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

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge