Fahs, "Written Love: Reading Relationships through the Novels of Literary Couples"

Beyonce has never experienced a break up.  She met heavyweight rapper Jay-Z when the two collaborated on the song “Bonnie and Clyde” in 2003, and the pair hit it off.  Though she was only 19, the two music moguls started dating.  They never stopped.

Couples who pursue the same careers make for mesmerizing celebrities. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie act side-by-side in films and adopt international babies on the side, while Hillary Clinton and former president Bill stay up late discussing key questions of foreign policy.  Same-career couples like these prove intriguing to the public; their relationship and collaboration shape the music we hear, the films we watch, and the policy we support, as well as our understanding of what a successful partnership can and should achieve.

Some of today’s most acclaimed literary minds have decided to marry within their careers, partnering with other successful novelists.  British novelist Zadie Smith married her university poet crush Nick Laird, and American novelist Nicole Krauss found a husband in the quirky mind of another writer: Jonathan Safran Foer.  Both of these couples married in 2004, and all four of these writers released books in 2005.

Living in the same home, eating the same pasta dish at dinner, attending similar social events and sharing the same bedtime stories with children all contribute to the near-parallel lives that some married couples lead. And when both members of the pair are writers, this common lifestyle becomes incorporated into their writing styles and storylines.  The works of married novelists talk to each other, reinforcing the lifestyles that produced them.  In seeking to understand the relationships of literary celebrities, their novels, as much as their biographies and press interviews, can illuminate the details.

Mr. and Mrs. Zadie Smith

When Zadie Smith submitted a short story to Oxbridge’s May Anthology during her sophomore year at Cambridge, she never would have guessed that her editor, Nick Laird, would eventually become her husband.  A few months earlier Laird had beaten out Smith in a writing competition that won him a plum £60 reward, but before Laird could savor the victory for too long Smith signed a deal with a publisher for her first novel White Teeth.  While he was applying for jobs at law firms, she had already launched her career as a novelist.

Smith and Laird both experienced humble upbringings and graduated from Cambridge in 1997, the first of each of their families to obtain university degrees.  She grew up in northwest London with a Jamaican mother who separated from her British father during Smith’s teenage years, while he hailed from a working-class town of 10,000 in Northern Ireland (“My novel was the first book my father ever read cover-to-cover,” Laird remembers).  By the time they married in 2004, Smith’s White Teeth had sold over a million copies and become its own hit television series, and Laird had spent every lunch break at his law firm writing poetry.  Disenchanted with his law work, Laird jumped at the chance to take a sabbatical and join Smith during her yearlong fellowship at Harvard.  While Smith took classes and began writing her third novel On Beauty, Laird finished up To A Fault, a poetry collection that landed him with Ireland’s most prestigious Rooney Prize for Literature, and started work on his own novel Utterly Monkey.

Smith tells reporters that she depends on Laird to be her harshest critic (rumor has it he encouraged her to completely rewrite the final third of her recent novel NW) and she incorporates not just his suggestions but his very work into her own: Laird's poetry appears in On Beauty as the writing of a celebrated poetry professor.  Laird tells the press that the couple’s writing process involves the two of them wearing earplugs and working at side-by-side desks in the same house, aiming to produce 1,000 words a day.  They take lunch together, as well as the frequent afternoon cup of tea, and they apparently divide the domestic chores depending on the importance of their respective schedules. If the reports of their in-tandem writing habits stand true, then each writer likely knows the subject and state of each other’s project all the time.  Not wanting to give the critics another reason to associate their writing with each other’s work, the pair choose to steer their subject matter in opposing directions; they stay clear of the topics and environments that the other chooses to spotlight. 

On the surface, the most striking similarities between On Beauty and Utterly Monkey lie in their pink-colored covers and 2005 publication dates.  On Beauty tells the story of two academic families: the liberal mixed-race Belseys and the Trinidadian conservative Kipps’s.  The fathers Belsey and Kipps are wretched intellectual rivals at Boston’s premier Wellington University, a fictionalized Harvard.  Drama unfurls through the unsuspected friendship of the Belsey and Kipps wives, increasingly heated academic debates about affirmative action that Belsey and Kipps stage at Wellington, and the extramarital affairs that the two men have with their students, the most scandalous of which involves Belsey’s sexual relations with the Kipps daughter Vee. 

On Beauty’s plot is masterful in showcasing scandal; we cringe as we learn about creepy cross-generational affairs long before they play out publically in the university community, and we suspect serious complications concerning Mrs. Kipps’ health months before her family discovers that she is fatally ill. In feeding her readers secrets long before scandals fizzle into the social world of her characters, Smith elevates the community reaction to scandal as its own source of drama: one far more nuanced and complex than a single dirty deed or a rapid turn of events. Smith’s project depends on this revealed plot and character information that makes her readers strategically over-aware, and she pairs this story-telling with a writing style that is economical, fluid, tight, and fast-moving—a match as smart as the high minds of academia she depicts.

This excess of information only becomes histrionic when Smith uses her story to meditate on the nature of beauty: Belsey and Kipps both abandon their old, fat wives for luscious teenage substitutes, and no meal passes without a mention of the dietary habits of Smith’s female characters.  Unsurprisingly, the Belsey wife Kiki eats three pieces of pie while Belsey’s mistress Claire sticks with a small salad. As if the title of the novel and of its sections “the anatomy lesson” and “on beauty and being wrong” don’t stand as clear enough reminders of the text’s focus on aesthetics, mentions of weight and boobs and butts and waists in nearly every chapter certainly make her point more than clear.

Beauty in Laird’s Utterly Monkey is more unexpected, found in the endearing descriptions he poses of what would otherwise be the sterile offices and grungy pubs of England’s capital.  In Laird’s London gum studs the cement like the beginnings of rain and pub-crawlers dress “like social mermen: pinstriped lower, denimed upper.” The charm of Laird’s description only slips when he starts to identify to his readers the universal truisms in certain plot moments.  These musings produce such groundbreaking gems as “A good party thrives and multiplies, a bad one dies out,” and, “Everyone prepares their body before they tell a story.” Some of the trite truisms Laird poses even break into the forbidden second person, pushing his writing towards the same over-stated quality that Smith’s reflections on beauty possess.  More subtlety would be appreciated.

Out of this vivid yet at times preachy style Laird takes on the character of a dissatisfied Irish lawyer (sound familiar?) whose mess of a childhood friend Geordie shows up on his doorstep with a bag of stolen money attempting to flee a loyalist militia.  The friends frequent pubs together and host a birthday party, then jet off to Belfast where tensions between Catholics and Protestants are palpable in their hometown of Ballygrass.  In their foray through Ireland the childhood friends and their respective love interests encounter bomb threats, uninspired sex, and even a scatological incident.  Despite being scandalous in actuality, these events happen so rapidly that they pale in comparison to the slow and deliberate reveal of romantic affairs that keeps On Beauty enticing.  The continuous drama in the final third of Utterly Monkey proves not just unconvincing but also unamusing, too rushed and ridiculous for readers to pay much attention or even care.

Smith and Laird’s styles both favor excellent, efficient description and language, yet fall short in injecting too much of the obvious—too much reflection on beauty, too many truisms—into their storylines.  When placed next to Laird’s novel, Smith’s writing appears more sophisticated: a careful unraveling of realism that stands in opposition to Laird’s overdone and inconceivable plot.  Hence the popularity differential of the couple’s novels and Laird’s unfortunate nickname: Mrs. Zadie Smith.

Literary Power Couple

They met through a Dutch publisher when their debut novels, both released in 2001, were put up as finalists for the same book prize. Foer mentioned that he had edited a book about the sculptor and artist Joseph Cornell, and Krauss had written her undergraduate thesis about Cornell.  The conversation took off.

American novelists Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer prefer to keep mum about their relationship, yet they are widely considered to be “New York’s golden literary couple.” Unaware of the intricate details of Krauss and Foer’s romance, the press reverts to reporting about the only decisions the couple makes that are discernable to the public: their home ownership.  After their 2004 marriage Foer and Krauss moved into a $1.86 million dollar brownstone in Brooklyn, then they upgraded to the $3.25 million dollar version.  After both releasing their second novels, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for him and The History of Love for her, the pair moved again into another Brooklyn property just around the corner that was valued at $6.75 million—it has a nicer yard for their dog George, said Krauss. 

When taken as individuals, the two authors open up about their lives more willingly.  Krauss comes from a privileged Long Island family, the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors.  She graduated from Stanford undergraduate, studied as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, then spent time producing a BBC radio documentary about one of her undergraduate mentors Joseph Brodsky. A native of Washington DC, Foer also grew up in a Jewish family with grandparents who, like all the Krauss grandparents, survived the Holocaust.  He studied philosophy at Princeton, then traveled to Ukraine after graduation to expand his senior thesis—a trip that ultimately provided the content for his first novel.  Afterwards Foer started editing an anthology of fiction and poetry inspired by Joseph Cornell, the one that helped him win Krauss’s attention that first evening of their acquaintance.

The authors were married at the same point in their literary careers, each with one successful novel launched and a second germinating in the brain.  In perhaps the only comment that Krauss has made to the press about her relationship with Foer, she explains that their marriage “has to do with why we love each other, long before we ever get to the fact that we're writers or write about similar things. I think we come from such a similar place. I think we intuited a lot of the same things in the silences of our childhood.”  Since their marriage Foer and Krauss each published their second novels in 2005, but the publication date is certainly not all that these two works have in common.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The History of Love seem, like Foer and Krauss, to come from a similar place.  Both novels are told through the intertwined voices of a child and an elderly person.  In both novels the child is mourning a lost father while the old soul, a Holocaust survivor, mourns his lost son.  The Holocaust survivor in both texts leaves behind unique written messages for his progeny.  The child in both cases goes on a search to learn more about the parent.  Both novels take place in Manhattan.  And despite all of this, Krauss and Foer claim that they never read each other’s notes or drafts until their work is in proof form. “These comparisons are laughable,” Krauss assures, “People find what they’re looking for.”  Sure they do.

If the near-parallel plot structures of the two novels don’t suggest some sort of collaboration process between the authors, then the joint symbolism of Foer and Krauss’s texts certainly enhances the collaboration argument. Both novels include a digression that imagines string as the basis of connection between two people, and traces what happens when the string of a relationship becomes so long and complex that the line runs out.  Both novels involve characters communicating only through words stained on open hands, words like “YES” and “NO” for Foer and “Forgive Me” for Krauss.  Both novels play with whole pages that contain only a single line of text. And, most notably, both novels pivot on imagery of locks and keys, two separated devices that can only unlock meaning together.  Parallel images such as these could not have emerged in a vacuum twice.

Perhaps these uncanny commonalities materialized over an evening glass of wine, or as murmurs between bed-sheets late at night.  Maybe, like Foer’s characters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Krauss and Foer work together in writing: “We’ll have it be our secret until it’s perfect.  We’ll work on it together.  We’ll make it the greatest book anyone has ever written.”

But there can only be one greatest book ever written, and two books with eerily similar agendas beg for comparison.  One book must win out.  In 2005, Krauss emerged victorious.

The History of Love is subtle and elegant.  Krauss nestles the central absence of her novel in the form of a mysterious book-within-a-book, also called “The History of Love,” that appears in three intertwined narratives. “The History of Love” is simultaneously a book that once belonged to the teenager Alma Singer’s dead father, a work attributed to the deceased writer son of the retired locksmith Leo Gursky, and a major literary achievement of the deceased Polish author Zvi Litvinoff.  The braided-together narratives of these three characters dance around “The History of Love,” constantly reprinting different chapters of the text and referring to the text with different pseudonyms to keep readers guessing as to its origins.  Krauss’s style feels wispy and delicate, a soft echo that whispers the secrets of “The History of Love” until they build up over time and amount to a perfect ending.  Even as the novel comes to a close, the answer to the characters’ searches lies beautifully in the negative space between the developed characters of Alma and Leo.  Nothing is expressly stated, but all can be untangled.

The narrative threads in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close fail to integrate quite as seamlessly as Krauss’s stories do. In the wake of his dad’s death in the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, nine-year-old Oskar Schell finds a key labeled “Black” and, believing it to be his dad’s final message to him, sets out to locate every New York resident with the last name Black in hopes that someone will have information about his dad.  Foer twists Oskar’s story together with two other narratives: the writing of Oskar’s grandma and the tale of a silent character, a Holocaust survivor, who communicates only through tattooed hands and a notebook of limited pages.  This mysterious, silent man, who we soon realize is Oskar’s unknown grandfather, seems like an unnatural intrusion into the novel’s narrative structure and undermines the synthesis of Foer’s plotlines.  Unlike Krauss’s masterful synchrony of perspectives, Foer’s fused narratives feel contrived and predetermined.  Foer exerts himself too much to make these three voices coalesce.

Foer also stumbles slightly in his characterization as he attempts to squeeze himself into the head of nine-year-old Oskar. Oskar’s character is far too smart for his nine years, a child who spends his free-time looking for mistakes in The New York Times, acting in a production of Hamlet, and writing countless letters to Steven Hawking that go unanswered.  And while Oskar can’t muster up the courage to take public transportation, he somehow finds the confidence to walk all over Manhattan alone shaking a tambourine.  The match of Oskar’s incredible imagination and refined ideas with the functioning ability of a nine-year-old makes his character feel over-the-top and unreal, albeit loveable.  Krauss, though, pulls off all of her hard-to-pin-down characters regardless of their generation.  Fifteen-year-old Alma seems hyper-real in her love of reading and thirst for outdoor adventure, while Leo’s oscillating anxiety and fixations on death certainly make him a product of his advanced age. Vivid characters compose the trajectories of Foer and Krauss’s plots, the souls of their stories.  With more sincere characterization at its core, Krauss’s novel shines above Foer’s more contrived and overly creative text.

Partners in Description

“I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely,” writes Leo Gursky at the inception of The History of Love.  Writing curbs Gursky’s loneliness once he is able to share his scribbled pages with his lover.  She sees the beauty in verbal description.

When one novelist marries another, the two overcome the loneliness of undescribed worlds doubly: first through the rhythm of their own prose, and second through the fingerprints of their own thoughts upon the writing of their loved one.  Whether openly collaborating or not, married novelists reveal their shared lives through writing.  The novels they produce emerge intertwined and ensnared by the influence of two literary minds, and the capacity to talk to their sister novels as well as speak on their own.