Friday Follow-Up

1. Kurt Vonnegut got a nice sendoff this week, and Maud Newton’s memorial page is probably the one I’ll remember best.

As far as anti-tributes go, I can’t say I’m impressed by Peter Stothard’s The Bad About Vonnegut, which ran in the London Times Online (via Frank). Stothard collects a bunch of one-word insults from various Vonnegut book reviews that ran in the London Times over the decades. What’s the big deal? The guy had a four-decade career, some critics didn’t like him, and some others did. Stothard then dwells on the fact that Slaughterhouse-Five referenced a 1963 history book called The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving, who later turned out to be an infamous Nazi sympathizer. This is another soppy attack, since David Irving did not reveal his pro-fascist agenda until several years after Slaughterhouse-Five was published. Kurt Vonnegut has nothing to apologize for, and Peter Stothard’s article is unworthy of its subject.

2. I’m also not impressed by Mik Awake’s New York Inquirer article about how lame fiction readings are (via Saloon). The author tells us that “reading is a solitary act” (not that old chestnut again), and that:

All literary readings, of course, aren’t worthless or financial failures. Quite the contrary, the good ones are exactly the ones that are more like parties than like readings.

I couldn’t disagree more. The good readings are the ones that are like poetry slams — casual, spontaneous, music-filled and happily impolite. I agree that there’s no point in sitting in a folding chair while a meek first-novelist stutters into a mic, but rather than giving up on readings and hunting down chic parties instead, Mik Awake ought to try dropping by the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City any night of the week around midnight. It’s a whole different world.

3. More about King Lear: the Sundance cable channel is running an appealing series called Slings and Arrows about life inside a hip Shakespeare repertory company in Canada. The fictional company is currently putting on a production of King Lear starring a cranky old actor who’s dying of cancer and driving everybody else in the cast crazy (as any King Lear should).

4. Oh, fine. We’ll link to the Wordsworth Gangsta Squirrel too. But we’ve got better stuff about the Lake Poets here and here.

7 Responses

  1. Vonnegut and German stuffI
    Vonnegut and German stuff

    I went through a Vonnegut period which was after reading Kerouac and Joyce and the like. I’d never taken him seriously as his books were everywhere when I was growing up and this ubiquity made them seem as if they’d be like any other potboiler best seller front and center at B. Dalton written not to create art but to create product.

    But, when I finally got down to reading him I plowed through them and enjoyed them a lot — except Cat’s Cradle I really didn’t like. I liked even Vonnegut’s essays where, as I recall, he took umbrage at Ginsberg’s line in Howl “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” where Vonnegut said, matter of factly, that the best minds weren’t writing beatnik poetry but were in Physics labs and Biochemistry labs. Being a biochemistry grad student at the time I quite enjoyed that little observation by our boy Kurt.

    One of the books I liked a lot was Mother Night where the protagonist was a Nazi traitor to the US but the moral was that being a Nazi didn’t much matter because he was so in love with his wife and that was the entire world and all the other stuff didn’t matter. So romantic, eh? This was a same character in Slaughterhouse-5 and at the end of Mother Night Vonnegut redeems him kind of by putting in some part that he was really a spy for the Allies.

    Still the message stood. And, as I recall, Vonnegut, the Northern midwesterner, talked a bit about the Bundt and Germans that are very populous in that region of the US. After a long many years now, I don’t think I could read a Vonnegut book. I think it’d be silly and puerile seeming. One needs to really agree with his certain misanthropic feeling sorry for yourself victimhood type of social-political view that is so common and popular. He preaches to the choir rather than creates art. Maybe not always or 100%, but my initial impression was probably more correct than wrong.

    And, I think, that, well, the german-sympathizer tag may apply a bit. I think it may very well be fair.

    As a last note, I remember reading God Bless You Mr Rosewater and thinking that it was his best book. But for the life of me today I can’t remember anything from it except that the main character liked fire trucks.

    Vonnegut wrote about Kerouac as a washed up sham of a looser bum and described him at their dinner together at Vonnegut’s house as being drunk and in his own little world.

    And Philip Jose Farmer wrote the best Vonnegut book ever written — who’d a thunk it.

  2. Very interesting, TKG —
    Very interesting, TKG — thanks for your comments.

    I often wonder exactly how Kurt Vonnegut’s famously sardonic political philosophy translates into practicality, especially in light of Stothard’s strange charge of association with Nazi sympathizers. Vonnegut is clearly a pacifist, but if we take at face value his statement that “being anti-war is like being anti-glacier” (which was quoted in a response to the previous LitKicks post about KV), we have to wonder if his pacifism can be equated to fatalism in the face of oppressive or murderous regimes. It’s also worth noting here that in the years before USA’s entry into World War II, “pacifist” was similar to “isolationist”, and the American pacifists were the ones who argued against going to war against Hitler. All of which is to say, there certainly is reason to contemplate exactly what the German-American Kurt Vonnegut thought about America’s entry into the war against Germany.

    But, that doesn’t mean there’s a good reason to smear Vonnegut due to a tangential association with David Irving. I think Peter Stothard’s article presents a flimsy argument, and it’s a shame that the Times chose to publish it.

    Myself, I share Vonnegut’s disgust with the culture of war, but I do *not* agree that “being anti-war is like being anti-glacier”. It’s a funny quip, but it’s a harmful falsehood. People *do* have the power to make a difference in the way the world solves its problems. Whether Kurt Vonnegut really believes war to be a necessary force of nature or not, I don’t know.

  3. I think this problem
    I think this problem inevitably crops up with any die-hard cynic. Especially a cynic with some sort of moral conviction. He despises the very creatures he so passiontely seeks to defend and preserve: namely, humans. I think Vonnegut had good reason to be both cynical and protective of humanity. And I think that protectiveness, in some way, branches out from his cynicism, his belief that mankind was lost, adrift, hapless, fool-hardy, and malicious. He sought to protect humanity from itself, since, well, we need it. It has a touch of elitism to it, but it also has a touch of real tenderness. There is good reason to be sentimental about the human spirit, since it does after all, contain the potential for love, selflessness, and creativity. But there’s also good reason to be cynical about it, since those attributes are so rarely exemplified in human behavior. Because of that, I find Vonnegut’s simultaneous cynicism and humanism to be startlingly consistent and sober-minded, despite its veneer of contradiction.

  4. “I find Vonnegut’s
    “I find Vonnegut’s simultaneous cynicism and humanism to be startlingly consistent and sober-minded, despite its veneer of contradiction.”

    I think that says it! Also look at some surreal Vonnegut facts:

    — He was Geraldo Rivera’s (ex) father-in-law.

    — The Grateful Dead named their music publish company Ice Nine

    — He was a literary figure that somehow became enmeshed with popular culture …

  5. Doc, he also holds the
    Doc, he also holds the dubious distinction of having had numerous books made into uniformly terrible films. There has never been a good film of a Vonnegut book, but look how many have tried: Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House (a short-story collage starring folks like Susan Sarandon), Slapstick, Mother Night …

  6. I don’t get it (as usual).
    I don’t get it (as usual). All observers of humanity have loved/hated what they observed; from God of the Old Testament, to Nietzsche, to me. If that’s elitist/cynical, I’m with God. Eg, never thought US would ever war again; then we got Bushwacked. And so Vonnegut/Nietzsche were right, even if they didn’t want to be.

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