Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut: 1922 - 2007

It's worth taking some time to mourn the passing, and celebrate the life of one of my American heroes, the great writer Kurt Vonnegut, who has died at the age of 84. Vonnegut had a genius for reducing complex issues and concepts to their starkest, simplest terms and was a master of dry, biting satire. It's perhaps for this reason that he always rejected the 'science fiction' box, although as a scientist-turned-writer, he was in a unique position among the great American writers, and able to highlight the pitfalls of a form of 'progress' that continually threatens to destroy civilisation. As a self-proclaimed progressive socialist and committed member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Vonnegut realised that left wing politics and personal freedom needn't be mutually exclusive, and his experiences as a PoW and of the Dresden bombings also left him a firm pacifist.

Vonnegut was perhaps unique among the great male American writers for his mercilessly concise prose style. The likes of Roth, Updike, Bellow and Ford opted for intentional verbosity, elaborate rants and lengthy sentences. Vonnegut summed up his sentiments in crisp, dry phrases ('So it goes...' etc) and his writing never contained anything extraneous.

Whilst many will remember the superb anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five, or perhaps Cat's Cradle or Breakfast of Champions as his best works, it's also worth noting his mastery of the essay and short story forms, as well as his emergence from retirement last year with his extraordinary 'memoir' 'A Man Without A Country' (not so much a memoir as a remarkably cogent and wise summary of where America has gone wrong, and, more impressively, even offering some solutions to put it right). Despite his initial hope for the world turning into pessimism, and his personal battles with depression (he once attempted suicide), Vonnegut still managed to make his allegories and satires blisteringly funny.

It is an extraordinary injustice (and one which we should not begrudge Vonnegut identifying himself in 'A Man Without a Country') that he was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. If any writer has better captured the ideals highlighted by the Nobel committee, I've yet to find them.

Many full obituaries will appear in the press over the next few days, but it's surely best to let the man speak for himself. Here are just a few of his edifying statements:

"When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon."

"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before."

"We are put on earth to fart around, don't let anyone tell you any different."

"I said that only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn't shorten the war by half a second ... only one person benefited - not two or five or ten. Just one. ... Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that." (1977 Paris interview on the Dresden firebombings)

"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."

"My last words? 'Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.'"

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward. "

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance. "

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. "

"Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe."

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