Friday, April 13, 2007

So it went: Kurt Vonnegut, a writer for our times. full text

So it went

Kurt Vonnegut was a writer for our times.
Ian Williams
My appreciation i0n the Guardian site.
and anyone who wants to catch up or see what they have been missing should click on Vonnegut to see the Amazon collection him.

April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut's death on Wednesday does not end an era. In the age of globalisation, this bard - a champion of the simple, decent man being slapped in the face by one invisible hand after another - represents the future.

I last met Vonnegut as he sat in the morning sunshine on the steps of the building that houses the British Mission to the UN, a few yards from his 47th Street apartment. He was reading a newspaper he'd picked from the waste bin and was chain-smoking as well, which he had claimed to be a "fairly honourable form of suicide".

A life-long reader of his work, I handed him a copy of my just-published book on George Bush, and thanked him for an article he had recently done for the left publication In These Times. With his already huge eyes, perpetually lugubrious, magnified by his glasses, he shook his head sadly, "Without In These Times I'd be a man without a country", he said, repeating a slogan the magazine itself has adopted and which gave him the title for his last book.

One wonders how many of the obituaries will note that he was a loudly self-proclaimed socialist, and spent his octogenarian years speaking out against the Iraq war? A year into the war he wrote, "We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on."

Vonnegut's characters, like himself, are bemused spectators - trying to be kind to others as the universe grinds inexorably on. The first of his that I read, many years ago, was Player Piano, a science fiction satire based on his time in corporate America, working in the PR department of General Electric. It lampooned corporate culture and the advance of automation.

It took much longer for him to translate his most traumatic personal experience onto paper. Slaughterhouse-Five, later a film, tries, in a triumphant misadventure, to make sense of his time as a PoW in Dresden during the firebombing of 1945. Captured as a GI during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans had put him to work, fittingly as it turned out, in a slaughterhouse, making vitamin supplements. It was one of the safest places in the doomed city, and when he and his colleagues surfaced, they were put to work retrieving the semi-cremated cadavers of the Dresdners who weren't so lucky.

Though he began as a science fiction writer, he escaped being corralled into a publishing niche, and his books escaped into the real world. Endlessly inventive, he is often accused of practicing black humour. That is unfair. His sweet and sour humour was defensively cynical about the world, but relentlessly optimistic about human decency. He quoted his own son, epitomizing this view: "Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."

Vonnegut had succeeded Isaac Asimov as Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, and, in a memorial service for the deceased atheist quipped, "Isaac is up in heaven now". He recalled "It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now'. That's my favorite joke."

I sincerely doubt that he is up there. But his work made down here a lot less like Hell. He will be missed, in all his occasionally-curmudgeonly idiosyncrasy.

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