intelligence, humor, depth and sensitivity around a mourning symbolized by a cumbersome dog.

In What is your torment?, a friend suffering from terminal cancer asks the narrator to accompany her in her final weeks. No less vivid and poignant than The Friend, it offers a kind of sequel, worked on similar themes, showing the same quiet originality in the story and the construction. The opportunity for a transatlantic conversation with the affable New Yorker, short gray hair and large red glasses, on her tropisms, her career and her writing methods.


What is immediately striking upon reading What is your torment? is the narrative freedom that unfolds there. Everything seems both supple and obvious, the stories follow one another, the digressions fit in naturally. Sigrid Nunez practices writing that could be described as open, without a pre-established plan or plot fixed in advance. One sentence leads to another. At the beginning of What is your torment?there was this one, which appeared during a walk in the forest: “I went to listen to a man who was giving a lecture. » This incipit led to a host of questions: who is this “I”? And the speaker? What is he going to talk about? Where will the talk take place? When answering this last question, the author thought that it could take place in a city other than that where the narrator usually lives. But then, what would have brought this one? “She could have gone to see a hospitalized friend. » So the author argues “very, very slowly”.

“I can’t do it any other way than that, one sentence after another, constantly repeating. I know some writers need to write a whole first draft where they run their story through and then come back to the whole thing. I would find it demoralizing to accumulate too many pages of bad prose…” As she progresses, she takes note of the ideas that may come to her for the future, but tries not to freeze anything, to keep the possibility of changing at any time, to integrate a reflection on such recent reading…

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The article is in French

Tags: Attention Sigrid Nunez

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