Kurt Vonnegut

Best-selling author and revered satirist Kurt Vonnegut dies at the age of 84 after complications from a fall in his home several weeks ago.
Best-selling author and revered satirist Kurt Vonnegut dies at the age of 84 after complications from a fall in his home several weeks ago.
Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Thursday, April 12, 2007; 2:00 PM

Washington Post Book World columnist Michael Dirda will be online Thursday, April 12 at 2 p.m. to discuss the life, work and legacy of author Kurt Vonnegut, who died Wednesday at 84.

A transcript follows.

Dirda encourages readers to talk about their favorite Vonnegut books or stories, or discuss what Vonnegut has meant to them and why his writing still matters (or doesn't).

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Michael Dirda: Back in the 15th century, the Scots poet William Dunbar wrote a long elegy called "Lament for the Makers." In it, he tolls a kind of requiem for the great writers of his time and the recent past. Throughout recurs the Latin tag: Timor mortis conturbat me. The fear of death overwhelms me.

Kurt Vonnegut, I suspect, never feared death in that way, and yet death and the meaning of life, or perhaps the lack of meaning to life, recurs throughout his fiction. In our own time, he is one of the "makers" who have influenced the lives and imaginations of thousands of readers. Some of his phrases have passed into the language--most notably "So it goes"--while the apparent casualness of his prose, his gallows humor and, to adopt a fine phrase from the great science fiction critic Brian Stableford, his "sardonic Weltschmerz" struck a chord that still echoes.

I only met him once. The Post was hosting a special author luncheon for the photographer Jill Krementz, who had a new book out, and so I wandered over to the Mayflower Hotel. Just outside the banquet room, where Krementz and two or three other authors were to speak, I noticed a tallish, frizzle-haired man with sad eyes and somewhat drooping face standing, alone, quietly in a corner. He might have been smoking a cigarette. All around scores of people were milling about, eager to get into the banquet hall to glimpse the celebrities. I shyly wandered up to him, and said, "Mr. Vonnegut. I'd like to tell you how much I admire your books." He smiled, said something non-committal but kind, and I walked away, leaving him to his quiet isolation in the middle of the throng.

All right. Enough introduction. A beloved American writer has died, and literature is the less for his passing.

He himself would probably snort at these solemnities, so let's just go to the postings and see what readers want to say.

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Columbus, Ohio: I remember a story from Vonnegut on the death of Isaac Asimov, I believe it was. At a Humanist Society meeting to honor Asimov, Vonnegut went to the podium, said a few kind words about him, then said "he's in a better place now," to much laughter and enjoyment from his fellow humanists.

Vonnegut was a master who managed to be both revered and under appreciated. And I suppose that's only fitting. He's in a better place now.

Michael Dirda: Well, for a writer, I think the place he most wants to be is on the bookshelves of readers, especially younger readers. Vonnegut is certainly there. Just before I signed on to do this program, I heard from an editor with whom I'm working on an article who said, straight out: "He was my favorite living writer." She said "Timequake" had changed her life.

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Freising, Germany: In the Washington Post photo montage, I noticed that in 1980, the Long Island school board banned Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five," amongst other modern classics.

How is Vonnegut now perceived amongst educators and critics? Is "Slaughterhouse-Five" considered to be an American classic?

Michael Dirda: "Slaughterhouse-Five" is usually banned for its sexual content--the aliens do bring Billy Pilgrim the fabulous Montana Wildhack (if I remember her name properly). As "Catcher in the Rye" is now part of many high -school curricula, I suspect "Slaughterhouse-Five" may be as well. It's certainly the sort of book that would provoke terrific class discussions.

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washingtonpost.com: Vonnegut photo gallery

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Washington, D.C.: I am Michael Friedman, the grassroots coordinator at the American Humanist Association, of which Kurt Vonnegut was the Honorary President, as well as Humanist of the Year in 1992. First, let me say that all of us at the AHA are deeply saddened by his death, and wish the best for his family and friends. Now, I wonder, what can we learn from Kurt Vonnegut's Humanism, or lack of reliance on supernaturalism, and his always rational thoughts on science and society?

Michael Dirda: I'm tempted to say, in Vonnegutian mode: You tell me.

That said, I think the essence of Vonnegut's humanism lay in his emphasis on human kindness as, so to speak, our saving grace. Interestingly, Philip K. Dick -- who bears a place somewhat comparable to Vonnegut in our imaginations --also maintained that in a world of simulacra, where things may only be apparently real, kindness was the defining feature of the truly human.

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Virginia: My favorite book is "Slaughterhouse-Five" because it shows how a human being copes with total war, using humor and the need to escape. It reminds me of Picasso's "Guernica" named after a town that was also completely destroyed.

Thanks.

Michael Dirda: That's an interesting comparison, and probably an apt one, though there's not any humor in Guernica. Back in the 1960s there was an anthology from, I think, Esquire called "Smiling Through the Apocalypse." It was a mode that many writers adopted. The "black humor" that we find in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," Gilbert Sorrentino's "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things," and even much of William Burroughs is one aspect of it. But Vonnegut is also very much a part of science fiction -- as Kilgore Trout once said "I love you guys" -- and much of 1960s sf, the New Wave, resembles Vonnegut. Think of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories, J.G. Ballard's tales of "inner space" and the work of Thomas M. Disch and Harlan Ellison. But the most Vonnegutian of them all, and in my view one of the great neglected writers of our time, was John Sladek. Books like "Roderick: The Education of a Young Robot" or his earlier novels such as "The Muller-Fokker Effect" are brilliant, bitter looks at the way we live now through the lens of sf. That's what Vonnegut did in his own early fiction.

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Chantilly, Va.: Have you ever read Vonnegut's "Sirens of Titan"? It's not one of his most known or acclaimed novels, but, to me, it is perhaps the most penetrating examination of the role of luck and destiny in our lives I have ever encountered.

I've read it probably a dozen times since I first picked it up nearly twenty years ago, and it moves me each and every time.

Michael Dirda: The "Sirens of Titan" is, in fact, my favorite Vonnegut novel. It's not as complex and troubling as "Mother Night" or as immediately powerful as "Slaughterhouse-Five," but it is very funny, shocking and quite unforgettable. It isn't really ruining a wonderful book to say that in it you discover that all human history has come about only so that mankind can develop space power and transport, unknowingly, to the planetoid Titan a part needed by a marooned alien to repair his ship. All mankind's hopes, dreams, wars and achievements have had no other purpose.

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Washington, D.C.: What would be a good introduction to Vonnegut for someone who's always had him on their "to read" list, but sadly never quite gotten around to him?

Michael Dirda: Probably the short stories in "Welcome to the Monkey House." Start with the widely known classic "Harrison Bergeron," set in a world that aims to achieve perfect equality -- those who are inherently graceful are burdened with chains, those who are beautiful must wear masks.

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Alexandria, Va.: I hadn't read a book in six years when "Timequake" was recommended to me. I loved it and it rekindled my interest in literature. I read "Farewell to Arms" specifically because of what Vonnegut wrote about it in "Timequake" (something about how it was the most anti-marriage book in the history of the world).

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I know of other anti-marriage books that I'd rank somewhat higher, but "Farewell" is certainly Hemingway's second-best novel (after his masterpiece, "The Sun Also Rises"). "It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I walked back to the hotel in the rain."

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the opening comment from Columbus, Ohio, about the Isaac Asimov memorial service, here's the full quotation on the subject. It's from Vonnegut's 2005 book, "Man Without a Country." He writes:

"We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. 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."

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. That "God forbid" is echt Vonnegut.

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Finksburg, Md.: It's funny how one's perceptions change as you get older (and maybe wiser; maybe not). When I first read "Slaughterhouse-Five" at 15 or so, I thought it was the funniest book I'd ever read -- the Billy Pilgrim and the porn star sequence, etc.

But when I went back to re-read it again as an adult in my 30s, I found it to be exactly the opposite -- I now consider it to be the saddest, most moving book, with the horrific descriptions of Dresden, war in general, and the general terribleness (if that is indeed a word) of humankind.

That, I think is the definition of a masterpiece -- it moves you one way at one point of your life, and quite another at a different point.

Michael Dirda: Very well said. My first Vonnegut -- and people do tend to remember their first Vonnegut, as they do other "firsts" in their life -- was "Cat's Cradle." I couldn't believe the end. One just didn't read many books back then where . . . well, I shouldn't say what happens, should I?

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McLean, Va.: I am 27 years old. Kurt Vonnegut has been my favorite writer since I was 17. If the best place for a writer is to be on the bookshelves of the public, especially the younger generations, then Mr. Vonnegut has succeeded.

Damn the world, I am the lesser for his passing.

Thank you for doing this chat. I didn't realize I could feel so sad by the passing of someone who I never met.

Michael Dirda: Well, Vonnegut was a writer whose great gift was that he always seemed to be talking directly to you. He wasn't writing, he wasn't showing off, he was just telling you, nobody else, what it was like, what it was all about. That intimacy made him beloved. We can admire the art of John Updike or Philip Roth, but we love Vonnegut.

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Tenafly, N.J.: Of all his most quotable lines, my favorite was always:

"We have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."

I heard him say it at a graduation speech in 2005 (Lehigh University), but I think it's from one of his essays as well.

Michael Dirda: My own favorite quote is: "Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops." It's beautifully set up, funny, and sadly, achingly true.

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McLean, Va.: I graduated from Rice University in Houston in the spring of 1998 and we were privileged enough to have Mr. Vonnegut as our commencement speaker. Having sat through innumerable undergraduate commencement speeches where the speaker uses the opportunity to further his own agenda (see Gore's 1996 commencement speech at MIT), it was refreshing to have someone (a writer, no less!) spend less than 20 minutes addressing us, encouraging us to enjoy the moment and prepare for upcoming challenges but also just make us laugh. I thought the best part was how he noted that while some of us, no doubt, might become celebrities or billionaires, many more might "have been of use locally" where we "may have to be content with someone's seemingly heartfelt thanks for something well done from time to time" and encouraged us to "love such a destiny." If this isn't, nice, what is? I'll always remember that speech. Thanks, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

For those interested here's a link to a scan of his original transcript.

Michael Dirda: That's really wonderful. The Greeks had an ideal: If you would have a happy life, live an obscure life. What matters are those ordinary acts of kindness and of love, not vaulting ambition with its attendant hubris and smugness.

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Lafayette, Ind.: I am surprised to see very little mention in all the biographies written today that Vonnegut was a single father for many years, who adopted his sister's children when she passed -- six children I believe, before he met his current wife and they adopted a child. This alone gave him angel status.

Michael Dirda: I'm not quite sure this is right. My recollection is that he married his childhood sweetheart and they had three children. Then his sister and brother in law died and he adopted their three kids. That is, in itself, worthy of admiration. I believe that he and his second wife, Jill Krementz, adopted. Of course, Vonnegut did divorce his first wife around 1970. He could be saintly, I suspect, but was no angel.

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Albany, N.Y.: I first read Vonnegut in high school; my mom gave me her worn copy of "God bless you, Mr. Rosewater." I quickly read all of his other books, whenever I didn't complete a homework assignment, I would politely asked to be excused, because the previous evening I had become "unstuck in time."

Vonnegut didn't write for the counterculture, he wrote to the mass culture. His words will forever jab at the agony, crumbling joy and imperfections of human existence. So it goes.

Michael Dirda: Yes. I think that his appeal, though, will always be chiefly to adolescents. His sense of the world matches that of young people, who feel deeply life's absurdity. "What's it all mean?" is both an adolescent's cri du coeur and Vonnegut's. Once you have children of your own, most people can't be quite as self-indulgent as that. What it means is putting bread on the table for the kids. Still that strain of existential angst and weary stoicism is one that recurs in all our lives.

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Falls Church, Va.: I'm going to be the skunk at the garden party today, partly because I'm confident that Vonnegut wouldn't mind.

His writing will not last. He has a certain angry intensity but nothing else. Like Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut was fortunate to be published at a counter-cultural moment when bad writing was taken as a sign of authenticity. As the political battles of our time fade and the context of his work recedes from memory, new readers are just going to wonder what anyone saw in his formless, juvenile screeds.

Michael Dirda: Your view isn't so iconoclastic. Nearly all the writing of our time is likely to disappear in a hundred years. Certainly most readers -- and nearly all critics -- feel that Vonnegut started to repeat himself, to grow increasingly self-indulgent and meandering, and to sometimes just blather in his later work. But his books up to "Slaughterhouse-Five" do possess a distinctiveness that will insure some kind of permanence, if only in the history of the 1960s and of science fiction.

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Indianapolis: I think that Vonnegut embodied what it was to be a 20th century American, and he did so with a decidedly Midwestern point of view. I'm nothing special, you're nothing special. Let's just try to do our best, and be kind to one another. His books so often reflected the disappointment that so simple a philosophy can't be followed.

Beneath every pessimist is a disappointed optimist.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Vonnegut's writings matter more than ever today, as we are engaged in senseless warfare across the globe. His death is a huge loss, especially since it was not his smoking that did him in

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Columbia, Md.: Sad news.

The events of the last several years have reminded me of the last line of "Deadeye Dick" --

"You know what? The Dark Ages -- they're not over yet."

Michael Dirda: Well, nearly every generation could say that. I sometimes lie awake at night and try to imagine what would be the best period in history to spend one's seventy-odd years. It's a hard call. But certainly, the last five years have been as sad and grotesque as any in U.S. history. As one who came of age in the 1960s, everyday I am shocked that we seemed to have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from Vietnam.

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So it goes.: First off, thank you for doing this. Personally I think I would put "Galapagos" up as one of my all-time Vonnegut favorites.

Isn't there an interesting story about someone pretending to be Kilgore Trout, and actually publishing a science fiction book(s) under that name? Can you please fill in the details on this, or am I remembering incorrectly?

Michael Dirda: "Venus on the Half Shell" appeared in paperback under the name Kilgore Trout, but was actually written by Philip Jose Farmer, a major sf novelist (best known for the "Riverworld" series). But Vonnegut was rather annoyed, I'm told.

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Ilium, N.Y.: I have read and re-read "Mother Night" many times. I think it was by far his best book. How do you judge that book?

Michael Dirda: A dark, troubling book. To many, it is probably his real masterpiece, not "Slaughterhouse-Five," but it's not a novel anyone can love.

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Washington, D.C.: Forgive me for going out on a metaphorical limb, but I feel Vonnegut is the Thelonious Monk of American literature.

He gave voice to a rhythm that no one else could hear and put funny sounds together in a way that became beautiful and profound. I am grateful that I found both him and Heller at the right age. They rescued me from received wisdom.

Michael Dirda: Yes. It's nice to think that Heller and Vonnegut were near neighbors.

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Alexandria, Va.: Vonnegut is too danged earnest. I like his books and nod along with the humanity and soul of them, but I have no desire to re-read them. Like his Cheshire Cat grin, he will fade away. And so it goes.

Michael Dirda: Well, only our grandchildren will know for sure if you're right or wrong.

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Alexandria, Va.: I first read "Slaughterhouse-Five" my junior year of high school and I haven't put it down since.

Page 26 changed my life and way of thinking when Vonnegut first describes "So it goes" and the way the Tralfamadorians see life. It helped me through some tough deaths in my family.

My favorite line in the book is his when he describes himself in Dresden having to relieve himself in a bucket, "That was me, that was I, that was the author of this book."

Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84. So it goes.

Michael Dirda: Thanks.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I read several Vonnegut books back in high school but none recently. (I'm 42.) Are they worth revisiting? I always had the sense that Vonnegut was one of those authors, like Salinger, whose work was easily accessible to and popular with adolescents but had less to offer the adult reader.

Michael Dirda: Hard to say. Just a few minutes I go I wrote that he seems a writer who will always appeal most to young people. Still, I think anyone can learn something about writing from his easy-going voice. Mother Night, the book we've just been talking about, might be the one for you to try.

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Oxford, Miss.: Just earlier this week I was re-reading Vonnegut's eight rules for short story writing. As a writer myself who's read any number of writing advice books, this still stands out to me as the best advice on storytelling ever and I just wanted to share it, if you have the space:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Michael Dirda: These are certainly good rules (even if there are no hard and fast rules for writing). Best selling authors are always worth listening to, even if you choose to ignore their advice. The great Robert A. Heinlein used to say, in his down to earth practical way, it's not a story until it's published.

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Washington, D.C.: Would you discuss in more detail Kurt Vonnegut's personal philosophy? He was honorary president of the American Humanist Association and in certain of his recent writings described himself as a humanist.

Michael Dirda: I wish I could tell you more about his philosophy. But all I can say for sure is that he felt that life was largely a crap shoot and that we simply need to muddle on as best we can, being as kind and loving to one another as possible, right now. It's a pretty good philosophy, no matter what one's religious beliefs or lack of them.

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Michael Dirda: Well, that brings us to the end of this hour. Whatever Kurt Vonnegut's ultimate status will be in the annals of literature, he was important to a lot of people right now. That's what most writers really care about.

Let me end with a bit of advertising: If you've enjoyed talking about Vonnegut today, you might want to check out "Dirda on Books," a weekly discussion of anything and everything in the world of books, publishing, reading. It takes place every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com, though now and again the time is shifted when some insurmountable obligation juts up in my life. Give it a try.

Oh wait, I see one last post -- let's take a look and then I'll be off.

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Arlington, Va: This is a very interesting interview from Playboy magazine from the 70s with both Vonnegut and Heller.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Back around the same time, the Post's Book World did a similarly, wonderful conversation between Joseph Heller and Mel Brooks. Fortunately, the last is still with us.

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