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

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.