Thursday, April 12, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. This upsets me more than I would have expected.

I remember the first Vonnegut novel I read. It was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I was sixteen or seventeen. I don't think I really got the book at the time. Actually, I know I didn't. I'm not sure I do now, despite having read it -- along with most of Vonnegut's other novels -- at least a half dozen times. But I remember the following passage, which has been seared into my memory since I first read it:
The client who was about to make Eliot's black telephone ring was a sixty-eight-year-old virgin who, by almost anybody's standards, was too dumb to live. Her name was Diana Moon Glampers. No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anyone should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring. On the rare occasions when she had to introduce herself, she always said her full name, and followed that with the mystifying equation that had thrust her into life so pointlessly:

"My mother was a Moon. My father was a Glampers."
It sounds almost breathtakingly cruel, this passage, and I'm pretty sure that was my impression twenty years ago, too. But something about this Vonnegut meanie kept me coming back for more. I read all the mainstays: Slaughterhouse-5, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle. And then I read the lesser-known books: Galapagos, Player Piano, Jailbird, The Sirens of Titan (and many more). And then I read the essays and various pieces of short fiction (of which there are many). Every three or four years, I would feel this powerful compulsion to go on a Vonnegut bender, and I would read five, six, seven, or more of his novels in a row. At the end of each binge, I was very little wiser, but strangely satiated.

After all this reading, I don't know how much I know about Vonnegut. I know that that first passage about Diana Moon Glampers that so fascinated me probably captures, as well as anything does, the complexity of Vonnegut's writing. Because you pity Diana Moon Glampers, don't you? But don't you also hate her a little bit, for being so stupid and helplessly cowlike? And she makes you afraid, doesn't she, because deep down in your egalitarian, humanist heart you don't want to believe that there are really people like that, not really REALLY? Because if they do, then why? What is their purpose? What does it mean? And what are YOU supposed to do about it? Are you even SUPPOSED to do anything?

This is the terrible dilemma that Eliot Rosewater, the fourteenth-richest man in America is in. He has a pathological need to help the Diana Moon Glamperses of the world, even when his help is dubiously received and has questionable success. And you sort of pity and hate Eliot Rosewater, too, and you want to shake him for launching this futile project. But at the same time you love him, and it makes your heart happy that he's out there trying.

This is kind of how I feel about Vonnegut. He's been described as a pessimist, and I guess he is (was). But it seemed like he always felt that you should still struggle for goodness and compassion and love -- and that he knew what these things are and that they exist and are real and are probably the ONLY things worth fighting for -- even if your struggle is probably doomed.

These days, it seems like pessimism and cynicism and irony are pretty thick on the ground. And when we do encounter idealism, it's overly earnest and unpalatable. Vonnegut made our idealism real and noble and, even in failure, heroic and tragic. I don't know when or if another writer like this will come along.

ETC.

22 comments:

Shiri said...

I always wished I had the ability to remember quotes. Nothing sears into my mind like this, not even stuff I really love.

I'm not as passionate a Vonnegutian as you in terms of owning his works or even reading all of them. I loved what I read, especially his short stories, that I have read over and over again. (The true mark of liking a work of fiction, no?)

citronyella said...

Short story "Harrison Bergeron" read in the early 70s haunts me these many years on. Which proves once more that whatever one reads when one is approximately twelve is one's to keep for life. I think I will read some Vonnegut this weekend. Probably Breakfast of Champions, new in the year I graduated high school, said a lot to me then, I wonder if it still will.

Libby said...

I was crushed to hear the news this morning. Not usually one for science fiction, his writing really spoke to me.

I especially adored the following (reproduced in the NY Times' piece you have linked to): "There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’"

Rest in peace, KV.

anna said...

Me too, me too.

I read Timequake when I was about 15 (from the library) and then I read it again and again.

Sigh.

Diablevert said...

"Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne."

- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Rachel said...

I was surprisingly sad to hear of Vonnegut's passing as well. The first book of his I ever read was "Slapstick" and it's still my favorite, by far. I also like "Harrison Bergeron" quite a bit.

Even though he hadn't written any new novels in a while, the world seems strangely empty without him.

Vickie said...

Oh how I wish that it was possible to declare a national reading holiday - one of our literary heroes dies, and we all get off work to sit and read their works, like a wake with books. i'm still young and foolish, and the only Vonnegut I've read so far is Slaugherhouse-5, but he is still a hero to me, like Joseph Heller is a hero.

Hope you and your family are well.

eninnej said...

Your last two paragraphs perfectly describe why Vonnegut had such an impact on my worldview. Thanks for this.

Kristina said...

Thank goodness you posted this! I was crushed (such a good word for this feeling) this morning too when I found out - I totally wanted to cry but felt stupid doing so (at work). I'm also PMSing, but for me, it was and always will be Slaughterhouse 5:

"Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes."

Anonymous said...

hello.

first of all, I enjoy your blog very much.

next, I'm pretty sure that Diana Moon Glampers is the same name of the handicapper general in Harrison Bergeron, which I find interesting in light of your quote.

lastly, I read the year of magical thinking upon your recommendation and it hurt my heart. I was actually super, duper mad when I found out mid-way through the book after reading something online about didion that her daughter ended up dying.

cheers,
alisa beth

Laurel said...

I too am very saddened by this. He was my favorite living author and one of my all time favorite ones. I was lucky enough to see him once and ended up with front row seats at an event, around the time Timequake was published, that he spoke at.

The gist of what he had to say was "at least try to be decent to one another" and also, and this I will never forget, "You can never truly be a successful writer if you aren't depressed. At least 90% of writers are clinically depressed." I remember telling my husband that THAT was the reason I wasn't published, I was too happy.

Now I'm going to go reread Hocus Pocus which is my favorite. And I love your site by the way. I read and lurk all the time.

Gerry said...

The book of short stories Welcome To The Monkey House is my favorite book. The bittersweet story of the man who hides his wealth so he is forced to play the jazz music no respectable man would play... the professor who develops telekinesis so powerful he becomes the first weapon of mass destruction with a conscience... I love these characters. You captured what fascinated me about Vonnegut: his overriding believe that you should do the right thing, even though it might be pointless. That's life.

tuckova said...

He was old, he was tired, he was in pain, he said that he wouldn't write any more; he said himself that he was ready to go, that he wanted to.
I sort of thought that would make it easier, and it did, but I still wound up yesterday running my finger up and down the spines of his books, and crying, because: no more? really, no more?

Doppelganger said...

I'm glad to know I'm not alone in this sadness. I don't usually mourn people I don't know, but this feels different.

Alisa Beth, you're right: the Handicapper General in "Harrison Bergeron" is (a younger, I believe) Diana Moon Glampers, but I think she's sort of a parallel-universe Diana Moon Glampers. Which makes a lot of sense, I guess.

And tuckova? I was holding it together pretty well until I read your post, which made me cry. Again.

BabelBabe said...

apparently he couldn't get one of the big publishing houses to do his last few books. How sad is that? A literary icon, and not one of the big conglomerates would publish his stuff. the person who wrote the Pgh PG obit said that KV is likely the last of the generation of writers whose work we await anxiously, snatching it up as soon as it comes out, devouring it and discussing it. how sad is that? True or not, just the thought makes me sad.

off to reread Slaughterhouse Five.

The Diving Belle said...

Oh, now I don't feel so silly, getting all verklempt about Mr Vonnegut's passing. I agree, he was old, he was tired but he will so be missed!

Now, go read "A Man Without A Country"!

Anonymous said...

My own searing image from Kurt Vonnegut comes with 'Breakfast of Champions'. That was my first Vonnegut book when it was on the Time Magazine's best selling list. Remember that dog in the upstairs apartment whose dull routine was temporarily relieved when he saw the traveler pass below? The dog whose focus and energy went to getting his bm's in the bread pan in front of the refrigerator, all the while his heart imbued with the vague sensation that somewhere along the way his life had taken a horrible wrong turn? That image became life-forming and then, horribly, life-summarizing, at best, as a student put it in the ubiquitous discussion of what good is poetry, a hook to hang my thoughts on.

It scares me sometimes that so many threads of my life are mirrored in your blog, but here it is again: I've forgotten where the traveler was going or why, only that he took along a mildewed tux. I should look it up and get the quote right, but dare not risk distorting memory.

Another connection I had forgotten: it was years later that my 2nd husband led me to all those other wonderful Vonnegut books, and in the early days of our marriage while we tried so hard to please each other and failed so often, our sorry-excuse, I'll-do-better mantra became: I'll lose weight, Billy Pilgrim.

One of the news obits quoted Vonnegut concurring with Hitler, et.al. that a writer should serve his society. Vonnegut served us beyond his expectations, no doubt, both in the times when our government would have supported him if we were that kind, and during the times when our govenment would have imprisoned him if we were that kind. And no doubt I speak the gratitude of us all for his presence among us and for the effort he made. I take comfort that he is beyond the pain of that last heart-rending cry that one one laughs at his jokes any more.

christine (threedogknits) said...

Found your blog doing a search on Vonnegut quotes. This is a lovely post. Vonnegut spoke at my high school my sophomore year (late 1980's). He was magic. I am originally from Indianapolis - his entire family had a lot of creative influence there, so I had heard about him since I was a kid, I've read all this novels, but far too long ago. I will have to re-read them. I cried a little yesteraday, too. Like you I was also surprised be how strongly I reacted to the news that he had passed away. He'll be missed. So it goes.

vanishingword said...

So glad I found this blog. Linking!

Queen Slacker said...

I rarely post on strangers' sites, but since I heard the news, I have been looking for other people who have been similarly affected by the death of Vonnegut and failing. It's good to stumble upon this.
The first peice I read by him was "Harrison Bergeron," which I read on the sly in English class while I was supposed to have been reading something else. Later on, I read Slaughterhouse 5, again, on the sly in English class, and it, like many other of Vonnegut's books later would, broke my heart in the best possible way. My favorite, I think, is Cat's Cradle. There is a couple of his novels I haven't read yet, but I'm holding off because I want to have something else by him to discover later on, sometime in the future, in a moment when I will need a dose of that optimistic pessimism more than anything.

Anonymous said...

I have loved vonnegut for many years - I now realize I have everything of his...I miss him. I feel like my uncle passed. I love what he had to say but, equally, I love what he wanted of humans. Read it all - each aches with a hope for humanity.

And so it goes...and it hurts to type it.

Kdog said...

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is on of my favorite books. This quote has always stuck with me:

"He didn't understand that what Trout had in common with
pornography wasn't sex but fantasies of an impossibly hospitable
world."