Remembering an “effervescently affable man”

Kurt Vonnegut at 100


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Many writers inspire admiration; far fewer inspire love. Kurt Vonnegut, who was born 100 years ago this month, was one of those few. 

Read the critical commentary on his output of 14 novels, clutches of essays, oodles of short stories and plays, and there is the expected praise for his style and approach. “A beautifully fastidious writer, utterly original,” said the hard-to-please James Wood. “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched,” wrote J.G. Ballard, who should know. 

But there is something else besides: an element of personal affection for a man they never met. “I feel privileged to have spent several hours in the company of a most genial, affable and upbeat soul indeed,” wrote the novelist Nicholas Royle. One of this year’s Booker Prize shortlisted authors, Shehan Karunatilaka, says that when he was writing his novel, “Uncle Kurt … was a constant companion”. 

Why do readers, even hard-nosed professional readers like this one, feel such attachment to both the writing and the man? Part of it may be because with Vonnegut, the soul of the man is so clearly displayed in the writing; and part of it may be because he is a writer that we tend to discover in adolescence, a gateway writer between teenage kicks and grown-up literature, like J.D. Salinger. As with Salinger, there is a disrupted innocence to Vonnegut’s writing, a sense of hope and despair arguing the toss.

With Salinger, this came out in the fiction as a flailing search for spiritual meaning — recall those long bathside conversations in Zooey — whereas for Vonnegut, the need for affirmation amid the ruins of childhood innocence is expressed in half-serious, half-ironic homilies that the (half-Vonnegut, half-fictional) narrator sprinkles through the text.

This is open to unfortunate misuse, when Vonnegut’s sweet-natured voice gets ripped out of the context of the fiction and rendered down into fridge-magnet poetry and social media banalities. (Run a Google search for images of his 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr Rosewater and you’ll first find pictures not of the cover or author, but of grotesquely bucolic wall prints bearing a line untimely ripp’d from the book: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”)

This innocence has been present in Vonnegut’s work from the start

But it’s true that this innocence has been present in Vonnegut’s work from the start. His second novel The Sirens of Titan (1959) addresses man’s search for meaning as a black comedy without compare. It opens, indeed, with the ultimate blackness: the blackness of space, where “mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being … flung its advance agents outward, ever outward. Eventually it flung them out into space, into the colourless, weightless, tasteless sea of outwardness without end. It flung them like stones.”

What the “unhappy agents found,” wrote Vonnegut, was “what had already been found in abundance on Earth — a nightmare of meaninglessness without end”. Specifically: “empty heroics, low comedy and pointless death”.

These three form a core of Vonnegut’s vision. And it is possible to trace them — especially the low comedy — through the phases of his work. The darkest of his comedies is undoubtedly Mother Night (1962), which takes the form of the memoirs of US double agent and Nazi propagandist, Howard W Campbell Jr. Campbell seems like a normal fellow as he talks us reasonably through his life, which is rather the point. Not for Vonnegut the notion of absolute evil beside which mankind stands helpless. He insists on responsibility, and the book gives rise to one of those lines of his that, were it a little more heartwarming, would be fodder for the wall-print hacks: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

The blackness in Vonnegut’s comedies might be connected to incidents in his formative years. Vonnegut, born into a German-American family, was 16 when the Second World War began, and enlisted in 1943. He came home on leave to find that his mother had killed herself the day before — on Mother’s Day. 

“It was war itself that wrecked my mother,” he later wrote. Captured in December 1944, he was imprisoned in Dresden and survived the city’s firebombing in February 1945. He never really got over that event, even after processing it into fiction in his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

For the rest of his life — though with the balances wildly varying — Vonnegut would see comedy in blackness and blackness in comedy. Even the films of Laurel and Hardy, a motif in 1976’s Slapstick, were tinged with a sort of horror. “I used to laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy. There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all the time. They could so easily be killed.”

In one sense, Mother Night was an anomaly among the early novels: the books surrounding it earned Vonnegut the label of science fiction writer. It was a label that made him itch. “I learned from the reviewers that I was a science fiction writer,” he said of his 1952 debut Player Piano, about an imagined automated future. “I didn’t know that. I supposed I was writing a novel about life. I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labelled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

But the best of the science fiction(ish) novels, and perhaps the best of all Vonnegut’s work, is his fourth novel Cat’s Cradle. It was published in 1963, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and it both expresses and satirises Cold War fears. 

It distils and controls imagination, anger, whimsy, empathy and — naturally — comedy into a short book where everything happens, including the end of the world. The analogue for The Bomb is Ice-Nine, a form of water which is solid at room temperature and causes any water it contacts to solidify too.

But the story is secondary to the narrative, told in flashback by a journalist who is now in a position of perfect impotence as ruler of a dead world, and threaded through with extracts from The Books of Bokonon, the works of a prophet known to be false but who was nonetheless followed because his precepts helped people. The book’s epigraph, taken from The Books of Bokonon, encapsulates the religion in a sentence: “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy,” and at the bottom of the page, foma is glossed: “harmless untruths”.

The warmth towards reliance on a religion is vintage Vonnegut, from a man who was an atheist and president of the American Humanist Association, but nonetheless considered faith to be something “too important and honourable” to lose. One of the characters in Cat’s Cradle, Dr von Koenigswald, sums it up: he is, he says, “a very bad scientist. I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific. No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.”

Cat’s Cradle — largely from its Bokononite aphorisms — is also a rich source of quotes typically attributed to Vonnegut rather than to his characters, in the same way that quips from characters in Wilde’s plays are reproduced as though uttered by Oscar at the dinner table. “My God — life!” cries our narrator late in the story. “Who can understand even one little minute of it?”

If Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle are the early peaks of Vonnegut’s work, later in the decade he would produce one combining science fiction and war that masquerades as a peak, but is really the beginning of the journey down the other side. Like Evelyn Waugh, Kazuo Ishiguro and Charlotte Brontë (among many others), Vonnegut is famous for the wrong book.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) remains his most popular book, and in a way you can see why. It takes a serious subject — war and the bombing of Dresden — and makes it funny, in fact twists it out of shape with a hero who becomes “unstuck in time”, has future flashbacks and travels to a planet called Tralfamadore. 

Yet I can only agree with the ur-critic, John Carey, who categorises it among those books “that gain their power from their subjects more than their writing”. The book saw Vonnegut placed as an anti-war satirist alongside Joseph Heller, another member of the famous-for-the-wrong-book club, whose Catch-22 had been published at the beginning of the decade.

And if those who know a little Vonnegut only know Slaughterhouse-Five, then those know a little Slaughterhouse-Five only know its repeated refrain. “So it goes” is used to punctuate each death in the book, a marker of resignation but also of remembrance. (It is a natural law that any feature about Vonnegut’s writing must begin or end with “So it goes”. I hereby undertake not to buck this honourable tradition.)

Slaughterhouse-Five also displays the seeds of qualities in Vonnegut’s writing that would sprout more fully later in his career: a tipping of the previously careful balance away from cynicism and toward whimsy; a pushing out of structure and the single storyline in favour of anecdotal hopscotching. When they came to dominate his work, from the late 1970s onward, they became enervating to the reader instead of energising.

After Slaughterhouse-Five came two transitional works, Breakfast of Champions (1973) and Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976), where Vonnegut perfects his mid-to-late style of short paragraphs, avuncular wisdom and comical line drawings. (“To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book,” he writes in Breakfast of Champions, “here is my picture of an asshole,” above a large, felt-penned asterisk.) It also featured his occasional alter ego, the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout.

These books led the way to the softer work of the late 70s and 1980s, including Deadeye Dick (1982) and Jailbird (1979), his Richard Nixon novel (everyone had a Nixon novel, just as everyone now has a Trump novel). In these works, by common agreement the runts of the Vonnegut litter, there is formlessness, rambling and repetition, and not just within the books but across them. The once-fresh homilies begin to smell cheesy.

The stronger works from the late period include Galápagos (1985), set one million years in the future when humans have evolved into sleek furry creatures with flippers. Martin Amis rightly called it, “far and away Kurt Vonnegut’s best novel since Slaughterhouse-Five. However, that’s not saying very much, in itself — especially if you look at Kurt Vonnegut’s novels before Slaughterhouse-Five.

Bluebeard (1987) too was interesting, and his last novel, 1997’s Timequake, was nothing less than a return to form. The conceit this time was that everyone in the world experienced a glitch in the space-time continuum on 13 February, 2001, which sent them back to 17 February, 1991. “Then we all had to get back to 2001 the hard way, minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, getting the clap again. You name it!”

And even in the lesser work, his ability to draw a decent line on the page persists, if more fitfully than before. His ear for a friendly opener was intact, from Jailbird (“Yes — Kilgore Trout is back again. He couldn’t make it on the outside. That is no disgrace. A lot of good people can’t make it on the outside”) to Deadeye Dick: “To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: watch out for life.”

For the last decade of his life Vonnegut published no new fiction

But after that last push with Timequake, the inevitable followed: silence. For the last decade of his life Vonnegut published no new fiction, and we discovered why with the publication of the final book of his lifetime, the “grouchy” (New York Times) essay collection A Man Without a Country (2005). It showed, explicitly, that Vonnegut had lost his sense of humour: he no longer could see the funny side of life. Martin Amis called him “an effervescently affable man who, in his last decade, lost all his mirth”. Vonnegut described himself in the book as “unfunny now for the remainder of my life”.

But he kept writing letters. In the last one made public, sent two months before his death in April 2007, he turned down a speaking invitation. “I cannot be of any use to you and your students nowadays, alas, since, at 84, I resemble nothing so much as an iguana, hate travel, and have nothing to say.” No matter. He had said it all already.

Yes, many writers are admired but few are truly loved; and many writers are respected for their style but few are respected for their humanity. For Kurt Vonnegut, the human was everything. “If I am ever put to death on the hook,” wrote Bokonon in The Books of Bokonon, “expect a very human performance.” So it goes. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover