Kurt Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, attending the opening night of What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole at Biltmore Theatre on Feb. 2, 2006 in New York City. Thos Robinson/Getty Images hide caption
Listen to excerpts from NPR interviews with Kurt Vonnegut:
On Socialism: "Karl Marx got a bum rap."
On Recalling War: "War is, in fact, fought by children."
On Vietnam: "I think it freed writers."
On Short Stories: "That's one form of medicine we don't use anymore."
Kurt Vonnegut relaxes at a table with his wife, Jill Krementz, and daughter Lily, June 1987. Allen Ginsberg/Corbis hide caption
Author John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut were longtime friends; Irving remembers Vonnegut's graciousness, his loyalty, and a comical interlude involving the Heimlich Maneuver.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels, short stories, essays and plays, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84.
Vonnegut's most famous work was an iconic novel born out of his memories of war and its absurdities. Vonnegut's mother killed herself when he was a young man leaving to serve in World War II. As a private in that war, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a former slaughterhouse in the ancient German city of Dresden. From there, he stepped out into the hellish, surreal landscape that Dresden became after it was firebombed.
"As prisoners of war... we dealt hands-on with dead Germans, digging them out of basements 'cause they'd suffocated there, and taking them to a huge funeral pyre," he told NPR in 2003. "And I heard — I didn't see it done — they finally gave up this procedure because it was too slow. And of course the city was starting to smell pretty bad. They sent in guys with flamethrowers."
It took him 25 years to turn that experience into Slaughterhouse-Five.
"You can't remember pure nonsense," Vonnegut said. "It was pure nonsense, the pointless destruction of that city, and, well, I just couldn't get it right. ... I kept writing crap, as they say."
Slaughterhouse-Five, filled with the blackest of black humor, was finally published in 1969 — and became an instant best-seller. Vonnegut said he saw the book's publication as a kind of liberation.
"I think it had not only freed me, I think it freed writers," he said, "because the Vietnam War made our leadership and our motives so scruffy and essentially stupid, that we could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff."
Vonnegut was a committed humanist and an outraged critic of the war in Iraq. On the lecture circuit in the years before his death, he delivered gentle and gnomic lessons: He told students that teaching is friendship, and told artists that their antiwar protests had the power of a banana cream pie. Vonnegut also asked people to notice when they feel happy.
In 1999, Vonnegut told NPR that he wrote everything for one specific reader: his sister Allie, who died of cancer in her 30s.
"It's just trusting the taste of someone else," he said. "I mean, it could easily be a teacher... but that is the secret of artistic unity, I think, even when painting a picture or composing music, is to do it with one person in mind. I don't think you can open a window and make love to the whole world."
John Irving, best known for his novel The World According to Garp, studied creative writing under Vonnegut.
"The only critical thing he ever said to me... was about my fondness for semicolons, which Kurt himself despised," Irving remembered. "He called them hermaphrodites."
Vonnegut scholar Jerome Klinkowitz said the author's work is filled with inept, foolish characters, but that cheap shots were not his style.
"He did plenty of outrageous works," Klinkowitz said. "But he never wanted his work to be hurtful. There's no villains in any of his novels."
Another fellow author, Gore Vidal, agreed: "He was a witty writer. He was a very good science-fiction writer, which meant that he could deal rather safely in satire at the times in the '50s when other people didn't really dare."
Indeed, Vonnegut approached the darkest subjects with humor, which was also the way he described his own life. He was a longtime smoker who once explained the habit by calling it a "fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide." In Vonnegut's case, it never quite took: He lived into his ninth decade, and died of complications from a fall.
Vonnegut's last work was a collection of essays called A Man Without a Country. In it, he suggested that music helped him through tragic times.
"Why this is so, I don't know," he said in a 2005 NPR interview. "Or what music is, I don't know. But it helps me so. During the Great Depression in Indianapolis, when I was in high school, I would go to jazz joints and listen to black guys playing, and, man, they could really do it. And I was really teared up. Still the case now."
Though he was a vocal religious skeptic, Vonnegut wrote in that final essay collection that "if I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: 'The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.'"
Many of us grade the books we read, but Kurt Vonnegut graded the books he wrote. Letters of Note once tweeted out a list of the thirteen grades he applied to thirteen of his novels, prefaced with his disclaimer that “the grades I hand out to myself do not place me in literary history. I am comparing myself with myself.” With that out of the way, he gives 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five, his sixth novel and best-known work, an A-plus, and puts his fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle from 1963, in the very same league.
But you don’t have to take Vonnegut’s word for it. You can, of course, read these books yourself — or you can hear them read aloud, at least in abridged versions, for free on Spotify. What’s more, you can hear Vonnegut, clearly not a man to distance himself from his finished work, read them aloud in his own voice. The recordings come from the label Caedmon, pioneers of the vinyl-album proto-audiobook beginning in the 1950s with a record of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. Their Vonnegut-reading-Vonnegut releases came out through the 1970s.
You might as well begin by listening to the readings of Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s “A-plus” books. They also put out audio versions of Welcome to the Monkey House, which the author graded a bit more harshly with a B-minus, and Breakfast of Champions, which, with a C, he ranked down among what he considered his lesser works. But that disdain doesn’t affect his characteristic richly weary delivery of the text, and besides, some of his fans love Breakfast of Champions best of all. Bonus: Stories from Welcome to the Monkey House is also an option.
If you don’t yet have the free software needed to play these or other recordings on Spotify, download it here, start listening to these classically satirical, inventive, and cynical midcentury American novels, and prepare to hand out some grades of your own.
Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com? For example, John Malkovich reading Breakfast of Champions? Or James Franco reading Slaughterhouse-Five? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.
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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.