Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury
by Sigrid Nunez
Soft Skull Press, 2007
Reviewed by Amanda Addison
As an English major I, needless to say, wrote many papers. Most of the time I was good at planning out my time and after choosing my topic would spend just enough time to research and then had plenty of time left to write said paper. There were, however, occasions when I would be stuck by an AMAZINGLY different topic – like that time I wrote about King Lear’s Fear of the Vaginal – and I would go a bit overboard. The topic would seem so bright to me that I would consume myself in weeks of research and then when the time came to write the paper I would crap out. Maybe it was because I was tired of the topic, or because I had a cold, or because American Idol was on. Whatever the reason, I would find myself at 11 p.m. attempting to start writing a paper due the next morning at 8 a.m. Damn.
Usually in this situation, I would slap something together and when I got my grade back it would be less than stellar. It would usually be “C’ish” and have comments all over it about not integrating my sources or transitioning or having awkward sentences. Double damn.
Unfortunately, I felt like Sigrid Nunez’s tut-tutting English professor while reading her novel Mitz: the Marmoset of Bloomsbury.
Mitz is the tale of Leonard and Virginia’s pet marmoset, Mitz. In essence, the reader gets a glimpse in of the Woolf family from the perspective of the marmoset. An inventive concept that echoes Virginia Woolf’s own literary pet book, Flush. It is apparent that Nunez did copious amounts of research as she cites several biographies and the letters and diaries of Woolf and her contemporaries.
The problem is that the writing is downright shoddy. I felt that Nunez was rushed and didn’t bother explaining things clearly, transitioning between characters and scenes, and working in her research. For example in the first 50 pages I counted 42 parenthetical statements. The reader gets a sentence and then the biographical information crammed into parentheses. This is a problem throughout the book and makes the text choppy and uneven for the reader.
Then are the strange and far-fetched parallels Nunez draws. For example, in a piece linking Leonard’s care of a cocker spaniel and Virginia’s friendship with Vita Sackville-West the reader is encountered with this strange pile of drivel:
“Over the years Leonard had nursed Pinka through eczema, worms, lice, heat, motherhood, rheumatism, and a bad paw.
And how could anyone ever repay such a gift? If you are Virginia Woolf, it might be with a book: Orlando, a novel inspired by Vita and about Vita and dedicated to her (‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature…).”
I know that Vita and Virginia had a close, and rumored Sapphic relationship, but I don’t think Vita helped Virginia with lice and worms. What a complete simplification and undermining of an important literary friendship.
The problem seems to be that Ms. Nunez couldn’t decide if the novel would be whimsical, after all it is about a monkey, or a biography of Virginia and Leonard. Thus it doesn’t succeed in either respect. A description of Mitz eating a banana with a great appetite is followed by a description, in parentheses of course, about Virginia Woolf’s anorexia and periods of madness. Alternately, moments when she was writing about Leonard and Virginia’s relationship was greatly sanitized – none of the ambiguity of their relationship or depth of their characters surfaced.
Alas, I must give Ms. Nunez an “A” for a brilliant concept, but a “D-“ for her lack of successful execution.