December 9, 2011 10:08 pm

The sophomore’s sage

Insights into the life of Kurt Vonnegut do not explain his evergreen appeal

 And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J Shields, Henry Holt, RRP£20, 544 pages

Unstuck In Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels, by Gregory D Sumner, Seven Stories Press, RRP$24.95, 368 pages

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IN Non-Fiction

The author as jerk is a perennial character in literary circles. Indeed the man who is a god on the page but a devil off it is almost a literary cliché in itself. Rarely, however, has the chasm between an author’s work and his life seemed as wide as it does in Charles J Shields’ new biography of Kurt Vonnegut.

This is not because of the intrinsic awfulness of any of Vonnegut’s deeds. We learn that he was a bad father, a selfish friend and a cheating husband. He was disloyal, thin-skinned, envious, and suffered childish tantrums. He was convinced of his own genius and furious if anyone else wasn’t. But this, in itself, is small potatoes, a case of Author Histrionics 101. What creates the dissonance between the Vonnegut of this new biography and the Vonnegut we hold in our heads is the fact that the Vonnegut of the page is so remarkably friendly and welcoming.

Open any of his books and amid the stylistic pyrotechnics is a bemused voice espousing kind values that paint the author as some kind of benevolent, profane sage. His humanistic philosophy, which he described as, “to behave as decently, as fairly and as honourably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife”, was that of someone speaking sense to meaninglessness. Vonnegut died in 2007. To learn suddenly of his screaming fits, professional jealousy and rampant infidelity is a bit like finding out that Jesus Christ beat his mother.

He was born in 1922 into a wealthy family in Indiana. At school and university he was a joker and an idler, his inability to get passing grades resulting in him failing to get a commission and entering the second world war as a private infantryman. Shipped over to Europe he was captured almost immediately during the Battle of the Bulge. It was while on a POW work detail that he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden. The event would inform all his future writing, notably his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

 

In this book, Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier, witnesses the same Dresden firestorm. The result causes him to become “unstuck in time”, leaping through events in his past and future, not to mention being kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The psychedelic absurdity of the plot and the quiet fatalism of the book’s refrain – “So it goes” – seemed to stress the validity of humour as the only plausible response to the chaos of conflict.

After the war Vonnegut worked as a PR man for General Electric – which inspired many of his plots – and churned out stories for magazines and science-fiction “slicks”. However it was not until Slaughterhouse-Five was finally released in 1969, when Vonnegut was nearly 50 years old, that a generation of young readers flocked to read him, delighted by his “comic-didactic” tone and his casual, loose style. When asked what his appeal to youth was, Vonnegut said simply: “I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled.” Certainly, for better and for worse, Vonnegut could never claim to be a “full” adult.

Many books have been written about Vonnegut over the years, but this is, according to Shields, “the closest to date that anybody’s come to writing a definitive biography”. Despite Vonnegut’s son refusing to allow him to quote directly from the author’s letters, and despite his second wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, refusing to collaborate, Shields leaves one in no doubt that he has done plenty of legwork. Vonnegut’s gripes, moans and changes of address are listed in painstaking detail over more than 500 pages, and at times it is hard to tell whether it was the horrors of Dresden or those of domesticity that rankled him more.

What hampers And So it Goes is that so little time is taken to delve into Vonnegut’s books themselves. What better way to make us care a damn about Vonnegut than by quoting his sharp, witty and playful prose, but Shields declines to do so at any length. This leaves his biography unsettlingly lopsided.

 

Gregory Sumner’s Unstuck in Time seeks to correct this fault by working its way through Vonnegut’s life one book at a time. Each of Vonnegut’s novels is prefaced by a snippet of biographical detail and then a rather inert summary of the book’s plot. The result is insubstantial, being uncritical both of his life – which, for those who have read Shields’ book can’t help but seem like a whitewash – and also his books, which are mined purely for biographical detail.

It’s a shame that neither author tries to place Vonnegut in the history of literature, for in his mix of science and satire his work clearly stretches back through HG Wells and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian utopias, through Twain’s time-travelling Yankee, to Jonathan Swift’s floating islands and talking horses. Nor is there any mention of the vast number of writers he influenced, from Douglas Adams’ madcap intergalactic romps to Martin Amis’ metafictive interpolations of himself into his own books. Most peculiarly neither book spends any time discussing Vonnegut’s role in the American postmodern literary movement that included Thomas Pynchon, William Gass and John Barth, writers who shared many of the same fragmented tropes of Vonnegut’s prose, but from whom he differed in one important respect – he was immensely readable.

Strangely, it is this characteristic that has often been used to dismiss Vonnegut’s work. He is often seen as an affectation of youth, an author one eventually moves beyond, a gateway drug, if you will, to “proper” literature. Certainly there is something peculiar about Vonnegut’s evergreen appeal. Authors often take their readership with them through their life’s journey. Yet I would wager the average age of those who read Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan in the 1960s is the same as those who turned his wonderfully exasperated collection of political columns – A Man Without a Country – into a bestseller in 2005. Like some time-slipping, pied-piper character of his own invention, Vonnegut’s readership remained eternally youthful while he grew old.

But the age of his readership is something of a red herring. The fact is that once you’ve read Vonnegut – in the words of one of his literary progeny, Jonathan Lethem – his books “become inscribed on the interior surface of the eyes through which I read others”. Vonnegut is an education not just in modern style but modern sensibility. Towards the end of his life Vonnegut complained that his books weren’t in college libraries and that his name wasn’t in literary dictionaries. What he couldn’t see was that he was everywhere.

George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)

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