History of Love

History of Lovebook by Nicole Krauss

annotation by Tina Rubin

Krauss’s energetic and imaginative novel touches the heart with its universal themes of love, grief, loneliness, the desire to make others happy, and the invisible connections among people. The lives of Holocaust survivor and author Leo Gursky, who has lost everything, and teenage brother and sister Alma and Bird Singer, who lost their father to cancer years earlier, are the main characters in an unusual story revolving around Leo’s supposedly lost manuscript, The History of Love.

The novel is a cache of literary techniques, from its book(s)-within-a-book structure and four points of view to its parallel stories meeting at the end and its lovely echoes and repetition. In some ways it called to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s works Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first for its echoes and the latter for its book-within-a-book structure. In The History of Love, nearly everything that occurs is an echo of something else, and the passages Krauss presents from Leo and his son Isaac’s fictional works serve to more fully inform the reader of Leo’s character and the similarities, both in nature and writing style (especially the unhappy angels), between Leo and his son.

But there is more. We learn something about each character who reads the History of Love passages through the particular section he or she reads. For example, Alma Singer first reads her mother’s translation of chapter ten, “The Age of Glass,” which contains key lines such as “. . . [H]e forgot the danger he was in, grateful for the world which purposefully puts divisions in place so that we can overcome them. . . .” Alma is about to do just that in order to alleviate her mother’s unhappiness. Or Zvi Litvinoff, Leo Gursky’s friend who has plagiarized his work by translating it from Yiddish to Spanish and calling it his own, who reads chapter fourteen, “The Age of String,” which begins, “So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves.” On the previous page, the narrator has just told us that there was something Zvi wished to say (the truth), but the more time passed, the more he longed to say it and the more impossible it became to do so. (This is a bit too obvious for my taste, but it’s part of Krauss’s technique.)

There was much to learn from this book in terms of craft, particularly Krauss’s skilled use of multiple points of view and the mysteries she gradually unravels as to how the parallel stories (Alma Singer searching for her namesake from The History of Love and Leo Gursky looking for clues that his son, Isaac, knew of his existence before the son died) will come together. The novel is so tightly structured and wildly imaginative that I had to read it a second time to pick up all the clues. This work helped me see that a second point of view actually would be of value in my own novel to tell the full story and heighten the irony. It also confirmed for me, once again, that a reader who has to work at unraveling the story is a much more engaged reader.

A huge triumph of Krauss’s novel was her creation of Leopold Gursky, an unforgettable old man whose attitude, spunk, and enduring love are a joy to experience. Another was the novel’s uplifting ending. This is the type of book I tend to want to write, but it’s the first one that showed me how it can be done successfully with equal doses of loss, anguish, and loneliness. Touché, Nicole Krauss, in more ways than one.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of ChampionsBook by Kurt Vonnegut

Annotation by Neal Bonser

Wow. What to say about this one. First, and most uselessly, I enjoyed it quite a bit. But like I’ve said and I’m sure many before have said: tell me a story, make me want to turn the page. And in spite of all the meta-goings on in the novel, there was always that story and the building of suspense (in that curious way that you can build suspense by telling the reader what is going to happen) as Trout and Hoover made their way towards their unforeseen (by them, anyway) rendezvous.

Interestingly, this book made me think of In Cold Blood where two points of view exist simultaneously as they head toward a collision course. Funny that this novel and that one could, structurally at least, have so much in common. In both works, we know the meeting of the two points of view will have tragic results. In both works, the points of view alternate and build in suspense. Capote is virtually a character in his own work by virtue of it being a nonfiction novel and his cult of personality. Vonnegut is a character in his novel. Maybe somebody should write a critical paper comparing In Cold Blood and Breakfast of Champions. Maybe not.

About the drawings. I’m left wondering why he chose to put these in. They seemed clever at first, but became a bit wearing after a while. Kind of undermining some of the serious notes the novel struck upon at times. They were fun. And the other thing they allowed for was white space. I’m a believer in the value of white space and the break for the eye it gives the reader. I love short chapters and page breaks when I’m reading. Having the drawings added interest and white space and kind of made the thing brisk and easy to read. So, maybe a double-edged sword on the drawings.

Oh, and before I forget. Vonnegut’s funny. I love funny.

I usually try to steer my annotations toward my own writing and how reading this particular novel may or may not influence my writing or may have informed it in some way. With Vonnegut, I just don’t see it affecting my writing. I love the easy, conversational flow of the prose, its fluidity—something I aspire to. The whole thing about the reader turning the page—that certainly applies. I don’t know that any of this has affected me as a writer because they are things I already believed. I did note with interest when reading Steve Almond’s essays on Vonnegut the quote about writing over and over again about your family. This is certainly what I do. It seems I’m perpetually working out in my head issues of the life I’ve chosen (mainstream—two kids, two-car garage), my marriage, my disease. But it’s always subconsciously rendered. I’m still always just trying to tell the story and not suck. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m glad Vonnegut was working through similar issues. And he certainly does not suck.

What I do know is I’ll be reading more Vonnegut in the future.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Championsbook by Kurt Vonnegut

annotation by Tina Rubin

Between laughing out loud at Vonnegut’s sarcastic wit and agreeing with his philosophy, I appreciated the techniques that made this novel such a hit. Despite using deceptively simple language and a straightforward plot, Vonnegut pulled off some huge themes while maintaining dramatic structure and character arcs. While he “cleaned out the junk” that was in his head after fifty years on the planet, I gladly picked it up.

Vonnegut uses a closed narrative structure in this book, telling the reader in the first chapter what’s going to happen (Dwayne Hoover will go insane after reading a science fiction novel by Kilgore Trout)—so the question is how the events will unfold. I mention this first because it resonated with me for my own novel. Letting readers know up front what’s coming would, I think, add interest and irony and solve the problem I’ve had foreshadowing the dark turn the story is going to take (this worked really well for Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, too).

Of course, what sets Breakfast of Champions apart from many novels, other than that it’s Vonnegut, is that it’s metafiction. Vonnegut steps into the story about two-thirds of the way through and takes an active role in the plot. This is where the story came alive for me—suddenly it was more than a brilliant parody of twentieth-century American life, it was an interdimensional entity (or the illusion of such) that kicked me awake and got me engaged. The technique is being used frequently these days, it seems, but it called to mind Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, neither of which worked as well for me as Breakfast. Vonnegut’s simplicity is the key here, as opposed to Pamuk’s massive confusion of the reader of that particular novel and Kundera’s ponderousness.

The main characters are interesting and fairly complex. Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout grow and change, but not the author—as the author, Vonnegut’s just stepping in to fulfill his fictional mission, I suppose, which is to free Kilgore Trout from his control. Hoover and Trout, meanwhile, are opposite in every way. (The way they talk to their pets reflects it: Hoover talks to his dog of love; Trout talks with his parakeet about the end of the world). It’s fun to observe the way Vonnegut brings them closer and closer until they finally cross paths at the Midland City Arts Festival. And then Vonnegut reverses their fortunes, so that Trout, who’s been through hell getting to this point, has a meaningful life as a Nobel Prize winner helping humanity, and Hoover, who had the best of everything, is a blabbering wanderer who’s seriously hurt many people. Their journey looks like this:

X

and so on.

I want to mention one part that inspired me: After Hoover and Francine Plefco make love in the afternoon, when Hoover’s “bad chemicals” have begun taking effect, the two talk about electrocution (there’s a prison behind the motel) and opening a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. This was so funny and seemed so random at first. But when I  thought about it, the scene is about the body, human and chicken, and what we do to it. This section made me realize that planning a scene is essential—I can’t just write spontaneously and expect it to work. On second thought, though, that might be exactly what Vonnegut did. The best stuff comes from the subconscious.

Death with Interruptions

Death with Interruptionsbook by José Saramago

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

At first, I thought it was the lack of punctuation. I had read Saramago before, I’m not sure what the book was, I know I found it difficult to get through and it didn’t stick with me later. But reading page after page with no paragraph breaks and no dialogue punctuation is wearing. About three chapters in I realized that was not the exhausting part, the exhausting part was the novel’s complete lack of characters. I had nothing to latch onto, nowhere to grab hold. An interesting premise opened our story: people suddenly stop dying. First there is joy, then problems arrive. Those due to die just…stay.

Saramago takes a wide sweeping view of things, talking about an entire nation dealing with the crisis, we take peeks into the suspended life of people and into various cabinet meetings on the subject, but we seldom get closer. He teases us with the hope of characters when we look at the first family to transport their dying over the border of the country where they may die (and more than a few echoes of AS I LAY DYING as they complete the task), but pulls out again for that maddening wide-angle view. I had a glimmer of hope on page forty when the chapter opened, “The protagonists of these dramatic events, described in unusually detailed fashion in a story which has, so far, preferred to offer the curious reader, if we may put it, a panoramic view of the facts, were, when they unexpectedly entered the scene, given the social classification of poor country folk.” AAAARGH! Hope with the word “protagonist” at the front of the sentence, despair as the sentence proceeded.

For 149 pages, reading was drudgery, and more frustrating because the idea for the book was so great and the author was giving me no satisfaction whatever. I’d space out and have to reread (no easy task finding my lost spot when the paragraphs run on for two or three pages at a time). Skimming was impossible, because important (and sparse) dialogue would be buried deep in the middle of So. Many. Words.

FINALLY on page 149, we are properly introduced to a character who has a name, death (lower case, the author warns us). And, as we get to know her character in more detail, the lack of paragraph separation or punctuation marks, the dearth of periods, all of that no longer mattered because a beautiful and engaging story was being told. Sadly, the book is only 238 pages long.

The resulting story of death’s having a death-warning letter returned, her investigation and following love affair with a poor cellist, this could have been pulled out and kept as a perfect short story, or opened up a little into a beautiful novella.

Saramago’s descriptions are concrete and yet vague enough to keep death a mystery, “…If it’s true that she doesn’t smile, this is only because she has no lips, and this anatomical lesson tells us that, contrary to what the living may believe, a smile is not a matter of teeth.” We get to know death, the little room she dwells in, her vague hold on life, her unspoken relationship with her scythe (this I will hold onto to steal some day I am certain). We also get to know the cellist as she observes him…this is the only death-letter marked “return to sender” and frustration over this leads her to consider the interloper.

Here, death, in a time honored fashion, feels human, “death fell to her knees, for she had a body now, which is why she had legs and feet and arms and hands, and a face which she covered with her hands and shoulders, which, for some reason, were shaking, she can’t be crying…” After observing the cellist, she goes home, puts the scythe in charge for a week, takes on the form of a beautiful woman and goes back to meet the cellist in person. Of course they fall in love, and Saramego captures all of the awkwardness of a non-human who knows she has a terrible assignment–to make sure the cellist gets his letter—falling in love with her victim. And here is a perfect story.

There were no new ideas to take away (although death’s relationship with the scythe and the cellist’s with his dog will stay with me until I can steal them). But I can see how the awful first TWO THIRDS of this book were overlooked when Saramago came to his point at the end. Perhaps he is too honored or too old for his editor to have said, “Uh, José? This part at the beginning? I’m not feeling it.” So I’ll join the masses and overlook it and keep the story of death and the cellist with me. But I will stick with my belief that a story needs characters to hold onto, otherwise it ends up being just a lot of words.