The Man Without a Country: Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1922 – 2007)

Kurt Vonnegut whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84.

Mr Vonnegut wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But it was his novels that became classics of the American counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and ’70s. Like Mark Twain, Mr Vonnegut used humour to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?

He also shared with Twain a profound pessimism. “Mark Twain,” Mr Vonnegut wrote in his 1991 book, “Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage,” “finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.”

Mr Vonnegut eschewed traditional structure and punctuation. His books were a mixture of fiction and autobiography, prone to one-sentence paragraphs, exclamation points and italics. Graham Greene called him “one of the most able of living American writers.” Some critics said he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form with humour and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature.

Not all Mr Vonnegut’s themes were metaphysical. With a blend of vernacular writing, science fiction, jokes and philosophy, he also wrote about the banalities of consumer culture, for example, or the destruction of the environment.

His novels, 14 in all, were alternate universes, filled with topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, like the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums. He invented phenomena like chrono-synclastic infundibula (places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together) as well as religions, like the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism (based on the books of a black British Episcopalian from Tobago “filled with bittersweet lies,” a narrator says).

The defining moment of Mr Vonnegut’s life was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces in 1945, an event he witnessed firsthand as a young prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids, many of them burned to death or asphyxiated. “The firebombing of Dresden,” Mr Vonnegut wrote, “was a work of art.” It was, he added, “a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany.”

His experience in Dresden was the basis of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was published in 1969 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval. "The novel, " wrote the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, “so perfectly caught America’s transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling metaphors for the new age.”

To Mr Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title character in his 1965 novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” 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.’ ”

written by Sue Abbott



3 comments


    petegrehan

    April 12, 2007

    It occurs to me that, if there is a heaven, there??????s going to be a wicked science fiction convention there by the time I arrive. Sort of cheers me up, a bit.

    Tim

    April 12, 2007

    Love him.

    Gabriel Canada

    April 12, 2007

    I am from Indianapolis, the setting albeit in a rather roundabout way for many of Mr. Vonnegut’s stories. You simply can not imagine what it means to me to be reading about how his life touched someone across the pond. Indianapolis is a city full of people very much like Mr. Rosewater or charachters like Kilgore Trout who have prolific stories that are never discovered. In fact it often seems the fate of Hoosier authors as we are called to be bundled off into obscurity. Vonnegut was the shining light, a force of real change and excitement that said to me, yes a man from Indianapolis can be a citezen of the world. I heard the news in a building designed by his fathers firm Vonnegut and Boen. I have walked the streets were he has walked and the truth is so have us all. These places are yours as much as mine now, you purchased them along with those dog eared copies of his works that are strews across every college. God bless you mr. Vonnegut indeed. God bless you University of Glamorgan, you are my brothers, citezens of Midland City. Students of Inocent Bystander University, and sons of the Great Eliot Rosewater. Have a good day brothers.

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