Vonnegut's Words: A Reading

Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical author of many novels and short stories, has died at age 84. Many of his novels were best sellers and include the darkly humorous works Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. Hear Vonnegut read from Slaughterhouse-Five.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We end today by remember Kurt Vonnegut. There's no way to put these kinds of things in numbers. We'll just say he was many people's favorite writer. During World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany when it was firebombed by Allied forces, an experience he wrote about two decades later in the novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." Here's Kurt Vonnegut reading an excerpt from that book, a section featuring his alter-ego, Billy Pilgrim, who has come unstuck in time.

Mr. KURT VONNEGUT (Author): Billy Pilgrim could not sleep on his daughter's wedding night. He was 44. The wedding had taken place that afternoon in a gaily striped tent in Billy's backyard. The stripes were orange and black. Billy padded downstairs on his blue and ivory feet. He went into the kitchen, where the moonlight called his attention to a half bottle of champagne on the kitchen table, all that was left from the reception in the tent. Somebody had stoppered it again.

Drink me, it seemed to say. So Billy uncorked it with his thumbs. It didn't make a pop. The champagne was dead. So it goes. Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into he living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television.

He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this.

American planes full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb-bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism, which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.

The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long, steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes, but there were still a few wounded Americans, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighter planes came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals.

Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids, and Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity without exception conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, Billy Pilgrim supposed.

Billy saw the movie backwards and forwards, and then it was time to go out into his backyard to meet the flying saucer. Out he went, his blue and ivory feet crushing the wet salad of the lawn. He stopped, took a swig of the dead champagne. It was like 7-Up. He would not raise his eyes to the sky, though he knew there was a flying saucer from Tralfamador up there. He would see it soon enough, inside and out, and he would see too where it came from soon enough, soon enough.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Kurt Vonnegut reading from his novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." He died last night at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

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Kurt Vonnegut and his wife in 2006

hide captionKurt 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.

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Vonnegut Videos

Kurt Vonnegut on 'The Infinite Mind'

hide captionIn 2006, Kurt Vonnegut appeared in the virtual world of Second Life on public radio's 'The Infinite Mind' with John Hockenberry.

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Kurt Vonnegut relaxes at a table with his wife, Jill Krementz, and daughter Lily, June 1987.

hide captionKurt Vonnegut relaxes at a table with his wife, Jill Krementz, and daughter Lily, June 1987.

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Vonnegut in Private

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.'"

Vonnegut's other novels include Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night and The Sirens of Titan. The author, who had homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons in New York, adopted his sister's three young children after she died. He also had three children of his own with his first wife, Ann Cox, and later adopted a daughter, Lily, with his second wife, the noted photographer Jill Krementz.

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