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Novelist Vonnegut Remembered for His Black Humor

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Novelist Vonnegut Remembered for His Black Humor


Novelist Vonnegut Remembered for His Black Humor

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Also this morning, we're remembering an idol of millions of American readers.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., died yesterday, weeks after suffering a fall. He leaves behind many novels, including one that grew out of his memories of war.


As a private in World War II, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden. From there, he stepped out into the hellish, surreal landscape that Dresden became after it was firebombed. It took Vonnegut 25 years to turn that experience into a novel called "Slaughterhouse-Five."

Mr. KURT VONNEGUT (Novelist): You can't remember pure nonsense. It was pure nonsense, the pointless destruction of that city. And well, I just couldn't get it right as I kept writing crap, as they say.

MONTAGNE: "Slaughterhouse-Five," filled with the blackest of black humor, was finally published in 1969 and became an instant bestseller. When I spoke to him in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut said he saw the publication of "Slaughterhouse-Five" as a kind of liberation.

Mr. VONNEGUT: I think it not only freed me, I think it freed writers because the Vietnam War made our leadership, 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.

INSKEEP: That novel began with the words: Listen, Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. An American flips back and forth between the war and his later middle-class life, and his eventual abduction by aliens. Vonnegut approached the darkest subjects with humor, which was also the way he described his own life. He was a long-time smoker who once explained that habit by calling it a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.

In Vonnegut's case, it never quite took. He lived to the age of 84 and died from complications from a fall. His last book was a collection of essays called "A Man Without a Country," and in it, he suggested a way that music helped him through tragic times. He explained that on NPR in 2005.

Mr. VONNEGUT: Why this is so, I don't know. And 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. It's still the case now.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: In that final book before his death, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote: If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph - the only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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