Thursday, 12 April 2007

Kurt Vonnegut R.I.P.

When it comes to authors, there were probably very few as popular, as critically acclaimed, or as influential as Kurt Vonnegut. He was perhaps best known for the novels Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Player Piano. Some of his books, such as Slaughterhouse Five and Slapstick (of Another Kind), were adapted into motion pictures. Vonnegut also wrote for television, including teleplays for General Electric Theater and Bus Stop. He was also a gifted essayist. Arguably, very few writers had the influence that Vonnegut did.

Sadly, Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at the age of 84, having suffered injuries to his brain from a fall several weeks before.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 11, 1922. He had been a writer nearly since childhood. In high school he worked on the school newspaper, the Daily Echo at Shortridge High. He attended Butler University in Indianapolis, but left after a disagreement with a professor over the quality of his writing. He then attended Cornell University where he both assistant managing editor and associate editor for the college newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Vonnegut dropped out of Cornell, then enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He was only there briefly before enlisting in U. S. Army. Sadly, his mother took her own life before he left for the service.

In the Army Kurt Vonnegut was an advance scout with the 106th Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge Vonnegut was cut off from from his unit and was eventually captured by the Germans. He was held as a prisoner of war in Dresden and witnessed the Allied bombing of that city. He was only one of eight prisoners to survive the bombing, in an underground meatpacking cellar called Slaughterhouse-Five.

Following World War II Kurt Vonnegut enrolled at the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he also worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau there. He would later work in the public relations department for General Electric. He sold his first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," to Colliers in 1950. His first novel was Player Piano, published in 1952. He wrote many short stories before the publication of his second book, The Sirens of Titan. After the publication of Mother Night in 1961, Vonnegut finally hit the best seller list with Cat's Cradle. His most popular work, Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969. The novel became a bestseller and would later be adapted into the 1972 movie of the same name.

Many of Kurt Vonnegut's works were adapted to motion pictures, including the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June and the novels Slaughterhouse-Five, Slapstick (of Another Kind), Mother Night, and Breakfast of Champions. He also wrote for television, including episodes of General Electric Theater, Bus Stop and the TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu.

It was not unusual for characters from one of Kurt Vonnegut's books to appear in his other works. This is particularly true of Kilgore Trout, a fictional science fiction writer based on fantasist Theodore Sturgeon. He first appeared in the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and appeared in the books Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Jailbird, Timequake, and Hocus Pocus. Trout appears to have been prolific and several of his works are mentioned in Vonnegut's novels. Indeed, one novel was published under the name,"Kilgore Trout"--Philip Jose Farmer wrote the novel Venus on the Half Shell under that name. Other characters to have appeared multiple times in Vonnegut's works, including Howard W. Campbell and Eliot Rosewater.

Kurt Vonnegut was a satirist, cynic, and iconoclast whose work largely focused on the dehumanisation of various institutions. It was not unusual for his works to create considerable controversy. His realistic recreation of how soldiers speak and explicit sexual content resulted in Slaughterhouse-Five being banned in various places. Cat's Cradle has also faced its share of attempts at censorship.

Following the publication of his novel Timequake Kurt Vonnegut announced his retirement from writing. He continued writing nonfiction and was also senior editor at the magazine In These Times. Several collections of his essays have been published.

Arguably, Kurt Vonnegut was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His works showed insight into human nature, as well as a keen distrust of institutions. He was perhaps the foremost satirist of the 20th century, possessing a sharp sense of humour and considerable wit. Regardless of whether one loves his works or hates them, Vonnegut will be remembered for a long time to come.


themarina said...

I was floored when I saw a bit of a tribute on William Gibson's blog. For a minute, I was confused that I'd missed something and the sadness really kicked in a few hours later. This is the first time I've ever been really moved by the death of a "celebrity", if you could call him that.


d. chedwick bryant said...

I have to say I love his novels, and Player Piano was one of my favorites. I liked the way characters from one book (Like Mother Night for example) would appear as background characters in another--just as Edward Eager did in his children's books-- so I was tickled to find that happening-- it made re-reading the books more fun too.