Ian Sansom

Wisdom from beyond the grave

Ian Sansom reviews a collection of Kurt Vonnegut's writings

A few years ago a friend of mine, a writer, attended a conference with Kurt Vonnegut. During coffee breaks and intervals my friend would sneak outside with Mr Vonnegut, Vonnegut to smoke his famous unfiltered Pall Malls and my friend to smoke a couple of Marlboro Lights. ‘What was he like?’, I asked, as if I didn’t already know the answer. ‘To be honest,’ said my friend, ‘he seemed pretty miserable.’

There was nothing funny about Kurt Vonnegut. Like a goyische Woody Allen, all of his wisecracking was really a form of serious intellectual inquiry. He was a satirist, an ironist, a cynic, but above all he was rueful. He was a man who stared hard at misfortune and who tried to understand it, and when he couldn’t understand it, he shrugged. So, what else can you do? And what else would you expect from someone who’d survived the fire bombing of Dresden, locked up in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse, and whose mother committed suicide, and who raised his sister’s children after she’d died of cancer? This is so not funny, what else could you do but laugh?

Vonnegut was a classic example of the writer as neurotic. Writing for him seems to have been a form of salvation, a way of not giving in or giving up; an alternative to a punch-bag, or prayer. In his introduction to Armaggedon in Retrospect, this fine, post- humous collection of his uncollected writing, Vonnegut’s son Mark claims that ‘writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in.’

Vonnegut took writing very seriously.

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