I was saddened this morning to learn that another one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, died. He died last night in Manhattan after suffering a head injury several weeks ago. Like another one of my favorite authors who recently died, William Styron, Vonnegut struggled with depression, and survived a suicide attempt in 1984. But despite this challenge, he still managed to publish 14 novels, three collections of short stories, five plays and five works of non-fiction. His last book, Man Without a Country, was a collection of essays published in 2005, and was a surprise best-seller.
What I found attractive about Vonnegut was both his sense of the absurd and his attraction to the outcasts and failures of society; the deformed, the damaged, the insane. Vonnegut's themes; disastrous wars, environmental destruction and the dehumanization of the individual in a society dominated by science and technology, were not unique in themselves, but his irreverent and humorous way of writing about them was. For example, the title of this piece, "so it goes" was taken from one of Vonnegut's most popular novels, Slaughterhouse Five. This novel was about a race of four-dimensional beings, the Tralfamadorians, who faced death with a detached sort of resignation. "So it goes" was said by the Tralfamadorians whenever someone or something died.
Two events happened to Vonnegut while he was young that proved formative: first, while on leave from the military on Mother's Day, he discovered that his mother, an unsuccessful writer, had committed suicide with an overdose of pills and second, he was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and was sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war. On February 13, 1945, Dresden was subjected to a massive Allied bombing assault that was so intense that it created an enormously destructive firestorm, killing more than 130,000 people. Vonnegut survived by hiding in the basement of a slaughterhouse. This event was the basis of Slaughterhouse Five.
Vonnegut was a self-professed pessimist, but he also had a warmth about him. Despite his disillusionment with himself and with humanity in general, he still harbored a basic kindness for others. The title character in his 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, neatly summed up his philosophy:
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
God Bless You, Mr Vonnegut.
Agreed. "Cat's Cradle" is among the books I've reread the most (along with "King Rat" by James Clavell). And "Galapagos" I think gives an interesting picture of how evolution could work, if only it were true.
Plus, who could forget his cameo in "Back to School"?
He will be missed, though we still have his writing another candle has gone out.
I wrote about him today on my blog, too. I was very sad to hear that he's no longer with us, that we'll never have another new book of his to look forward to ever again. My favorite book by him was Welcome to the Monkey House. What was yours?
my favorites? from what i recall of them, it's a tie between Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five. but i haven't read any of his books for many years because i lost my collection when i moved from seattle to NYC five years ago.