The first time I read a book by Kurt Vonnegut was whilst I was in Dresden, and that novel was Slaughterhouse Five (1969), a book concerning the bombing (or rather, total annihilation) of that same city during the second world war. I must admit that at the time it failed to make much of an impression, I fear my mind may have been elsewhere at the time. As the novel is fond of repeating: so it goes.
At some point, some years later I came back to Vonnegut, reading, over the course of several years, many of his other novels, each of which I enjoyed thoroughly, but never really thought too much about.
But recently, after buying and reading Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night (1961), I came to understand, or at least feel like I understand, his work somewhat better.
Mother Night is the fictional memoirs of Harold W. Campbell Jr., an American who moved to Germany with his family as a child, and grew up to be a writer and play-write in Nazi Germany. Recruited both by the Nazis and as a US spy, his memoirs question notions of ethics, belief, and the roles of public and personal personae. One memorable phrase comes to mind: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” This moral that runs throughout the narrative, that all we are is pretence, and the world is only pretence, seemed to me to reveal more about Vonnegut’s work than anything else I had previously read of his. And spurred me on to read (and reread) more.
What I admire most about Vonnegut is his ability to take very complex issues and convey them with a style that is utterly simple. Often his prose seems almost throwaway in its childlike openness, but it does not take long to make the connections, and realise the graver points he wishes to get across, particularly about the arbitrariness of the world, and of the systems that operate within it, as well as his notion of man being merely a machine, and the absence, in reality, of free will. As he might have said: so it goes.
In Slaughterhouse Five, the central character, Billy Pilgrim, is kidnapped by an alien race, the Tralfamadorians, who experience reality in four dimensions, therefore experiencing all moments of time simultaneously, instead of sequentially as do mankind. They teach Billy that everything has already happened, and therefore there is no such thing as free will, as everything has been predetermined, is already happening at all times at once. Billy, who travels back and forth throughout his own life, accepts this version of reality, since he has already experienced his own future. The idea that everything that happens is “mean’t to be” or has already happened negates the use of free will, and rendering everything inevitable. Even events like the massacre of the 135,000 inhabitants of Dresden.
In such instances reading Vonnegut can be bleak, but the style of his prose is so full of dark humour, so simple and light, that reading his novels does not feel like an exercise in pessimism. His characters repeatedly fail, are laughable or mad. But what he offers us a different way of viewing the world, an alternative to the American Dream, in which the world will do what it wants with us, but that’s also absolutely fine. His work betrays a certain fatalism, yes, but it is one in which despite the lows, and the awful events that occur, life still goes on, birds still sing, and “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
I have just now ordered Hocus Pocus. The Vonnegut marathon continues.