When people think of English literature, they often think of tweed, Oxford, an old white dude and the film “Dead Poets Society.” All of these have one thing in common: inaccessibility. Well, perhaps not old white dudes. Those can be found in abundance—especially around Bowdoin. That being said, old white men are a beacon of privilege, and privilege is, by definition, inaccessible.
I think it is this unfortunate trait of my chosen discipline, and it’s the all-too-often-real trope of annoying English majors espousing useless knowledge for clout in a classroom that makes people shy away from diving headfirst into studying it. Although I am a proud disciple of Mass Hall, the reason why I never thought I wanted to be an English major at first was because I didn’t like the “classics,” whatever those really are. In fact, I still don’t love them. The class that turned me away from Math, and towards English, wasn’t some course on Hawthorne (who was abhorrently sexist, by the way), but a class on post-colonial literature. I found the nuance and new ideas in post-colonial literature to be far more interesting and intelligent than any book I had read in high school—so I decided to switch my major, and my life course to follow suit. However, I won’t bore you all with my own existential struggles of leaving Bowdoin with the ability to read Middle English correctly but not to properly submit my taxes.
Instead, I want to let you all know that the “classics”—and by that, I mean the books some old white men once decided should be labeled as such—can actually be pretty fun to read. Moreover, the contemporary interpretations of the “classics” can be even more fun. So to that end, I give you this week’s Pandemic Pick: a novel about the quirky pet of a famous, “classic” writer.
The Book: “Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury” by Sigrid Nunez
Mitz is a marmoset, which, if you didn’t know, is a monkey (I didn’t). But Mitz isn’t just any marmoset. As the title of the novel suggests, he is the marmoset of Bloomsbury, the famed address of the home of author Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf.
Nunez’s novel is simultaneously a biography and a work of historical fiction. Set in England during the rising tension that would lead to World War II, Nunez traces the Woolfs’ lives—and their pet, Mitz—using their journals as a guide. However, there is only so much that a journal can give to a reader, so to fill in the timeline and make it enjoyable, Nunez elaborates on the peculiar relationship this powerhouse literary couple has with their pet.
At times, Virginia hated the creature, but sometimes she adored it. Along with taking you on a breathtaking ride through Europe (the novel plays up an encounter with some Germans that Mitz supposedly solves), the book is also about Virginia’s brilliant mind—a mind that delivered some of the most beautiful lines I have ever read and was, like Mitz, ailing during the period this work is set in.
‘Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury” is not a work of biography, yet I refuse to categorize it as fiction. Nunez creates something more, something new and special. While channeling the same genius for making the mundane wondrous, this author breathes new life not only into Virginia but to Mitz, too.
Why you should read it:
There are a lot of reasons I think people should read this book. There are selfish reasons (like the fact that I think the best paper I ever wrote at Bowdoin was about this novel), but there are better reasons than that, too. Let’s focus on those.
To start, it’s a quick read; some might even call this a “novella.” I tend to love short novels because I think they pack more of a punch. Authors who write them, in my opinion, have a clear vision and a very concise, well-thought purpose. This is not to say that long books are bad. I also like some books by Murikami—and those are not day-reads—but short books just make me happy. And even if you aren’t as weird as me, at least a short book means that, well, it’s short: you probably have the time to read it.
“Mitz” is so much more than just a short read, though—it provides a place for us to contemplate dedication to craft and connection to people, animals and friends. It also allows a place for us to contemplate the complex figure of Virginia Woolf.
I won’t get into the breadth of criticism she faces—which include classism, anti-Semitism and many other egregious beliefs—and I won’t romanticize her struggles. She had terrible mental pain that led to her death. This being said, we know from her journals that she loved writing; that she loved Leonard and that, in the end, she loved Mitz. Nunez does a good job not to romanticize the pain Virginia felt while depicting the love and wonder she was still able to hold. It’s an admirable feat for Nunez to be able to accurately show Virginia’s story. And what comes out of Nunez’s labor, her near-possession by Virginia’s soul in writing this novel, is that the reader finds even greater appreciation for Woolf’s complexity.