Inveterately regressive, ever the playful infantilist, Kurt Vonnegut recently shuffled his career into a report card, signed it, and tacked it to his study wall. The report was chronological, grading his work from A to D. This is what it looked like:
Player Piano: A
The Sirens of Titan: A
Mother Night: A
Cat’s Cradle: A+
God Bless You, Mr Rosewater: A
Breakfast of Champions: C
The burden of the report seems clear enough: Kurt started confidently, went from strength to strength for a good long spell, then passed into a trough of lassitude and uncertainty, but now shows signs of rallying.
The graph charted by the American literary establishment — viewed by Vonnegut as, at best, a flock of cuecard-readers, at worst a squad of jailers, torturers and funeral directors — would be even starker, and much less auspicious. Their report would probably go something like this: B-, B, B-, A, A-, B-, B, D, C.
‘Anyway, the card isn’t quite up to date,’ I said, half-way through lunch in a teeming trattoria on Second Avenue. Vonnegut is a mildly lionised regular here, but it was mid-December, and we took our chances among the parched and panting Christmas shoppers of New York. Our table seemed to be half-way between the lobby and the toilet. I wondered, protectively, whether we’d have done any better during Vonnegut’s heyday; perhaps the head waiter hadn’t liked Slapstick either. ‘What about your new novel?’ I asked. ‘How would you grade Deadeye Dicky Vonnegut looked doubtful. ‘I guess it’s sort of a B-minus,’ he said.
Even by American standards, Vonnegut’s career represents an extreme case of critical revisionism and double-think. He is immensely popular, an unbudgeable bestseller, a cult hero and campus guru; all his books are in print; he is the most widely taught of contemporary American authors. On the other hand, his work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf philosophy’ is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish — gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff.
‘It has been my experience with literary critics and academics in this country’, he has written, ‘that clarity looks a lot like laziness and ignorance and childishness and cheapness to them. Any idea which can be grasped immediately is for them, by definition, something they knew all the time.’
‘I have to keep reminding myselP, he told me, ‘that J wrote those early books. I wrote that. I wrote that. The only way I can regain credit for my early work is — to die.’
The shaping experience of Vonnegut’s life and art is easy to pinpoint. It occurred on February 13, 1945. On this night, Vonnegut survived the greatest single massacre in the history of warfare, the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. Over 135,000 people lost their lives (twice the toll of Hiroshima); and Dresden, the Florence of the Elbe, a city as beautiful, ornate — and militarily negligible — as the city of Oz, was obliterated. Vonnegut, a prisoner of war, a gangly private, was billeted in the basement of a slaughterhouse — Schlachthof-fünf. Slaughterhouse-Five is the title of his most celebrated novel, the book that in turn reshaped his career and his life. Everything that he wrote before 1969 leads up to Slaughterhouse-Five; everything he has written since leads away from it.
In another sense Vonnegut was uniquely well placed to write about Dresden, about war, violence and waste, with maximum irony. He is a German-American. His parents were German-speakers; all eight of his great-grandparents were part of the Teutonic migration to the Midwest between 1820 and 1870, as he reveals in an unreadably ample genealogy in Palm Sunday (one of his two volumes of autobiographical meanderings). In the superb early novel Mother Night, this genetico-political accident — together with his peculiar charm and moral subtlety as a writer — empowered him to attempt the impossible: to write a funny book about Nazism. He succeeded. Hitler is a longstanding obsession, and duly plays his part in the new novel Deadeye Dick.
Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana — a cultural Nothingville, like Swindon or Stoke. The characters in his books come from nowhere: Ilium, Midtown, Midland City. Indianapolis, Vonnegut insists, remains the centre of his cultural universe: ‘Not Rome, not Paris — Indianapolis.’ In his fiction Vonnegut’s most crucial imaginative habit is to gaze down at humanity as if from another world, fascinated by Earthling mores yet baffled by our convulsive quests for order, certainty and justice. ‘This attitude was a result of my studies in biochemistry [at Cornell], before the war and anthropology after the war [at Chicago]. I learned to see human culture as an artefact, which it is — vulnerable, precarious and probably futile.’ His latest novel, Galapagos, concerns itself with Darwinism — ‘our only alternative to conventional religion. It’s all modern man has.’
Pre-Slaughterhouse, Vonnegut was loosely regarded as a science-fiction writer, a genre man. In fact only his first novel, Player Piano (1951), and a few short stories can be classified as hard SF. His real mode has always been something dreamier, crazier, more didactic, nearer to Mark Twain than to Fred Pohl. The standard Vonnegut novel works as follows: a semi-fantastical plot (with outrageous vicissitudes and reversals), an attack on some barndoor-sized moral target (atomic warfare, economic inequities, loneliness) and, in between, round the edges, a delightfully weighted satire of ordinary, unreflecting, innocent America.
The early novels were taut, concise and sharply constructed. ‘My first trade was newspapering,’ said Vonnegut, typically down-home. ‘You said as much as you could, as soon as you could, and then shut up.’ The later novels, on the other hand… Well, I was enjoying our lunch, and decided to postpone discussion of the later novels. ‘My public stance is not to take myself seriously,’ he had remarked. ‘I do that in order to be likeable. Vonnegut is likeable all right. But he takes himself seriously too. Of course he does.
During the Sixties Vonnegut was making ‘a good middle-class income’ from journalism and from writing short stories ‘for the slicks’; yet his responsibilities were considerable. Through a gruesome coincidence, which would sound implausible even in a Vonnegut plot outline, his sister and brother-in-law died within twenty-four hours of each other. He died in a New Jersey rail disaster; she died in hospital the following day, of cancer. Vonnegut and his first wife adopted the three orphaned children. They already had three of their own. Alice was Vonnegut’s only sister. He still writes with her in mind. “‘Alice would like this,” I say to myself. “This would amuse Alice.’“
Alice, one gathers, was a little crazy. So was Vonnegut’s mother, who eventually killed herself when the family was degentrified by the Crash of 1929. Like craziness, ‘suicide is a legacy’, says Vonnegut. ‘As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do ? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.’
Finally, along came Slaughterhouse-Five, and everything changed. Vonnegut had been trying to write about Dresden ever since his return from the war. He had filled 5,000 pages and thrown them away. But the book, when it came, was a cunning novella, synthesising all the elements of Vonnegut’s earlier work: fact, fantasy, ironic realism and comic SF. In my view, Slaughterhouse-Five will retain its status as a dazzling minor classic, as will two or three of its predecessors. But quality alone can hardly explain its spectacular popularity.
Perhaps the answer is, in some sense, demographic. Although the Vietnam war changed the mood of America, it produced no fiction to articulate that change. As a result the protest movements seized on and adopted two Second World War novels as their own, novels that expressed the absurdist tenor of the modern revulsion. Those novels were Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five: they became articles of faith as well as milestones of fiction. Slaughterhouse-converts looked back into the early work and found that the same chord was struck again and again. Vonnegut had secured his following.
He had also lost his first wife, Jane: ‘It was a good marriage for a long time — and then it wasn’t.’ Jane Vonnegut ‘got’ religion; Kurt Vonnegut still had scepticism — as well as the strange new freedom of hemispheric adulation. He left Cape Cod and came to New York, setting up house with the well-known photographer Jill Krementz. By all accounts — and my own brief impressions tend to bear this out — Jill is the opposite of Jane, and.the opposite of Kurt too. She is glamorous, voluble and abrupt; and the Vonneguts are now talked of as a celebrity couple fairly active in society and fringe politics. When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life. The transformation is more or less inexorable.
After lunch we walked back to the Vonneguts’ house on the East Side of mid-town. We passed the mailbox where, on three separate occasions, Vonnegut had palely loitered in the early morning to retrieve letters written the night before — letters of denunciation, sent to hostile reviewers. ‘I don’t know what the law is in England,’ he said, ‘but over here the letters are still your property, and the mailman has to give them back.’
He laughed his wheezy, spluttering laugh. Vonnegut has chainsmoked powerful Pall Malls for forty-five years. He has given up twice. The first time, he blew up to eighteen stone. His second attempt, though, worked like a charm. He felt fine; he was ‘enormously happy and proud’. The only trouble was that no one could bear being near him. ‘I had stopped writing. I had also gone insane. So I started smoking again.’ He is shaggy, candid, reassuring. The big suede shoes on his big American feet are ponderous and pigeon-toed. His blazer is epically stained.
Like its proprietor, the Vonnegut town house stands tall and thin. The furnishings are anonymously handsome. In the basement, Jill runs her business; on the top floor, Kurt runs his. Up there he proceeds with his post-Slaughterhouse fiction — vague, wandering parables of American futility, full of nursery games (Breakfast of Champions contained dozens of childish drawings; Deadeye Dick is dotted with cookbook recipes), full of shrugs, twitches and repetitions, full of catchphrases, adages, baby-talk. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet? Peace. Skeedee wah. Bodey oh doh. And so on. And on and on —
Until 1969, Vonnegut was in his own words ‘a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterisation and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations’. Now he is — what, exactly? The later Vonnegut novels are deserts, punctuated by the odd paradisal oasis. These good moments are, simply, reversions to his earlier manner, which is why it is more fun to re-read an old Vonnegut novel than it is to tackle a new one. I switched on the tape-recorder and backed myself into the Big Question. Of all the writers I have met, Vonnegut gives off the mildest prickle of amour propre. But no writer likes to be asked if he has lost his way.
He heard me out with a few ‘Mm-hms’ and said: ‘American literary careers are very short. I had very low expectations. I always thought, if I could ever get something down about Dresden, that would be it. After Slaughterhouse-Five I’d already done much more than I ever expected to do with my life. Now, since I don’t have to do anything any more, I’ve gotten more personal, freer to be idiosyncratic. It’s like the history of jazz: musicians reach the point where they play the goddamn things with the mouthpiece upside down and stuff the tube with toilet paper and fuck around and make all the crazy sounds they can.’
An honest and accurate answer. I wondered out loud whether a sense of futility had anything to do with it, with the rejection of melody, phrasing, structure, control, with the rejection of art.
‘There was Dresden,’ said Vonnegut, ‘a beautiful city full of museums and zoos — man at his greatest. And when we came up, the city was gone … The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defence or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited.’
‘And who was that?’
‘Me. I got several dollars for each person killed. Imagine.’Martin Amis: Observer 1983