In­de­cent so­ci­ety, de­cent be­hav­iour

Kurt Von­negut: Let­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Pre­ston

IN the early 1950s Kurt Von­negut be­came the man­ager of a Saab deal­er­ship in Cape Cod, a job that of­ten in­volved him tak­ing prospec­tive clients out on test drives. Keen to demon­strate the Saab’s front-wheel drive, Von­negut would take cor­ners at a tremen­dous lick, leav­ing his of­ten el­derly pas­sen­gers sickly and green af­ter­wards.

Von­negut’s early writ­ings left sev­eral edi­tors feel­ing pretty sickly and green too. As the re­jec­tion slips piled up, he cast around des­per­ately for some al­ter­na­tive source of in­come. He tried to flog a board game he’d in­vented, as well as a bow tie made from rib­bon the Atomic En­ergy Com­mis­sion used to cor­don off highly ra­dioac­tive ar­eas, which he was con­vinced would prove a big hit.

He also had a try-out at Sports Il­lus­trated mag­a­zine. Told to write an ar­ti­cle about a race­horse that had bolted be­fore the start­ing gun had gone off, Von­negut stared at a blank piece of pa­per for an hour, then wrote, ‘‘ The horse jumped over the f . . king fence, then went home.’’

The defin­ing event in his life had hap­pened in 1945 when he spent 24 hours in an un­der­ground meat locker in Dres­den as the city above was flat­tened by Al­lied bomb­ing — he later won a Pur­ple Heart for his war ser­vice. In one of his ear­li­est let­ters here, Von­negut writes about the ex­pe­ri­ence in dry, Hem­ing­way-ish tones: ‘‘ The RAF’s com­bined labour killed 250,000 peo­ple in 24 hours — But not me.’’

Twenty years on, he turned his time in Dres­den into Slaugh­ter­house-Five, and all at once he never had to sell Saabs or in­vent mad bow ties again. The book be­came a tremen­dous hit across the world — apart from in his home town of In­di­anapo­lis. Af­ter Von­negut Edited and with an in­tro­duc­tion By Dan Wake­field Vin­tage Classics, 436pp, $39.99 (HB) had done a sign­ing there in 1969, he wrote to a friend: ‘‘ I signed 13 books in two hours, ev­ery one of them to a rel­a­tive. Word of honor.’’

His let­ters lol­lop along in an ami­able, un­fet­tered, dis­jointed sort of way, shot through with sud­den vivid con­junc­tions — much like his nov­els. ‘‘ I stopped off to see your mother in Fort Worth,’’ he writes to his first wife, Jane. ‘‘ She’s in a smash­ing new hos­pi­tal with a woman who was struck by a tor­nado while asleep.’’

Of­ten — too of­ten — Von­negut’s books give the im­pres­sion he had only the most ten­u­ous hold on the nar­ra­tive. This, it turns out, is just how he felt. ‘‘ I wish to hell I knew what the book is re­ally about,’’ he writes of one of his later nov­els, Blue­beard. ‘‘ I should know by this time. My God — I’m on page 305.’’

Along the way, his first mar­riage breaks up. ‘‘ Some­times when I talk to her I feel like the Ambassador to New Zealand pre­sent­ing his cre­den­tials to the For­eign Min­is­ter of Uruguay. It’s for­mal and strange and not at all sexy. I can’t get it up for her any­more . . . We’ll fix it up.’’

They didn’t. Then his sec­ond mar­riage crashes and burns. And then, in early 2000, Von­negut him­self went up in smoke when an ash­tray over­turned and started a fire in his New York apart­ment. Hav­ing of­ten com­plained that the Pall Malls he smoked hadn’t lived up to their prom­ise on the packet to kill him, Von­negut was forced to ad­mit that this time they’d very nearly done so.

Suc­cess brought him some un­ex­pected ben­e­fits: ‘‘ Dear Ms Adams,’’ he writes to one cor­re­spon­dent, ‘‘ I was charmed and amused that you should want me to be a judge in the 1976 Miss USA Beauty Pageant.’’

It brought him un­ex­pected friend­ships too, in­clud­ing one with poet Allen Gins­berg. The two men met at a din­ner and got on so well they ended up hold­ing hands for the rest of the evening.

What it didn’t bring him was hap­pi­ness. Von­negut, who once de­scribed him­self as a monopo­lar de­pres­sive de­scended from monopo­lar de­pres­sives — his mother had com­mit­ted sui­cide when he was 22 — was dogged through­out his life by de­pres­sion and self­doubt. As he grew older, the self-doubt steadily deep­ened. In his late 70s, he likened his writ­ing to the fi­nal stages of a chess game, with very few op­por­tu­ni­ties or pieces left on the board.

This col­lec­tion of let­ters has been crisply edited by Dan Wake­field, who also con­trib­utes an un­usu­ally gluti­nous in­tro­duc­tion. In essence, this puts Von­negut for­ward as a prime can­di­date for canon­i­sa­tion. ‘‘ For the record let me say of Kurt Von­negut, he’s up in heaven now,’’ Wake­field writes in con­clu­sion, which may leave read­ers pin­ing for the sick-bag.

Yet there was some­thing fun­da­men­tally

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