The phrase “So it goes” became famous when it appeared in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) every time a death was reported. Its author was Kurt Vonnegut, who has died aged 84, following brain injuries incurred several weeks ago in a fall. Vonnegut, who wrote 14 novels, managed to combine an exceptional humanity with a remarkably blasé pessimism, and presented his despair at human life in such engagingly simple terms that even Charlie Brown would have found it persuasive.
Once described by Gore Vidal as the worst writer in America, he was nonetheless at one point said to be the novelist most widely taught in American universities. He made the crossover from marginal science fiction writer into mainstream bestseller and campus hero, finally becoming one of America’s best loved national uncles.
Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis into a prosperous German-American family whose fortunes plummeted while he was young. His father was an architect, and his mother came from a brewing family who used a special ingredient – coffee – to improve the flavour of their prizewinning beer. Already suffering from the anti-German effects of the first world war, the brewery business was destroyed by prohibition, and Vonnegut’s father was unemployed through most of the 1930s after the building industry slumped with the depression.
While Vonnegut’s father developed an attitude of fatalistic weltschmerz, his mother struggled against their changing circumstances. She tried to make money by writing short stories, and was deeply saddened by her failure. Her son, meanwhile, went to the Ivy league Cornell University in New York State, until his education was interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Soon afterwards, Vonnegut volunteered for the US army and was sent to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now the Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering. Arriving home on leave for Mother’s Day in May 1944, he found that his mother had taken a fatal overdose the night before.
The army posted Vonnegut to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division, where he served as an infantry scout in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Taken prisoner, he was sent to Dresden, where he laboured in a factory that produced vitamin syrup for pregnant women. He was there on February 13-14 1945, when British and American bombers subjected the city to the massive aerial bombardment that created the “Dresden fire storm”. During the bombing he sheltered in an underground meat store named Schlachthof Füaut;nf – Slaughterhouse Five. He emerged to discover the city razed, and was put to work clearing bodies. Almost 25 years and seven novels later, Vonnegut turned his war experiences into the basis of his most celebrated book. It was published at a time when the war in Vietnam, and the struggle for civil rights – and, in Europe, the events in Paris in May 1968 and the Eastern Bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia – had generated a wave of radicalism across the US, and the western world.
The fame of Slaughterhouse-Five has made Dresden seem like the central experience of Vonnegut’s life, but Vonnegut played it down, saying that he was more shocked by Hiroshima. He joked about it when he was interviewed by Martin Amis: after describing Dresden as “a beautiful city full of museums and zoos – man at his greatest”, and emphasising that the raid failed to shorten the war, weaken the German war effort, or free a single person from a death camp, he went on to explain that in the end only one person benefited. “And who was that?” asked Amis. “Me. I got several dollars for each person killed. Imagine.”
In September 1945 Vonnegut married a childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox and they settled in Chicago. It was a marriage which produced three children and lasted until their amicable divorce in 1979: Vonnegut found his wife’s religion increasingly hard to live with, and remarried the photographer Jill Krementz. His two daughters became born-again Christians, and his son, Mark, developed schizophrenia (he went on to write Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity (1975) about his experience).
In Chicago, Vonnegut worked as a crime reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau and enrolled for an anthropology course at the University of Chicago, which in 1947 failed his MA thesis on Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales; in 1971 the anthropology department accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) in lieu of a thesis, and finally awarded him his degree.
In 1947 Vonnegut became a public relations writer for General Electric, based in Schenectady, New York State. In 1950 he sold his first story, Report on the Barnhouse Effect, to Collier’s Magazine. His stint in PR was to inspire a number of stories and influenced his first novel, Player Piano (1952), which satirises modern automation and corporate values. He quit in 1951 to become a full-time hack writer of science fiction, spending over a decade in pulp obscurity. In time-honoured American fashion, he had to supplement his income with a variety of jobs, including copywriting and car selling; at one time he ran a Saab dealership. One of his fictional alter egos, Philboyd Studge, is a Pontiac dealer who goes berserk after reading a story by Kilgore Trout, another Vonnegut alter ego.
The need to earn money became still more pressing in 1958, when Vonnegut and his wife took on the three orphaned children of his sister and brother-in-law, who died within 24 hours of each other (his sister died of cancer and her husband, a failed toy inventor, was drowned when his train plunged off a bridge).
In 1959 The Sirens of Titan was published, and Mother Night followed in 1961. Vonnegut was never happy with the label of ‘science-fiction writer’, which he described as being put into a drawer that “serious” critics use as a urinal. Very few of his novels, in fact, could be described as straight science fiction, although his fiction always had a speculative element. The best of his early books is perhaps Cat’s Cradle (1963) a satirical examination of human beliefs through the religion of “Bokonism”. The title image (a construction of string with “No damn cat, and no damn cradle”) is a small example of the make-believe that makes the world go round, bigger examples being religions and world views of any kind. Even the finest of them are only what Vonnegut (within his own categories of “Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons”, later to be the title of a book of essays) calls “Foma”: the harmless untruths that make life bearable. Cat’s Cradle was much admired by Graham Greene, among others. God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965) was followed by a collection of shorter works, Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). A year later came Slaughterhouse Five.
As Vonnegut’s writing career went on, his critical reception declined. “I have to keep reminding myself that I wrote those early books”, he admitted. “I wrote that. I wrote that. The only way I can regain credit for my early work is – to die.” Where his earlier work had relied on ingeniously wrought metaphors and parables for the human situation, the later anti-fictions largely give up on this fictional effort in favour of informal, cracker-barrel philosophising from the author himself.
Even Slaughterhouse Five was far from universally admired. Many readers found the story of infantry scout Billy Pilgrim’s wartime misadventures too passive and morally quietistic: “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future”, Vonnegut wrote, and “It was all right … Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.” He laid an extra layer of futility over his story by adding the perspective of the Planet Tralfamadore, where the inhabitants see all time as simultaneously present, and ended it with the preordained “Poo-tee-weet?” of a bird.
Vonnegut’s father once complained that there were no bad guys in his books, and Vonnegut attributed his largely blame-free world view to having studied 1940s anthropology, with its total relativism and deliberate lack of value judgments, as well as its sense of human cultures and religions as arbitrary artifacts and “Rube Goldberg inventions”. He received a less friendly complaint while speaking at the Library of Congress in the early 1970s, when a man stood up during his speech and asked “What right have you, as a leader of America’s young people, to make those people so cynical and pessimistic?” Vonnegut had no ready reply, so left the stage. He later commented: “The beliefs I have to defend are so soft and complicated, actually, and, when vivisected, turn into bowls of undifferentiated mush. I am a pacifist, I am an anarchist, I am a planetary citizen, and so on.”
Vonnegut went to Biafra during the Biafran war (1967-70), where he admired the Biafrans’ familial support networks: extended families “where everyone feels needed” subsequently became a plank of his preaching, along with his hatred of technology. He hated nuclear power, disliked computers and television, and had no faith in the idea of progress: “The idea that the human race is going anywhere is a childhood myth, like Santa Claus.”
Vonnegut suffered intermittently from depression, which wasn’t helped by the attempts of critics to – as he put it – squash him like a bug. He attempted suicide in 1984, but joked in his 1997 novel, Timequake, that “I am a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives. That’s how come I write so good.” Certainly the insights of repression have rarely been so charmingly or pithily expressed as they have in his work.
Variously described by his critics as regressive, infantile and faux naif, Vonnegut was an enthusiastic fellow traveller of what has been termed “dumbing down”. He professed to admire the student who defended his low college grades by telling his father he was just dumb, and so-called dumbness took on a moral quality for Vonnegut, to be equated with sincerity and decent ordinariness.
Several of his works were filmed, including Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1982), Mother Night (1996), and in 1999 Breakfast of Champions. Two years earlier, after the publication of Timequake, he announced he would not be writing again. Then along came the second President Bush, and A Man Without a Country: A Memoir of Life in George W Bush’s America was published in 2006.
Vonnegut never attained the literary esteem of JD Salinger, another favourite among young people, and his work retains the stigma of being an adolescent or campus taste. Nonetheless, his snappily expressed disaffection with the ways of what passes for civilisation made him a spokesman for an America that had lost its way after Hiroshima and Vietnam. Humane, funny, quotable, and disarmingly modest, it is as hard not to respect Vonnegut the man as it is to unreservedly admire all of his work. The individual of whom JG Ballard once said “his sheer amiability could light up all the cathedrals in America” is no more. So it goes.
His first wife died in 1986. He is survived by the three children of his first marriage and his wife and a daughter from his second.
Phil Baker, The Guardian
Friday April 13, 2007