The author of Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death flirts with genre and style with Houdini's grace, what with beginning his writing career in the realm of science fiction, moving over to the Salinger-Lee domain of coming-of-age novels, and then floating back into the make-believe world of futuristic science. The only common thread linking all of his versatility is perhaps the subtle yet firm humanitarian voice that comes across each time one flips through Vonnegut's works. That and the mantle he carries to protect the innocence of youth, is what distinguishes him from the other writers of his time.
Born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Kurt Vonnegut studied at Cornell University and then trained as a chemist. After a brief stint as a journalist, he volunteered for the American army in 1943 after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Sent to Europe as an advance scout during the Second World War, his military career was short lived, and he was captured during the Battle of The Bulge. Serving as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, Vonnegut was a witness to the bombing of Dresden. This incident, which led to 1,35,000 deaths, left a deep scar on Vonnegut's memory and later formed the root of his most famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five. After the war Vonnegut joined the University of Chicago as a graduate student in Anthropology but his M.A. thesis, 'Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales' was not accepted. However, in 1971, his novel Cat's Cradle (1963) was accepted in lieu of a thesis and he was awarded the degree. After getting his degree, Vonnegut moved on to work as a journalist with the City News Bureau of Chicago. Married in 1945 to his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, Vonnegut had three children with her. They divorced in 1979 after which he got married to photographer Jill Krementz with whom he adopted a daughter. He also adopted the three children of his sister.
Vonnegut's first novel Player Piano appeared in 1952, when he was twenty nine. A work of the science fiction genre, the novel dealt with the story of a world where machines had replaced human workers. In 1959, The Sirens of Titan was published, another work of science fiction. After this second novel, he began experimenting with a non-linear, unorthodox writing style, and in 1969 he came up with Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade - the story of Bill Pilgrim, a prisoner of war who takes shelter in a firehouse during an air raid on Dresden, to find the entire city laid waste when he emerges. Based on his first-hand experience in Dresden, the novel sought to establish an anti-existentialist perspective using existentialism itself as the launching board. The story evolves in a circular structure, moving almost incoherently through the different time periods, (pre and post bombing), in Pilgrim's life, at one point moving out of the solar system into the realm of the Tralfamadorians, a stoic race of aliens.
"When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes'."
Slaughterhouse-Five, a story where every death is followed by 'so it goes' - a seemingly fatalistic phrase which aims to make a mockery of the unfair cruelties of unjustifiable wars - perhaps saw Vonnegut at his best, in terms of style as also substance. Never was the voice of dissent more evident, nor was ever so honest a portrayal of the ever persistent human betrayal of integrity seen in his earlier works. Perhaps the following quote from the novel sums up its mood the best, "There is nothing intelligent you can say about a massacre."
The bombing of Dresden which led to the novel forever haunted Vonnegut, his later novels being quite often fashioned on his memory of death as he saw it during the war. Perhaps that explains why death recurred frequently in his works, though never in a fatalist fashion. As he said, "To fear either life or death, to be immobilized by fright or horror or grief means to give up living and become a pillar of salt"
Vonnegut followed up on Slaughterhouse-Five withBreakfast of Champions another narrative which he chose not to be bound by form, relying instead on rough illustrations and myriad passages without any sequence. While the book did not receive much critical accolades owing to its 'scattered' approach, it notched up huge sales and was later adapted for filming.
In the seventies, Vonnegut concentrated more on penning critical essays and satirical plays, and produced such gems as Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (a collection of essays) and Happy Birthday, Wanda June, a play that was later made into film.
During the late seventies and early eighties Vonnegut's works took on a more and more somber note; an innate pessimism permeating his stories. During this period his focus also shifted from penning novels to the finer art of brush-strokes. As he described it, "Writing is labor, and the writer's reward arrives when he or she hands the manuscript to the editor and says, "it's yours.'" The painter, he said, "gets his rocks off while actually doing the painting". In the same breath he said of literature, "And what is literature, Rabo," he said, "but an insider's newsletters about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought."
Perhaps this was a shade too surprising a statement from the man who spent a lifetime writing, but that was Kurt Vonnegut for you. Self contradictory and controversial, the author turned playwright turned artist held fast only to one philosophy of life, that is to be kind to everyone. Beyond that, as he said, "so it goes".
As someone who smoked all his life, he described his habit as a ,"classy way to commit suicide." Vonnegut passed away on April 11, 2007 when he fell down a flight of stairs at his house, and suffered a massive head trauma.