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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who tells the rest of the world about Britain

If any silly kids’ show can say something about the country's changing view of itself, it’s this one. 

Over the past 54 years, the hero of the TV series Doctor Who has been to the end of the universe, where the stars are going out and civilisation is all but dead. He has seen the Earth die in a ball of flame, and he has been propositioned by Kylie Minogue while standing on the deck of a starship called Titanic.

But next year, he will go somewhere he has never been before: the ladies loo. This Christmas, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor will die and regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, a 35-year-old whose most high-profile role to date was as the mother of a murdered child in the ITV crime drama Broadchurch.

On Sunday 16 July, both social media and the old-fashioned kind were flooded with discussion about the Doctor’s new gender. Inevitably many non-fans were also abroad, demanding to know why anyone should care about the casting in a silly kids’ show. The obvious answer is that, after half a century, this show means a great deal to some of us. But there’s a more practical reason why the decision matters, too: Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most valuable brands.

The original version of the show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, may have been known for its wobbly sets and aliens made of painted bubble wrap. Since Russell T Davies brought the programme back in 2005, however, it has picked up a global following. In the past few years, it has finally broken America; in 2014, the cast and crew went on a publicity tour, including stops in Australia, South Korea and Brazil. In Mexico, the show is broadcast under the frankly superior name of Doctor Mysterio. All this means that Doctor Who is an opportunity to present a view of Britishness that isn’t based on imperial history, or class politics, or cricket, or cake.

Because of the flexibility of the programme’s format, if any silly kids’ show can say something about Britain’s changing view of itself, it’s this one. And what it has just said is that it’s time men stopped dominating everything.

Regeneration – the process by which one Doctor dies and the next is born, enabling the show to recast its lead – seems so baked into the Doctor Who formula now that it’s strange to think that it wasn’t there all along. Yet, for his three years in the role, William Hartnell was never the first Doctor: he was simply the Doctor.

Hartnell played the character as irascible, patrician and grandfatherly (literally, in the case of his first companion, Susan). He was also imbued with a certain imperial self-confidence. In one early episode, he hit a Frenchman round the head with a spade.

In 1966, however, a new producer decided to recast the role. The standard narrative is that Hartnell was too ill to continue; more likely, since he was both expensive and difficult to work with, he was pushed out. The replacement, Patrick Troughton, made no attempt to impersonate Hartnell. Instead, he played the Doctor as an entirely new man, less grumpy and more funny.

Over the following decades, each new Doctor added something to the character. Jon Pertwee brought action, Tom Baker bohemian silliness, Peter Davison youth. Colin Baker brought a hint of menace and almost got the show cancelled. Sylvester McCoy brought a sense of mystery. In the half-American-funded 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann became the first Doctor – and this seemed quaintly shocking at the time – to kiss a girl.

Most of these men were either great character actors (Hartnell, Troughton, Davison) or flamboyant showmen (Pertwee, Tom Baker). While the show was off the air, though, stories speculating about its return generally attached names from the latter category, such as – and here are two men you rarely find mentioned together – Alan Davies or David Hasselhoff.

It was a statement of intent, then, when Russell T Davies cast Christopher Eccleston as his Time Lord: the show may seem silly but we’re taking it seriously. Since then, playing the Doctor catapulted both David Tennant and Matt Smith to fame and work in Hollywood. In 2013, when we met a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, it wasn’t a guest turn for a comedian but the last major role for the late John Hurt.

So what does the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor say? For one thing, it marks her out as one of the great actors of her generation, capable of comedy and tragedy and delivering convincing technobabble, often in a single line. Perhaps it also suggests that the new lead writer, Chris Chibnall, feels under pressure to shake things up a bit.

But it also says something about how our heroes should look. The box-office and critical success of Wonder Woman has highlighted both the huge appetite for female leads and the shocking lack of them. As a result of Whittaker’s casting, for the first time in Doctor Who, a woman will play the lead, not just his (or her!) companion.

Both Capaldi and Tennant were fans of the programme before they were its star; both became actors in part because they wanted to play the Doctor. It’s a lovely idea that, somewhere out there right now, there’s a little girl who might do the same. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

0800 7318496