This article appears in The Times today.
Kurt Vonnegut anticipated his death in an article in 1972: “I don’t console myself with the idea that my descendants and my books and all that will live on. Anybody with any sense knows that the whole solar system will go up like a celluloid collar.” His talent as a novelist was to tell of bleakness with mordant humour.
He expressed the sensibilities of a generation in a style that, in economy of structure, alluded to popular art forms such as cinema and graphic novels. Throughout his life, he decried America’s social ills. “One wonders how many of the obituaries will note that he was a loudly self-proclaimed socialist?” wrote one commentator this week, describing Vonnegut as a “writer for our times”.
I am guessing but probably most of them. Aesthetic quality is independent of politics, and it is a vulgar error to suppose that a character necessarily speaks for the author. With Vonnegut, however, the authorial voice is hardly subtly disguised. “Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get any better again,” he declared in 1970. The constant insinuation of catastrophe, leavened by dark humour, is present in much of his work. The inventiveness of the early novels will long retain their capacity to stimulate and surprise. But a writer for our times? No. He was a writer for a time that has been and gone. His appeal rested in large part on a view of history that deserves to be treated as a period curio.
Vonnegut experienced one of the great traumas of 20th-century history. As a prisoner of war in the Second World War, he lived through the bombing of Dresden. He survived through being incarcerated in an underground locker in an abattoir. When he emerged he found “135,000 Hansels and Gretels . . . baked like gingerbread men”. The event became a central theme of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and suffuses much of the rest of his work.
Another celebrated work, Cat’s Cradle (1963), concludes with the extinction of life on earth by the spilling of an imaginary substance that solidifies water. The memorable closing image is of the founder of the imaginary religion of Bokononism “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who”. Bokononism is founded on what Vonnegut calls “foma” — lies that make us happy. In Vonnegut’s scheme, the universe is indifferent to our concerns. His play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970) imagines the afterlives of two American pilots who dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki. Deadeye Dick (1982) depicts the accidental destruction of an Ohio town by a neutron bomb — a US one, so it was no big news story as it did not start WWIII.
The novel’s closing words are: “You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven’t ended yet.” To coin a Vonnegut-ism: so it goes. But ultimately the simplicity is not deceptive. Vonnegut’s philosophy and history are simplistic. Dresden was hellish — but there were not 135,000 deaths. The true figure was probably no more than a fifth of that. Vonnegut’s number came directly from the now discredited work of the Holocaust denier David Irving. (In Slaughterhouse-Five, Irving is cited by name, and a long passage, by a retired air marshal, from the foreword to Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden is reproduced.) To a PoW digging up cadavers, accurate numbers will ever after seem pedantic. But the issue is important to historical truth and also to the ideas that Vonnegut dramatised.
Dresden, whose beauty Vonnegut likened to Oz, became a sacrificial myth in a litany of Western crimes, unrelated to its industrial and political importance to the Nazis. In arguing in 2003 that “people are lying all the time as to what a murderous nation we are”, Vonnegut cited Nagasaki as “the most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery”. Yet, as an outstanding new book, Hiroshima in History, demonstrates, contemporary Japanese government records and memoirs confirm that the dropping of both A-bombs, Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima, was crucial to Japan’s decision to surrender.
These were catastrophic acts committed under the necessity of defeating barbarism. But man is not equally culpable, and history not a record of symmetry in brutality. It merely seemed that way to a particular generation at a historical moment: the Vietnam War. The critic Robert Alter in 1975 presciently attributed Vonnegut’s popularity to “the need of many readers over the past decade for a novelist who could write away history while seeming to write about it”.
In his great work Vonnegut depicted the sombreness and absurdity of human existence. Beyond that work came a coarsening of his art into caricature. The line dividing bleakness from cynicism is thin. Unfortunately, Vonnegut never made the return journey.