Reviewed: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut

Made in Dresden.

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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis