Reviewed: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut

Made in Dresden.

Letters
Kurt Vonnegut (edited by Dan Wakefield)
Vintage Classics, 464pp, £25

In 1977, the Paris Review published an interview with Kurt Vonnegut. “Not many writers talk about the mechanics of stories,” the interviewer observes. Vonnegut replies: “I am such a barbarous technocrat that I believe they can be tinkered with like Model T Fords.” Vonnegut’s great obsession was the practical business of storytelling. This new edition of his letters emphasises, for better and for worse, his long-standing interest in how stories come to be composed and then how they are published.

The first letter in this book was written by Vonnegut, then still a soldier, at the end of the Second World War. It is addressed to his family and narrates the central event of both his war and his subsequent writing life. “I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944,” he writes. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, he was transported by train with other American soldiers across Germany to a work camp in Dresden. The prisoners were kept in an underground meat locker called “Slaughterhouse Five” and here they were protected from the massive Allied bombing raids on the city in February 1945.

Vonnegut’s life circled around this point of origin. In 1989, he writes to one of his fellow former prisoners: “Maybe my fundamental home is in Dresden, since that is where my great adventure took place.” The experience gave him the title and subject of his best-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969.

It also taught him something grave and simple: that life is full of events so appalling that at times they feel ironic. In that first letter, he is already developing the distinctive stylistic habit of his fiction. The Allied bombers “killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden”, he writes: “But not me.” Those three words are the world-weary shrug of an overly wise teen - ager, undercutting any apparent seriousness. As in the repeated refrain in Slaughterhouse- Five: “So it goes.”

Vonnegut is loved and celebrated because in the face of the darkest moments of human history he sounds attractively adolescent: he manages to capture the delicate balance of innocence and experience that marks that time of life. This is why teenagers love his novels. It is fascinating, therefore, to find in this volume an acid note to the editor of Newsweek magazine, which in late 1975 published a review noting that Vonnegut often satirised targets “that teenagers are conditioned to dislike”. Vonnegut writes: “I have never written with teenagers in mind, nor are teenagers the chief readers of my books. I am the first SF [science-fiction] writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters . . . Newsweek should not be a liar.”             

The letters may reveal the origins of Vonnegut’s stories but they also reveal that he was a terrible grouch and skinflint. He writes to his publishers, refusing to do publicity for free; he repeatedly asks editors for more money; when a librarian in his home state of Indiana writes, explaining that the library budget has been cut and asking if he would send a copy of his new novel, he replies with maximum condescension: “I assume that Indiana is also asking donations from suppliers of asphalt for her roads.” There are startlingly cruel letters to his children, particularly his second daughter, Nanette (“You have totally wrecked me with your absent-minded, dumb-Dora promises to come see me”).

The dust jacket of this volume describes the selection of letters as “the autobiography Kurt Vonnegut never wrote”. This is a bizarre claim for two reasons. First, Vonnegut’s fiction is heavily autobiographical and he wrote one book, Timequake, which is mostly a memoir. Second, it is filled with the kind of detail that a decent autobiography would eschew. The editor, Dan Wakefield, is clearly a devoted admirer of Vonnegut and he shares his hero’s obsession with the minutiae of his writing career. There are too many letters to Vonnegut’s editors here, some of them little more than covering letters (“Dear Sam, here is my Harper’s piece . . .”). Vonnegut considers changing agents and then decides not to; he writes to his publishers with suggestions for the dust jackets and ideas about the type of paper novels should be printed on. There is a tremendous amount of this type of material: “I am off to a book festival in Chicago on Friday.” He wonders why he has not won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The letters of great writers may be divided into two categories: letters as poetry or letters as plot. That is, they may – as in the case of John Keats or Virginia Woolf – be valuable for their style and their angle upon the world and for giving us more of a writer we love. Or they may be worthwhile for usefully filling in parts of the biography, for their information about the plot of a life. This collection of Vonnegut’s letters falls troublingly into the second category, which is a double shame, for what they show of the man is often unattractive and what is valuable is the very rare flashes of the humour and insight that made him famous in the first place. As in his novels, there are jokes and phrases here well worth keeping. The letters to school headmasters who have burned copies of his books on the grounds that they were “obscene” are triumphs of righteous liberal indignation and still sound urgent today.

Perhaps some things should be hidden; perhaps the bitter-sweet teenage shrug is how we would better remember Vonnegut. This would be a gem of a collection at a quarter of the length and maybe that is exactly the kind of tinkering with his life story that he would have encouraged. As he writes in one of the letters collected here: “I have met a lot of writers by now, and they all carry 20 acres of Sahara Desert with them wherever they go.”

Daniel Swift is the author of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: the Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age” (Oxford University Press, £18.99)

Mechanic of fiction: Kurt Vonnegut in 1988. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt