Author Kurt Vonnegut dies aged 84 PRINT FRIENDLY EMAIL STORY
PM - Thursday, 12 April , 2007 18:31:38
Reporter: Jennifer Macey
MARK COLVIN: In Slaughterhouse-Five, a book some people see as science fiction, others as a war novel, but many regard as a masterpiece, when anyone dies, which happens often, the narrator utters three words: "So it goes".
The author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, died today at the age of 84. So it goes.
Slaughterhouse-Five revolved around a real event in Kurt Vonnegut's own life - the Allies' World War II fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden, where he was being held as a prisoner of war. The absurdity of a war in which he'd been bombed by his own side, and seen the conflagration of one of Europe's most beautiful cities, seared itself into his imagination.
The New York Times called him "an indescribable writer whose books are like nothing else on earth
". Jennifer Macey looks back at the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut.
JENNIFER MACEY: Kurt Vonnegut did not expect to live to the ripe old age of 84.
He survived the bombing of Dresden in Germany towards the end of World War II, survived chain-smoking 90 cigarettes a day and survived a suicide attempt in the 1980s.
KURT VONNEGUT: I'm embarrassed to have lived this long. It's in terrible taste (laughs). You know I had a fire several years ago, and it would have been so shapely if I'd died in the fire. But here I am, and of course I'm suing the cigarette company because on the package they promised to kill me, and here I am.
JENNIFER MACEY: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis - a mid-western US city in 1922 - the youngest of three children. His father was an architect and unemployed during the Depression. His mother, Edith, suffered from a mental illness and later killed herself - a loss which haunted her son for the rest of his life.
During World War II he enlisted in the army. At 19 he was taken prisoner of war in Dresden, a German city which historians agree had no real reason to be a military target. From the cellar of an abattoir Vonnegut witnessed the Allied fire-bombing of the city which became the basis for his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Part war novel, part science fiction, and dotted with jokes, Slaughterhouse-Five became standard reading for university students in the '60s and '70s.
Slaughterhouse-Five EXCERPT (read by actor): American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine gun bullets but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes. The idea was to hasten the end of the war.
JENNIFER MACEY: His experiences during World War II shaped much of his later writing, as he explains in a recent interview with the BBC.
KURT VONNEGUT: I wouldn't have anything to write about otherwise. And so I'm very grateful, yes.
No, Joe Heller was a friend of mine, author of Catch-22, now regrettably dead. And he said if it weren't for World War II, he'd be in the dry cleaning business, and I think he really would have been, and I think I would have been garden editor of the Indianapolis Stock.
JENNIFER MACEY: Kurt Vonnegut wrote 14 novels, creating absurd universes where the narrative flipped back and forth through time and genres. He invented aliens shaped like toilet plungers, and religions like the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.
His latest book, published two years, is a collection of biographical essays called A Man without a Country.
In it, he described the Bush administration as psychopaths as well as idiots.
KURT VONNEGUT: I've certainly drawn energy from my contempt (laughs) for our President, yes, and spoken rather rudely of him, as he is not a very smart person, and in high school we all recognised him as not being terribly bright.
And on PBS, I did say one very rude thing about him. I said George W. Bush is so dumb it wouldn't surprise me if he thought Peter Pan was a washbasin in a house of ill repute (laughs).
If that be treason, make the most of it.
JENNIFER MACEY: Australian author Bob Ellis has borrowed Kurt Vonnegut's phrase "so it goes" in his own writing.
He describes Vonnegut as a prophet - a combination of Al Gore and Groucho Marx.
BOB ELLIS: He up-ended things, he showed us how fragile the earth was, and he was up there. He had a lyric gift like a WH Auden or the advertising man that he used to be. His books are more like a series of haikus, added up to a kind of symphony.
He was terrifically quotable. Very lovable, very funny, very wise.
JENNIFER MACEY: His final book was also a best seller. But it's probably the earlier novels that will continue to give Vonnegut his place in the American literary pantheon.
His last book ended on a poem.
POEM EXCERPT (read by actor) When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if earth could say in a voice floating up, perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, it is done, people did not like it here.
MARK COLVIN: The words of Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote a few years ago: "I've had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around and don't let anybody tell you any different."
Jennifer Macey was the reporter.