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Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)


American author noted for his pessimistic and satirical novels. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s best known work is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade (1969), which was based on his experiences in Dresden, Germany, where he was a prisoner-of-war at the destruction of the town in 1945. Vonnegut used fantasy and science fiction to examine the horrors and absurdities of 20th century civilization. His constant concern about the effects of technology on humanity led some critics to consider him a science fiction writer, but the author himself rejected this label.

'"You know - we've had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that the wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. "My God, my God  " I said to myself, "it's the Children's Crusade."' (in Slaughterhouse Five)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born in Indianapolis. His father, Kurt Sr., was a architect. In Galápagos (1985) Vonnegut wrote: "When I got to be sixteen, though, I myself had arrived at the conclusion my mother and the neighbors had reached so long ago: that my father was a repellent failure, his work appearing only in the most disreputable publications, which paid him almost nothing. He was an insult to life itself, I thought, when he went on doing nothing with it but writing and smoking all the time – and I mean all the time." Vonnegut's mother, Edith Lieber, heiress to a brewery fortune based on Lieber Lager Beer and the Gold Medal Beer, committed suicide in 1944.

For the ten years before World War II Vonnegut's father was almost constantly unemployed, and anti-German feelings and cultural prejudices were later seen in Vonnegut's novel Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976). Vonnegut himself was proud of his German heritage. When Charles Lindbergh caused a controversy with his claim, that three groups are pressing the U.S. toward war, the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration, Vonnegut defended him in 1941 in a column: "The mud-slingers are good. They'd have to be good to get people hating a loyal and sincere patriot. On second thought, Lindbergh is no patriot – to hell with the word, it lost it's [sic] meaning after the Revolutionary War." (The Cornell Daily Sun, October 13, 1941)

In 1940 Vonnegut started to study biochemistry at Cornell; his father, who funded his education, had recommend that he should study chemistry rather that the humanities. Arts were discouraged in the family. However, Vonnegut also wrote satirical anti-war articles for the student newspaper Cornell Sun. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Vonnegut volunteered in 1943 for military service. "Good! They will teach you to be neat!" his father said.

Vonnegut was sent to Europe, serving there as a battalion scout with the 106th Infantry Division. He was taken as a prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. After being transported to Dresden, an old cultural town, he worked there making a diet supplement for pregnant women. Between February 13 and 14 the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force made heavy raids on Dresden. At that time Vonnegut was a prisoner in a meat-locker under a slaughterhouse, and was among the few people to survive the total destruction of the city. Later he was employed by the Germans to dig out corpses. Dresden was occupied in 1945 by Soviet troops and Vonnegut was repatriated to the United States.

After the war Vonnegut studied anthropology at Chicago University from 1944 to 1947, but his M.A. thesis 'Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales' was rejected. However, in 1971 the anthropological department accepted his novel Cat's Cradle (1963) in lieu of a thesis and Vonnegut war awarded the degree. In the book Vonnegut explores destructive rationality of Western science and the turn towards mysticism, which was just then beginning to take hold among students in the USA and Europe. In 1945 Vonnegut married a childhood friend. They had two daughters and a son, and also adopted the three children of Vonnegut's sister, who died of cancer in 1958.

Vonnegut worked for over three years as a public relations man for General Electric's research laboratory. His first science fiction story, 'Report on the Barnhouse Effect' was published in Collier's Weekly in September 1950. After selling also other stories, Vonnegut quit his "goddam nightmare job", as he described it in a letter to his father, and moved with his family to Cape Cod (the Cape), Massachusetts. Between 1950 and 1963 Vonnegut published 45 stories, which appeared in such publications as The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and the Ladies' Home Journal. "During most of my freelancing," Vonnegut recalled in 1969 in an interview, "I made what I would have made in charge of the cafeteria at a pretty good junior-high school." Actually the magazines paid well for short fiction in the 1950s.  Vonnegut's stories has been collected in Canary in a Cathouse (1961), Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), Bagombo Snuff Box (1999), and While Mortals Sleep (2011).

While teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop between 1965 and 1967, Vonnegut struggled to write about his wartime experiences. His students included John Casey, James Crumley, John Irving, Suzanne McConnell, and Jonathan Penner. "Your first job is to hook the reader," he emphasized. "Your second is to keep your reader to reading." Vonnegut helped Irving to finish his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968). In 1967, Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Dresden, but the Germans were not eager to recall the war years.

Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano (1952), was a tale of black humour. The story is set in the future, where scientists and engineers of vast corporations attempt to automate everything. As a result, the functions of human beings are gradually taken over by machines. Noteworthy, Vonnegut also prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union under the impact of American know-how. This work labelled Vonnegut as a sciece-fiction writer, although the author himself though that he had written a novel about people and machines. Noteworthy, Mother Night, originally published in paperback in 1961, and republished in 1965 in hardcover, was a non-sf novel about the "true" identity of a double agent.

Before his breakthrough novel Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut wrote The Sirens of Titan (1959). It featured a character for whom the events of history take place simultaneously. Cat's Craddle, his fourth novel, which also gained attention among the broad readership, was about a scientist, a Nobel laureate named Felix Hoenikker, who has created a chemical, Ice-Nine, that turns all water into ice. Absentmindedly he is responsible for the end of the world. The English writer Douglas Adams, a fan of Vonnegut, took the comedy of apocalypse a few steps further in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), in which Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Slaughterhouse Five combined historical facts and science fiction. At the time of its publication, and even to this day, it is a rare American novel, that presented Germans as victims of war. Vonnegut also placed the atrocity in the larger context of human history. "Thank God I was in Dresden when it was burned down," Vonnegut once said, meaning he had something to write about that he had experienced himself. Vonnegut depicts the Allied firebombing of Dresden, seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a kind of descendant of Voltaire's Candide. Billy finds peace of mind after being kidnapped by Tralfamadorians. He learns that time is not necessarily moving in a liner fashion and that the secret of life is to live only in the happy moments. Billy lives on Earth and on the distant planet Tralfamadore, responding to events with the resignated slogan "So it goes". Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, members of the rock band Jefferson Airplane, were great fans of the book. They invited Vonnegut in 1971 to San Francisco, but cooperation plans were dropped. "The vibrations were just awful, I wanted out as fast as possible," Vonnegut said later.

For roughly twenty years, from 1950 to 1970, Vonnegut led, much as his fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout, the anonymous life of a drugstore-rack writer, who is said to have been modelled on the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. A novel attributed to Kilgore Trout, written by Philip José Farmer, was published in 1975 under the title Venus on the Half-Shell. In 1979 Vonnegut divorced his first wife and married the photographer Jill Krementz. An innate pessimism, central to Vonnegut's oeuvre, did not make the author's later years any easier. In 1984 he made a suicide attempt. Vonnegut did not specify the culprit responsible for the ills of the world, but viewed misfortunes as a part of our common nature or coming by chance.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) was loosely based on the last book of Homer's Odyssey. The novel  grew from a play, entitled Penelope, in which Harold Ryan, a big game hunter and male chauvinist, the "Odysseus", was modelled after Ernest Hemingway. Since  Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday (1973) Vonnegut used self-consciously and mockingly his public personality as the author-narrator. Robert Altman planned to film the book in the mid-1950s, Alan Rudolph wrote the script for him, but they never got it made and lost the right. Eventually Rudolp's adaptation, in which Bruce Willis played the suicidal Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover and Albert Finney was Kilgore Trout, was released in 1999. The film failed both critically and commercially.

In Jailbird (1979) and Deadeye Dick (1983) Vonnegut explored idealized Mid-western middle-class values and the social and political course of American history in this century. Vonnegut's commandments for a better world were deceitfully simple: honor the Sermon of the Mount, stop exploiting and killing people, be kind to everyone. Sometimes Vonnegut turned against his radical reputation and made chauvinist statements: "Educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch: everything stops." 

Vonnegut's later novels received mixed reviews and he was accused of recycling essentially the same ideas. "And what is literature, Rabo," he argued on the art of writing in Bluebeard (1987), "but an insider's newsletters about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought.'" Hocus Pocus (1990), the author's thirteenth novel, was set in the years following the defeat of the Vietnam war. With Timequake (1997) Vonnegut struggled for ten years. Instead of throwing it away, the author published it with fragments of autobiography. The novel was again about Kilgore Trout, thrown into a world set back ten years, from February 13, 2001 to February 17, 1991. Inside the story Vonnegut makes comments on all kinds of matters between heaven and earth.

Vonnegut's other works include plays, essays, critics, and TV plays. Although Vonnegut announced that Timequake would be his last book, he started again another novel, If God Were Alive Today, about a stand-up comedian. His essays, written after Timequake, Vonnegut collected in A Man Without a Country  (2005). On January 2000 Vonnegut was hospitalized for smoke inhalation after a fire at his home. Vonnegut had tried to extinguish the flames with a blanket. The fire broke out on the top floor of his townhouse at East 48th Street where he reportedly had been watching the Super Bowl in his study. Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, in Manhattan, New York, after suffering irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall at his home.

For further reading: Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview, ed. by Tom McCartan (2011); Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields (2011); The Vonnegut Effect by Jerome Klinkowitz (2004); Like Shaking Hands with God, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Lee Stringer (1999); Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut by William Rodney Allen (1988); Kurt Vonnegut by J. Klinkowitz (1982); Kurt Vonnegut Jr. by Peter J. Reed (1972); Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice by David Goldsmith (1972); The Vonnegut Statement, ed. by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer (1973); Kurt Vonnegut Jr. by Stanley Schatt (1976); Kurt Vonnegut by James Lundqvist (1977); Kurt Vonnegut by Jerome Klinkovitz (1982) - See also The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (1993)

Selected works:

  • Player Piano, 1952
    - Sähköpiano (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1981)
  • The Sirens of Titan, 1959
    - Titanin seireenit (suom. Marjatta Kapari, 1979)
  • Mother Night, 1961
    - Äiti Yö (suom. Matti Santalahti, Marjatta Kapari, 1977)
    - film 1996, prod. Fine Line Features, dir.  Keith Gordon, screenplay by Robert B. Weide, starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin
  • Canary in a Cathouse, 1961
  • The Very First Christmas Morning, 1962 (play; in Better Homes and Gardens)
  • Cat's Cradle, 1963
    - Kissan kehto (suom. Marjatta Kapari, 1975)
  • Welcome to the Monkey House, 1968
    - films: Harrison Bergeron, 2006, prod. "Speak-It!" Pictures, dir.  Patrick Horne, starring Richard Kindler, Lindsey Stout, Ken Kobus, Rance Howard; Harrison Bergeron, TV film 1995, dir. by Bruce Pittman, starring Sean Astin, Miranda de Pencier, Eugene Levy, Howie Mandel, Andrea Martin, Christopher Plummer; TV series 1991, prod. Crescent Entertainment, featuring Susan Brady, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, David Hurwitz, Madeline Kahn, Frank Langella, David Lereaney, David Lereaney
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1965
    - Jumala teitä siunatkoon, herra Rosewater (suom. Marjatta Kapari, 1972)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, 1969
    - Teurastamo 5 eli Lasten ristiretki (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1970)
    - film 1972, dir.  George Roy Hill, screenplay by Stephen Geller, starring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Sharon Gans, Valrie Perrine.  "Scenes in present and future have a surreal quality; those in Dresden are astonishingly believable, and terrifying. The scene in which Billy's fatherly friend Derby (Eugene Roche) is killed is one of the most jarring sequences in cinema history, one that leaves your stomach queasy." (Danny Peary in Guide For the Film Fanatic, 1986)
  • Happy Birthday, Wanda June, 1971
    - film 1971, prod. Red Lion, dir.  Mark Robson, starring Rod Steiger, Susannah York, George Grizzard, Don Murray, William Hickey, Steven Paul
  • Between Time and Timbuktu, 1972
    - film 1972, prod. NET, dir.  Fred Barzyk, starring 'Cousin Brucie' Morrow, Dortha Duckworth, William Hickey, Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott
  • Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday!, 1973
    - film 1999, prod. Flying Heart Films, Hollywood Pictures, Rain Citywritten and directed by Robert Rudolph, starring Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte, Barbara Hershey, Albert Finney
    - Mestarien aamiainen eli Hyvästi masentava maanantai (suom. Marjatta Kapari, 1974)
  • Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, 1974
  • Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, 1976
    - Hui hai eli jäähyväiset yksinäisyydelle (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1978)
    - film 1982, written and directed by Steven Paul, starring Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, John Abbott, Jim Backus, Samuel Fuller, Merv Griffin 
  • Jailbird, 1979
    - Piruparka (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1980)
  • Sun Moon Star, 1980 (with I. Chermayeff)
  • Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, 1981
  • Deadeye Dick, 1982
    - Kalmasilmä (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1983)
  • Nothing Is Lost Save Honor: Two Essays, 1984
  • Galápagos: A Novel, 1985
    - Galápagos (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1986)
  • Requiem, 1987 (with music by Edgar David Grana)
  • Bluebeard, 1987
    - Siniparta (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1988)
    - film adaptation in 2009, prod. Roos Film, director: J.J. Harting; screenplay: J.J. Harting, Hernán Rodríguez Matte
  • Who Am I This Time?, 1987 (illustrated by Michael McCurdy; first published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1961)
    - TV film 1982, prod. Rubicon Film Productions Ltd., dir.  Jonathan Demme, starring Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Robert Ridgely, Dorothy Patterson
  • Hocus Pocus, or What's the Hurry, Sam?, 1990
    - Hokkus pokkus eli minne hoppu (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1990)
  • Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage, 1991
    - Kuolemaa tylympiä kohtaloita (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1993)
  • The Lie, 1992 (play, based upon Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, adapted by Vaughn McBride)
  • Make Up Your Mind, 1993 (play)
  • Timequake, 1998
    - Ajanjäristys (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1998)
  • Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, 1999
  • Like Shaking Hands With God, 1999 (with Lee Stringer)
  • God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, 2000
  • A Man Without a Country, 2005 (ed. Dan Simon)
    - Maaton mies (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 2007)
    - documentary film 2009, prod. Roos Film, dir. J.J. Harting, with Nanny Vonnegut, Mark Vonnegut, Steve Adams, Donald Farber, Ann Farber, Sidney Offit, Morley Safer, Lee Stringer, Howard Zinn
  • Armageddon in Retrospect, 2008
  • Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction, 2009
  • While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction, 2011 (foreword by David Eggers)
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, 2012 (edited by Dan Wakefield)

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