Interpretations of the Author: Works featuring Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Dickens, Michael McClure

Here are three works offering creative interpretations of noted authors and their works.

Love As Always, Kurt Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw

Loree Rackstraw was a fiction student at the Iowa Writing Workshop in 1965 when she first heard of and met Kurt Vonnegut, a new teacher at the workshop who’d by then gained only slight fame for Cat’s Cradle.

The then-clean-shaven novelist was struggling at this moment to break through a memory block and write a book about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Rackstraw became his lover and close friend, and her new memoir chronicles how Vonnegut’s life changed when he finished his Dresden book, originally titled Goodbye Blue Monday but eventually called Slaughterhouse-Five, and rocketed to wealth and fame.

Rackstraw remained his sympathetic sometime-lover after his divorce and remarraige, and the stories she tells are refreshingly modest — she doesn’t claim to have been Kurt’s greatest muse, though she may have been an important part of his support system.

Fittingly, this is a kind book. Rackstraw remained a writing teacher at Iowa and an editor of the North American Review, and her book offers appealing cameos of Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Geraldo Rivera (who, I’m surprised to learn, briefly married Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter), John Irving and even, in a late chapter, Jon Fishman of Phish, a dedicated Vonnegut fan. My only complaint, and a surprising one regarding a memoirist who spent her life writing and editing fiction, is with the prose itself. Many sentences are stiff and clumsy. One characteristic paragraph confusingly begins:

That ‘Slapstick’ was not a rave, critical success was a disappointment — and also one that Kurt himself severely awarded only a grade of “D”.

This from a lifelong writing teacher? Such stylistic blunders are strange to see, but it doesn’t mar the value of this book for anyone wishing to learn more about the gentle soul of Kurt Vonnegut. He earns here a rare honor among celebrity writers: a romantic literary tell-all that only upholds his adoring popular image.

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

I’ve enjoyed all three of young novelist Matthew Pearl’s historical/literary/mystery mashups, from The Dante Club to The Poe Shadow to the newest, The Last Dickens, which describes a murderous rivalry between American publishers following Charles Dickens’ sudden death. Dickens left his serial novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished, and his books apparently sold so well that the fate of the Boston publishing firm Fields and Osgood (formerly Ticknor and Fields) hangs in the balance as many parties race to discover the ending Dickens must have had in mind (coincidentally, another novel called Drood by Dan Simmons is also based on the fate of Dickens’ final work).

Like The Dante Club, still my favorite Matthew Pearl book, The Last Dickens is filled with appealing scenes of soon-to-be-legendary early American publishing personalities hard at work. James R. Osgood of Fiends and Osgood is the hero, and the unscrupulous Harper Brothers are the heavies (today, Ticknor and Fields has been lost inside the wayward Houghton-Mifflin firm, while HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch). We also meet Frederick Leypoldt, editor of a new journal called Trade Circular and Publishers’ Bulletin, which would eventually become our familiar Publisher’s Weekly, along with an array of literary waterfront pirates known as bookaneers.

The historical material is delightful, and I hope Matthew Pearl will keep exploring the early publising scene in future works. But his novelistic formula — wrap a great author in a fictional mystery and aim for the bestseller list — may be wearing thin, and I found The Last Dickens less satisfying than his books on Dante or Poe. This may be due to my lack of particular interest in Charles Dickens — sure, I loved Great Expectations, but Dickens was never in my personal pantheon — and is surely due to the fact that I’ve never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I’ll always be interested in any book Matthew Pearl writes, but I hope his next novel will move beyond what has now become too limiting a formula for an author of such wide talent and knowledge.

Curses and Sermons by Nic Saunders

This 15-minute video, a production of London’s 14167 Theatre company, brings stunning visual techniques to a motif first explored in Beat poet Michael McClure’s experimental play The Beard, which presented characters based on Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow negotiating and finally consummating a sexual encounter.

Here, the male and female characters are simply called “The Cowboy” and “The Stranger” respectively, but the basic setup remains. Not every experimental play needs to be enhanced with cinematic visuals, but they work well here. The characters dig deep holes in the ground, perhaps as symbolic preludes to making love, and travel through psychedelic filters until they finally, as Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow eventually must, make love. The film ends happily, a satisfying exploration of an enigmatic work.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the tip on the
    Thanks for the tip on the Vonnegut memoir. I’ll get it. Check out one of Vonnegut’s least-known but, in my opinion, best works: Bluebeard.

  2. I took a college course back
    I took a college course back in the 80s called “Victorian Detective Literature” and one of the assignments was to write an ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I really enjoyed that class. Don’t know whatever happened to my Drood paper, but anyone who reads the unfinished Drrod book can, in my opinion, see where Dickens was going with it.

    It is indeed refreshing to learn that the Vonnegut “tell-all” upholds his popular image.
    One questions: When did Kurt ever have a beard?

  3. Bill, was I just imagining
    Bill, was I just imagining the beard? Was it just a big moustache?

    I’ll take your word for it and change “beardless” to “clean-shaven”. That’s what I meant.

  4. He had the kind of moustache
    He had the kind of moustache that makes you not notice if he had a beard or not.

  5. Fine performances of Michael
    Fine performances of Michael McClure in Ray Manzarek film, Lover Her Madly. Vonnegut had an afro

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