July 20, 2007
This photograph, which serves as a coda to Sigrid Nunez’s wonderful book Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, about Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s pet marmoset, strikes me as the kind of image W.G. Sebald would have used. Its evidential value is about nil. Try as I might I really cannot say for sure where the marmoset is – possibly in the lower right hand corner of the wooden box? And even if that were true, does this photograph tell us anything about the marmoset that the Woolfs owned and treasured during the latter half of the 1930s? No. It can’t even show us what a marmoset looks like.
On the other hand, it seems perfectly fitting to use such a cheeky photograph to illustrate what Nunez’s website refers to as a “mock biography”. (By the way, have we failed to invent the portmanteau “mockiography” yet? Not quite. A Google search turns up precisely one previous usage for that word.OED here we come.) I think there is an underlying lesson in the way Nunez uses this photograph and the way Sebald uses numerous equally fuzzy and indistinct photographs. These are the kinds of photographs that mean considerably more to the people who were actually there, to the witnesses, than they mean to any subsequent viewer. This is the basis for the disconnect between people who feel they have photographed the Loch Ness Monster or a UFO and all the disbelievers who see only blurry nothings. How many times has someone pointed to a tiny speck in a snapshot and proudly said “That’s my daughter!”
Mitz is highly entertaining and if breezy wasn’t usually taken to signify an empty-headed read, I would have called this breezy because it is fun to read. But Mitz is not empty-headed stuff, it’s a pretty serious bit of biography and one comes away feeling almost intimate with Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Nunez uses Mitz as a vehicle to slip us into the eerily personal realm of their lives as they write, entertain, travel through the early days of Nazi Germany, grieve over the deaths of friends and relatives, and worry about their own health and mortality.
Mitz was first published in paperback in 2007 by Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn.
The first edition of Mitz, published in hardcover in 1998 by Harper Collins does not include the marvelous, mysterious photograph of Pinka and Mitz. [Updated July 30, 2007.]