'All the other species are dying and so will we. I’m whistling as I walk past the graveyard... whistling as beautifully as I can'
Kurt Vonnegut is dwelling on the apocalypse. It’s not that his omelette isn’t good. It’s not that his mood is downcast, but for the third time over lunch in Manhattan, America’s funniest and most pessimistic novelist is explaining why he will welcome the end of the world. “I don’t like life very much for what it does to other people,” he says. This is by no means the most depressing statement he makes between starter and main course, but somehow, by the time we leave the restaurant I feel inspired and full of hope.
Taken at face value, Vonnegut’s worldview is appallingly bleak. He tells me that “all the other species are dying and so will we”. He argues that almost everybody is “humiliated, frustrated, terribly disappointed”, and compares life to an enforced spell in the army lasting 80 years instead of three. An hour in the company of such an acutely-aware Eeyore could be dispiriting, were it not for his belief in the redemptive power of creativity and his endless capacity for jokes. “I’m whistling as I walk past the graveyard,” he admits, “and I’m whistling as beautifully as I can.”
A Man Without A Country has been presented as Vonnegut’s final testament, eight years after he announced that he would never publish again. It contains many familiar themes, some old gags, and several passages lifted verbatim from previous essays and speeches, most of which first appeared in the left-wing magazine In These Times. He credits his publisher, Daniel Simon, with “doing for me what Jesus did for Lazarus”.
“I was so dead I stank,” he continues, “I’m as surprised as anyone to be back at the age of 83 and I’m embarrassed to have lived so long. I was in a house-fire some years ago and it would have been much more tasteful to have died back then.”
For all the references to his advanced years, and his continued loyalty to unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, Vonnegut is in remarkably good health. His wheezing laugh, the tar-pit depths of his baritone and the occasional coughing fit testify to 70 years of smoking, but he doesn’t light up. In New York, even literary icons must keep their habit at home. A glass of wine is declined because “it hits me too hard these days”.
It has often been remarked that as he grows older, Vonnegut increasingly resembles Mark Twain, one of his heroes. The curls are tighter and darker, the moustache less pronounced, and despite his frailty he looks younger than Twain in his declining years, even though Huckleberry Finn’s creator never saw 75. The picture on the front cover of the new book, taken by his second wife, the renowned photographer, Jill Krementz, is a good one. “It’s a good face, fer chrissakes,” cackles Vonnegut.
Manners are important to him, and he regrets their passing. He is unfailingly courteous, and once wrote that if he dined with Richard Nixon’s defence secretary, he would discuss global annihilation with a smile. If promoting a new book is a chore, it never shows. He tells the waitress: “This place is great … I eat less than this on Thanksgiving.”
And so on.
Born in Indianapolis in 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr was encouraged to believe that once the Great Depression was over, technological advances would ensure prosperity for all. His father, an architect, insisted that he should become a scientist like his brother. “What actually happened,” he recalls in his collected speeches, “was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima. We killed everybody there.”
As he had recently experienced his mother’s suicide, fought in the second world war and witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden as a captive of the German army, he decided, not unreasonably, that there was no longer much cause for optimism. “I predicted that everything would become worse,” he says, “and everything has become worse.”
In 1958, Vonnegut’s sister Alice died of cancer the day after her husband John was killed in a train crash. Vonnegut and his first wife adopted their three children. They already had three of their own.
“I try to be truthful,” he continues, “My God, after the Holocaust isn’t it time we gave up as a species? After the first world war wasn’t it time we gave up? We’re perfectly awful animals and we’re intelligent enough to know about it.”
This dim view of humanity permeates Vonnegut’s fiction, without ever becoming corrosive, thanks to an endless parade of wild ideas, elegantly constructed comic set-pieces and cheap one-liners. Slaughterhouse Five, widely regarded as his definitive statement, views the horrors of Dresden through the eyes of a man who has become unstuck in time. Billy Pilgrim leaps from 1950s America to the planet Tralfamadore and back to Dresden again, a device Vonnegut describes as “the equivalent of [Shakespeare] bringing on the clowns every so often to lighten things up”.
Writing it was a painful experience lasting more than 20 years, and by the end all he felt able to conclude was: “I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”
The novel has been a staple of US high school reading lists for three decades now, but Vonnegut’s work remains under- appreciated next to his avant-garde peers Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and William Gaddis. For too long, critics and academics stacked all science-fiction with the trash, assuming that books thousands of teenagers were enjoying on their own time did not merit serious consideration.
That stigma has faded, but there is still a sense that Vonnegut is both too whimsical and too accessible for America’s literary custodians, an issue he has himself addressed, writing 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”.
In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut plays with this notion that he has been cheated of due recognition, claiming that he hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature because he once ran a Saab dealership that went bust and consequently bad-mouthed the Swedes. “I think it was great that Pinter won,” he says “and it was a fine speech. Perhaps as a result of this book they’ll give me one too. I just need to make it to October and I get a million dollars.” He’s kidding, although his publisher points out that his work is always translated into Swedish, just to make sure it doesn’t slip past the Nobel committee.
If there is a lingering hunger for acceptance, Vonnegut hides it well. “I’m just the asshole who broke the bank at Monte Carlo,” he says, and if it’s a well-worn line, he seems ready enough to believe it. “Listen, I have no idea how it happens,” he continues. “There are plenty of artists that have no idea how they did it. I don’t think any of us know what we are. I seem to have had a destiny, so I did it.
“Beethoven died shaking his fist at God because all this music was still pouring out of him. I don’t know how the hell I did it. What people say is they’re possessed, and I suspect that we’re more possessible than we realise. Something just takes over.”
Vonnegut has threatened to quit several times. Long before he formally declared that Timequake would be his last book, in 1997, he was fond of reminding people that of all the great writers only Tolstoy produced his best work after 45. Is there not some slim chance that he will be possessed again?
“I don’t care,” he answers, “I don’t think it would be particularly good news. I feel like I’ve fulfilled my destiny. I’m completely in print. I’ve been allowed to say everything I’ve wanted to say. I’ve said that this country needs another novel the way the world needs another Sistine Chapel or another Beethoven’s Ninth.”
As to what the country does need, Vonnegut is less sure. His last book, if it is his last, is an excoriating attack on modern American society in all its greed and stupidity, but there is no pay-off or conclusion. It ends not with a revolution but with a requiem.
Vonnegut’s contempt for George Bush and his government is expressed with great force and clarity in A Man Without A Country, but his feelings of alienation from his homeland are nothing new. In 1972 he covered the Republican Convention for Harper’s Magazine, describing Nixon as “the first president to hate American people and all they stand for”. It was there he concluded that the USA’s two party system is one of winners and losers, rather than Democrats and Republicans, and the winners win no matter who gets into office. This being so, surely there is some consolation in the fact that the current president is such a ripe satirical target?
“I suppose so,” he acknowledges, “but the country is terribly at risk, because his stupidities have terrible consequences, leading to deaths of many people, rotten schools, rotten healthcare. He should be protecting us not only from insurgents or terrorists but from disease and ignorance, and he’s not about to do either.
“Still, there’s not much difference. [Democratic candidate, John] Kerry said out of the side of his mouth at one point that he’s not for re-distributing wealth. He and George Bush belong to the same social class, went to the same university, belong to the same gentleman’s club. Can you believe that, in a country of 300 million people, we have to choose between two members of Skull & Bones [a secret society] at Yale?”
Vonnegut votes Democrat, but describes himself as socialist, in the tradition of Carl Sandburg, Eugene Victor Debs and Powers Hapgood. Does he find it troubling that there is no socialist party of note in the US, that historians of the right can claim that the left has demonstrably failed?
“They have socialised medicine in Sweden and Canada, I wish to God we had it,” he answers, “there are socialist experiments going on everywhere. In the Communist Manifesto, what they demanded was free education and free healthcare. One of the most beneficial social experiments in this country was the GI Bill Of Rights – when we came home we could all go to college for free.”
Last week, George Bush used his annual State Of The Union address to declare that his government is meeting its responsibility to provide healthcare for the poor and the elderly and spearheading a global quest for peace. Vonnegut’s stump speech states the opposite. In the land of his internal exile, corporate profiteers rule unchecked, extended families have been split into desperately vulnerable nuclear groups, “lethal injection and warfare are forms of entertainment” and Americans are “as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis once were”.
When challenged about this last statement, Vonnegut repeats that US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice- president Dick Cheney are “jut-jawed, like Nazis” and argues that the main difference is that the Germans were justly feared for their military prowess.
“We have no army,” he says, “What makes us the most powerful nation on Earth is our willingness to kill people in their thousands with remote-controlled missiles, the fact that we’re prepared to set off nuclear explosions in the middle of unarmed people – men, women and children.
“Only one country has been crazy enough to set off a nuke in the middle of a civilian population. Did it twice, and that’s when members of my generation, soldiers, could see that ‘we’re not the good guys any more’. We were very careful not to hurt civilians.”
In his rage and despair he invokes the true guardians of America’s soul, quoting from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Christ’s Sermon On The Mount. For a confirmed humanist, he mentions the Beatitudes surprisingly often, arguing that the President’s fundamentalist friends have forgotten the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
Vonnegut once observed that he was at his funniest two days after Martin Luther King Jr was shot, because he was speaking to an audience “full of pain that they couldn’t do anything about … there was an enormous need to either laugh or cry”.
The punchline count is high in A Man Without A Country, as it has been in every one of his novels. On the first page he explains that, as the youngest child in a family of five, making jokes was the only way to get noticed in adult conversation. Reporting on the fall of Biafra in 1970, he noticed he still cracked wise as the Nigerian army approached, writing that “joking was my response to misery I couldn’t do anything about”.
Crucially, it has not been his only reflex. What elevates his work above gallows humour and exposes him as an idealist in pessimist’s clothing is his palpable compassion and the way in which he appeals to his readers’ better natures. “Practising any art is a way to make your soul grow,” he writes, and it is clear that this has been his own salvation. As we speak, he raises a glass : “To the arts.”
Later, when the food arrives, Vonnegut talks about the teacher who inspired him, James C Bean, reminding me that “the Great Depression was going on, and there were no good jobs, so it was a wonderful break to get to be a teacher or a mailman. Some of the best and smartest people in Indianapolis were teaching in school.
“All it takes is one great teacher,” he continues, and though he would never be so conceited as to admit it, he has evidently been that teacher, for his seven children, for students at various American universities, and for three generations of science-fiction fans.
What he has consistently taught is that art alone can rescue his homeland, through a series of personal revolutions. This belief in the transformative power of creativity is expressed beautifully in the preface to Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons (Opinions). “I now believe,” he writes, “that the only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness, can mature sufficiently to rescue themselves and to help rescue the planet, is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imaginations.
“I am not especially satisfied with my own imaginative works, my fiction. I am simply impressed by the unexpected insights which shower down on me when my job is to imagine, as contrasted with the woodenly familiar ideas which clutter my desk when my job is to tell the truth.”
At 83, Vonnegut has been convinced by a publisher from his children’s generation that his last task is to tell the truth. He has decided that the proximity of environmental catastrophe will probably make him unfunny for the rest of his life. He is unrepentant in his pessimism, and he wishes he wasn’t a writer. He wishes, as he has always wished, that he was a musician.
“Music gives pleasure as we never can,” he reasons. “I’ve said that the purpose of the arts is to make people like life more than they had done before, and people ask me if I’ve seen this done and I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it’ – it was an amazing event.”
In Breakfast Of Champions, Vonnegut’s satirical take on the madness of consumer society, science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout longs to be seen as “a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty – and didn’t find doodley-squat”. It is his master’s voice. Vonnegut’s lifetime of searching has left him weary, and he is reluctant to claim much credit for the wonders he has unlocked for millions of readers.
After lunch, as he climbs into the back of a waiting car, he offers this parting shot: “Remember, I don’t know how I did it.”
05 February 2006
© 2006 newsquest (sunday herald) limited