Thursday, April 12, 2007


Obituary: Kurt Vonnegut
During a career lasting more than 50 years, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the classic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, detailing his experiences of the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Vonnegut had enlisted in the armed services a year after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

Captured by German troops in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut spent the rest of the war imprisoned in a Dresden slaughterhouse.

On the night of 13 February 1945, Allied bombing raids flattened the city, creating a firestorm that killed an estimated 35,000 citizens in two hours.

Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were saved by their incarceration in a cold meat locker three storeys beneath ground.

When they ventured out, nothing was left of the city, and their grim task in the aftermath was to uncover the rotting corpses.

Banned for obscenity

Vonnegut referred to his experiences of Dresden in several of his later novels, most notably Slaughterhouse Five in 1967.

Science fiction writers are the only ones who care about the future
Kurt Vonnegut
Its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, copes with the trauma of a similar experience by travelling to the planet Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants see all time existing simultaneously.

Published at the height of the Vietnam War, and embraced by the anti-war movement, the book was excluded from some schools and public libraries on obscenity grounds.

"Loaded with vulgarity"

During a series of post-war jobs that included working as a police reporter and a public relations official for General Electric, Vonnegut supplemented his income by publishing short stories.

His mother had committed suicide on Mother's Day 1944. She had been trying to make a living through writing magazine articles, and had become increasingly depressed as her hopes were dashed.

Vonnegut always said that she lacked the vulgarity needed for such writing, whereas he was "loaded with it".

Lost compulsion to write

By 1966, Vonnegut had published more than 50 stories, and had quit the "dishonest" public relations work to write full time. His first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952.

Although it attracted little critical praise, Vonnegut had already sounded the ironical and compassionate tone that appeared in much of his work, including The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night and the critically-acclaimed Cat's Cradle.

Vonnegut's self-confessed mood of "high hopes for the planet", experienced at the dawning of the post-war period, was seen to waver in his later work, including Slapstick in 1976 and Jailbird in 1979.

There was less humour in his later novels and plays, and Vonnegut attempted suicide during a particularly bleak period in the mid-80s.

Although he was writing until his death, he undoubtedly felt his best work had been completed years earlier. Following the publication of Slaughterhouse Five, he had admitted to losing the compulsion to write.

He likened himself to a flower, which having finished blooming, "has some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served".

He did come out of semi-retirement to write the short story collection A Man Without a Country in 2006, saying that he had "drawn energy from my contempt for our president".

Vonnegut said he was often surprised to have lived for so long, having been a heavy smoker.

He once joked: "I'm suing a cigarette company because on the package they promised to kill me, and yet here I am."


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