Lonesome No More

Kurt is up in heaven now. So it goes.

Not much more to say, for his fans. The two sentences sum up his approach to life and to writing: funny, a little morbid, coming at things from strange angles that shed light on previously unnoticed aspects. But there’s a good chance you’re not a big Vonnegut fan, so I’ll explain.

When Kurt Vonnegut took over from the late Isaac Asimov as the honorary president of the American Humanists Association, he began his inaugural speech with, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” Everyone laughed. Vonnegut, you see, was a funny guy.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922, in Indiana. He dabbled in writing and studying various things, before enlisting in the army in World War II. On Mother’s Day, 1944, his mother, Edith, committed suicide. So it goes.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was captured by German soldiers and ended up in a POW camp. That’s why he was in Dresden in February, 1945, when the Allies heroically firebombed the city into the ground for three days. He was one of seven American POWs to survive, a feat he accomplished by being in the cellar of Slaughterhouse Five.

24 years later, he wrote a book about his war experiences, that one in particular. It was, among other things, a book about a massacre. Vonnegut apologised to his publisher for the book:

And I say to Sam now: “Sam, here’s the book. It’s so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like, “Poo-tee-weet?”

It wasn’t just about Dresden, of course. Slaughterhouse Five was also about a man named Billy Pilgrim, who came unstuck in time and was kidnapped by Tralfamadorians and kept in a zoo with a porn actress named Montana Wildhack. Tralfamadorians experience time simultaneously, so they’re a little confused by humans’ concern with death.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is, “So it goes.”

What’s surprising about Kurt Vonnegut is that he survived as long as he did. His life was woven with such tragedy, and he took those things and turned them into words, and if I believed in things like Purposes and Meaning, I’d figure that God or the Universe or whatever made him especially for that purpose. But I don’t. So I guess he just had to become that kind of person or just die from it all.

As I said, his mother committed suicide. In the aftermath of Dresden, the Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial. (There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.) His sister Alice died of cancer, and her husband died two days earlier, when his train went off an open drawbridge in New Jersey. The family tried to keep Alice from learning this, but another patient gave her a copy of the New York Daily News a day before she died, and she read about it there. Kurt and his wife adopted Alice’s daughter, Lily. Two years later, he attempted suicide himself, and failed.

Death and suicide and disaster pervade his books, which are almost invariably hilarious. One of my favourites was a story by Kilgore Trout, a fictitious failed sci-fi writer who appears throughout Vonnegut’s work. This story’s called Bunker Bingo Party. It’s about Hitler and co.’s last days in the bunker as the Red Army approaches.

Hitler’s in there with Eva Braun, Goebbels and his wife and kids. Hitler proposes marriage to Eva, she accepts, they have a nice wedding ceremony. Once again out of things to do, they play Bingo. BINGO! Hitler wins! He’s stoked. He tells everyone, “I’ve never even played this game before and I won it! This is a sign!” And so on.

Eva Braun spoils the moment by swallowing a capsule of cyanide Goebbels’ wife gave her for a wedding present. Trout wrote of Eva Braun, “Her only crime was to have allowed a monster to ejaculate in her birth canal. These things happen to the best of women.”

Above ground, a 240mm howitzer shell explodes. Flakes of calcimine fall on the deafened occupants of the shelter. “Look, it snows,” jokes Hitler, who decides that it’s high time he does himself in too. He holds a pistol to his head. “Nein, nein, nein!” shout the others. But the Fuhrer convinces them that it’s the right thing to do.

Now, what should his last words be? “How about,” he proposes, “I regret nothing?” But Goebbels points out that Parisian cabaret performer Edith Piaf has made a name for herself singing those same words in French for decades. “Her sobriquet is Little Sparrow. You don’t want to be remembered as a little sparrow, or I miss my guess.”

Hitler still hasn’t lost his sense of humour. He says, “How about ‘BINGO!’?”

But he is tired. He puts his pistol to his head again. He says, “I never asked to be born in the first place.”

The pistol goes, “BANG!”

Kurt, who never asked to be born in the first place, was my favourite author in the world, and now he is dead.

So it goes.

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