April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 - 2007.

Kurt Vonnegut: A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr Rosewater caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84 and had homes in Manhattan and in Sagaponack on Long Island....

His novels - 14 in all - were alternate universes, filled with topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, like the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums. He invented phenomena like chrono-synclastic infundibula (places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together) as well as religions, like the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism (based on the books of a black British Episcopalian from Tobago "filled with bittersweet lies," a narrator says).

Updated through 4/18.

The defining moment of Mr Vonnegut's life was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces in 1945, an event he witnessed firsthand as a young prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids, many of them burned to death or asphyxiated. "The firebombing of Dresden," Mr Vonnegut wrote, "was a work of art." It was, he added, "a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany."

His experience in Dresden was the basis of Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval.

Dinitia Smith, New York Times.

"There was never a kinder and, at the same time, wittier writer to be with personally," author Tom Wolfe, a friend and admirer of Vonnegut's, told [the Los Angeles Times]. "He was just a gem in that respect. And as a writer, I guess he's the closest thing we had to a Voltaire. He could be extremely funny, but there was a vein of iron always underneath it, which made him quite remarkable.

"He was never funny just to be funny," Wolfe added....

He is "together with John Hawkes and G√ľnter Grass... the most stubbornly imaginative" of writers, novelist John Irving once wrote of Vonnegut. "He is not anybody else, or even a version of anybody else, and he is a writer with a cause."

Elaine Woo, LAT.

Updates: The Guardian collects ten links for further exploration and runs an extract from Vonnegut's last book, A Man Without a Country, a memoir.

The NYT gathers its reviews of Vonnegut's books as well as book reviews by Vonnegut on one "Featured Author" page.

Ed Champion is turning an entry into a motherlode of resources.

Nice collection taking shape at Boing Boing, too.

"[R]eading his work for the first time gives one the sense that everything else is rank hypocrisy," writes Time's Lev Grossman.

Jerry Lentz: "He was my favorite writer."

"Often, when a book and/or author has an almost mythic reputation, starting with their most famous book can disappoint," writes Edward Copeland. "Slaughterhouse-Five, with its flights of fancy spun intricately with horror and heartbreak did not disappoint."

Salon runs Dave Eggers's entry on Vonnegut for their Reader's Guide and Dana Cook gathers recollections from notables' past writings. And then there's Andrew Leonard: "My father and Vonnegut were good friends. One trickle-down side effect of this was that, in between devouring Asimov and Heinlein and a score of other lesser science fiction lights, I was also handed by my dad The Sirens of Titan and told, 'Heinlein's a fascist, read this.' Another perk was having Vonnegut crouch down on the floor that Thanksgiving, eschewing the give and take of New York conversational tango, and invite me to play a game of chess." Two fine stories follow.

James Urbaniak recalls "one brief evening [when] Kurt Vonnegut and myself were both a part of each other's imaginative landscapes. So, as the master said, it goes." He then points to a tribute from Todd Alcott: "He was also, he said that night, outraged at George Bush, not so much for starting the war in Iraq, but for using the US Army in a manner more befitting a snotty rich boy with a set of plastic army men. And he was right about that too. Let's face it, there was not much that Vonnegut wasn't right about. I am doubly saddened to realize that he died while Bush was still in office."

Destiny tells an amazing story about Vonnegut and Sammy Davis, Jr at 10 Zen Monkeys.

Philip K Dick on Vonnegut.

Steve Bryant has two online viewing tips.

Updates, 4/13: "I'm sure there are plenty of people who think he is entirely unsuitable for readers under the age of disillusionment," writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NYT. "But the time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be. He is the indispensable footnote to everything everyone is trying to teach you, the footnote that pulls the rug out from under the established truths being so firmly avowed in the body of the text."

Phil Baker in the Guardian:

The fame of Slaughterhouse-Five has made Dresden seem like the central experience of Vonnegut's life, but Vonnegut played it down, saying that he was more shocked by Hiroshima. He joked about it when he was interviewed by Martin Amis: after describing Dresden as "a beautiful city full of museums and zoos - man at his greatest," and emphasising that the raid failed to shorten the war, weaken the German war effort, or free a single person from a death camp, he went on to explain that in the end only one person benefited. "And who was that?" asked Amis. "Me. I got several dollars for each person killed. Imagine."

[...] The individual of whom JG Ballard once said "his sheer amiability could light up all the cathedrals in America" is no more.

Also, Ed Pilkington gathers more tributes from other writers.

The 1977 Paris Review interview.

Stop Smiling reruns JC Gabel's 2006 interview.

More online viewing from Bilge Ebiri and Faisal Qureshi at ScreenGrab.

The Nation runs a speech John Leonard gave at a recent birthday celebration.

TNR: Irving on Vonnegut

The New Republic: "In 1979 - occasioned by the release of Jailhouse, Vonnegut's ninth novel - TNR published 'Kurt Vonnegut and His Critics,' an expansive profile by fellow writer John Irving. In it, Irving takes Vonnegut's critics to task for dismissing him as an 'easy writer' and his work as unserious. Instead, he offers a defense of Vonnegut's childlike clarity and completeness, and of the 'human dignity and common decency' in his stories." A downloadable PDF.

Online listening tip. Vonnegut on Fresh Air in 1986.

Update, 4/14: "It was In These Times' pleasure and privilege to publish the work of Kurt Vonnegut," writes Joel Bleifuss, and he remembers two great rants worth quoting in full. The first is from a phone interview in 2003:

Those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C students. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

The second is from "Cold Turkey," the most popular piece of Vonnegut's In These Times published. May, 2004:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

Bleifuss also notes, "There were two folks Kurt was wont to quote: Jesus and Eugene V Debs."

Glenn Kenny ranks the film adaptations. A few folks leaving comments one-up, too, as far as the worst is concerned.

Update, 4/15: "[H]is method of making himself heard was both courageous and effective; he told us the hardest of truths, but in the gentlest, funniest and most amiable way he knew how," writes Alex Clark in the Observer. "He was, to use his own word, a 'sap.'"

Update, 4/16: "So it goes? Fuck that noise." Phil Nugent tells a helluva story.

Update, 4/18: In the New York Observer, George Saunders proposes a new national holiday: "I will be happy to be the Commissar of Vonnegut Day. To this end, I have put together the following proposed slate of what I am calling Vonnegutian Immersions, designed to bring out the inner Vonnegut in all of us..."

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Posted by dwhudson at April 12, 2007 3:56 AM


Kurt Vonnegut was a the most important single influence in my life. He would be sadly amused, I'm sure to know that his passing is heart breaking for me. I first discovered Vonnegut as a high school student in the late sixties. Like many adolescent youths I was overwrought, overly melodramatic and overwhelmingly depressed. Vonneguts wry humour touch a nerve in me and helped me reclaim some hope in humanity. He was my spiritual advisor and like a father to me. When my wife told me this morning that he had died I wept spontaneously. Farewell Kurt. So it goes. Thankyou for the stories.

Posted by: Mike Stone at April 12, 2007 8:38 PM